Comm-UNI -ty: A Community University for Study and Action on Power and Participation

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bradford
Department Name: Sch of Social and International Studies


This project pilots the idea of a ‘Community University’ (Comm-Uni-ty) in the North of England. It was born from an AHRC-funded study on ‘power in community’. The study found that community activists thought of power in terms of enabling, sharing and cooperating, but were often unable to exercise such power effectively for change. It posed the question:

  • How can non dominating be effective without reproducing dominating power?’.

During the feedback session to community participants, it was agreed that power and participation needed further study, but in a context which values, builds on and exchanges experiential and academic knowledges. Academics and activists co-designed  Comm-Uni-ty as a year long pilot project to experiment with such a learning platform, where up to 30 community participants will interact with academics around individual and collective agendas for change. The co-constructed curriculum will be taylored to these agendas. Each participant will generate an ‘act of communication’ to receive their ‘CommHons’ degree, to be presented to wider community audiences and policy makers in a final event. In addition to enhancing community participation and understanding of power, the project experiments with new ways of connecting Universities with their communities.

Planned Impact

This project will firstly benefit community groups and individual activists in the inner cities of Bradford and Sheffield. The project aims to enhance the understanding and practice amongst these community participants of power and social change processes. By making social science knowledge accessible, by giving value to existing non academic and experiential knowledges of participants , by involving participants in all aspects of the design and ongoing impact assessment (supported by the Impact Advisor), and by ensuring that the delivery of the programme is fun and creative, we will have laid the groundwork for strong ownership and receptiveness. We envisage that individual participants will gain intellectual tools that they would not otherwise have access to, and which will enable them to build participatory processes in their communities through a better understanding of how dominating forms of power often inhibit such processes. The programme of activities includes one to one support to each participant from an academic to complete assignments which they decide are of value to their everyday community action. In addition, they will be able to articulate their own experiences in the evening sessions and residentials, and the final Celebration and Impact event will capture their 'Stories of Change' through work with Playback Theatre, experienced facilitators in creative drama and storytelling. We also expect that this process will strengthen the community groups that individual participants are part of and encourage them to widen and deepen participation in their neighbourhoods. This will contribute to overcoming the gap between people and politics and demonstrate how local participation (which many value in principle) can be meaningful in practice. The project is also an opportunity for networking across diverse community groups, fostering interactions which are often difficult in the inner city, particularly in Bradford.

The project will strengthen the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's understanding of participation in inner city and deprived communities. They have their own programme in Bradford, but they also have a national profile. Through the JRF's communication and media expertise, the project will be able to access national media and other outlets. A briefing paper will be specially written for the JRF on the outcome of the project which they will disseminate and promote. Other national voluntary sector organisations with an interest in participation and who already have connections with the ICPS/PPC will be invited to the final Celebration and Impact event, and we hope in this way to impact on their own understanding of participation and change. This includes organisations which are close to the government's communities agenda, such as the Centre for Social Justice and Locality. We hope in this way to impact on this agenda (eg Big Society).

We aim to influence local Bradford and Sheffield Council officers and members of local statutory bodies, taking on board criticisms of the Hansard Society (2012) that these need to become open to new ways of engaging communities. They will be invited to our final event, and have access to the JRF briefing paper.

Academically, this project will generate an academic article on Participation and Power in the Inner City for an academic journal, such as Urban Studies. This will analyse issues around local politics and engagement which arise in the course of a year's knowledge exchange with inner city activists. Secondly, we will aim to demonstrate a new way of developing University-Community Engagement. We will share this through the social networking space for Brighton University's Community University Partnership Programme (CUPP). Through our ongoing relationship with Salford University, we will be exploring whether the idea of a Community University could be replicated bringing innovation in University Community Engagement in deindustrialised northern towns.


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Description This knowledge exchange project generated a wealth of insights into the challenges and potentialities of a more horizontal approach to learning for and from change. Over the course of a year, academics from Bradford University worked with local community activists in Bradford to develop a way of bringing academic and experiential knowledge together for mutual learning around acting in the community. For some, we found, this involves building a community garden and focussing on the very local or neighbourhood. For others, it is about big issues such as Palestine, inequality and power. A strong bond developed amongst participants, with genuine personal life changes. A Final Event brought community organising practitioners from all over the country and Comm-Uni-ty participants together to share experiences of new forms of neighbourhood organising and to hear the feedback from Comm-Uni-ty in a creative presention supported by the University's Theatre in the Mill.
Exploitation Route There are two pathways to more impact. Academically, there is a need to influence the debate on how higher education can engage with communities in ways which support new forms of knowledge production contextually relevant to local change agendas, particularly in contexts of disadvantage. The Community University demonstrated the challenges as well as potentialities of co-producing knowledge with these communities, so that experience is complimented by systematic academic knowledge and vice versa. A group of academics interested in a range of ideas around what is called 'mass intellectuality' planning an edited book. With respect to the community, participants in the Community University have continued to meet at intervals, in a Thinkspace, organised by the Programme for a Peaceful City at the University of Bradford. This enables academic and university participants to co-reflect on issues facing the District of Bradford and to build on the relationships of trust built together during the Community University. A very detailed, analytical report has been submitted to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the partner-funder in this initiative, with the aim of generating debate within this important NGO working around issues of poverty and community. The key issue is how universities and community activists might exchange knowledges in a mutually respectful way that could enable more sustainable approaches to addressing not only poverty, but also alienation and withdrawal from political participation.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Our Impact Adviser recorded individual impacts which have potential to lead to wider societal engagement amongst Comm-Uni-ty participants: "It's given me a lot of confidence, it's surprising and delightful to feel I do have the confidence to say what I want to say - I stood up and spoke at a national conference for the first time ever, I was incensed - it's about having the passion - you can do anything. The course said 'you can do lots of things, you can have an impact'"; "I spoke at the neighbourhood forum; a year ago I wouldn't have done it" ;'Belonging' - understanding that we are not alone, that we are not outsiders, that we can be part of something collective". At our Final Event, we engaged with many national organisations involved in community organising. Varied approaches to connecting communities and building community capacity to impact on public affairs are being explored in the UK by political parties, trade unions and organisations such as Citizens UK. We linked up with these to share the role new approaches to knowledge production might play. Through our role as learning advisers to Locality's Community Organising Programme, and through a Keynote lecture to ARVAC (Association for Research in the Voluntary and Community Sector), we have fed through the experience of Comm-Uni-ty to the community sector, and will continue to do so. Our co-researcher from Salford (now Middlesex) continues to develop pathways to new forms of accredited learning, building on his collaboration with Comm-Uni-ty and we will work with him where possible. Thus, our main impacts on society are through the enhanced sense of confidence and protagonism amongst the participants in the Comm-Uni-ty collective, and through feeding in our experience of knowledge exchange to the emergent national approaches to community organising and change. Since funding ended for this project in April 2014, we have continued working with the community participants through the CommUnity Thinkspace. The idea of a Thinkspace had already been developed as part of the Programme for a Peaceful City (PPC), whose Programme Officer played an important role in CommUnity as community university liaison with they Bradford participants. She also played an important role in providing oversight of the process components of CommUnity, ensuring that they are in tune with the needs and aspirations of the varied participants. Since funding ended for CommUnity, the Thinkspace has been used to sustain and build momentum from the project. This was given impetus by the award of £5.000 from JRF, the co-funding civil society partner for CommUnity. The aim of this small pot was to enable CommUnity to continue to develop activities, but the use of this money was agreed by all participants of the CommUnity Thinkspace, including those who had participated previously in the Thinkspace but not CommUnity. The link between the Thinkspace and CommUnity was that they are both knowledge exchange spaces where ideas about power, change and activism are shared. There is no obvious distinction between academics/University staff and non University staff. Themes and processes are agreed collectively. The impact of the Thinkspace is how it builds horizontal connections amongst people concerned with making change, whether they be in the university of the community. We have tried to assess this through questions to participants in CommUnity Thinkspace who were also part of CommUnity. These were put to participants at a CommUnity Thinkspace meeting on 16.03.2015: Has being involved in the original Comm-UNI-ty programme had any personal impact on you and if so how? E.g. since the main funded programme ended (main programme = residential, evening discussions, creative weekend & final event). 1.Enthusiastic about local involvement - has helped me maintain an active involvement in my local community group. Also considering & learning more about national/international activism. 2.Yes. Provided me with fresh ways of thinking and presenting my ideas without as much apprehension as previously. 3.I have been more aware of what I can do and steps I can take to achieve things and to organise. Listening to other people and what they are interested in has given me ideas as to what can be achieved by a group of individuals. 4.The programme liberated me to be myself but more importantly to understand who myself is. My confidence has increased which has enabled me to take on a more active role in the various projects I am involved with. Has involvement in the main Comm-UNI-ty Programme contributed to any local projects/actions/ideas you are involved with and if so how? 1. Also in discussion (though not in place as of yet) in going on the Board of another community organisation. We have developed further projects in our immediate location around re-claiming/making good use of waste land. 2.Ideas - flashmob for feeding people suffering from food poverty in town to encourage more action on poverty. 3.It has given me more tools, ideas and information which I can further pursue my projects and created an opportunity to verify and reflect on my own actions and impact it might have on others. 4.I am chair of Bradford PSC since October and have involved myself in team building and coordinating campaign actions. I have continued with my involvement with the Bradford Congo Campaign in a facilitation, support role. The group has had a response from the current affairs editor of the Observer who is coming to Bradford to meet with them this week and is interested in all the main objectives of the group including going to Ituri and writing a series if articles. I have taken on an advocacy role with the refugee women's group and followed through with some successful actions. I do feel more able to use the skills I have and recognise in which situations I can use those skills. I no longer feel responsible for more than I can cope with. The following question was put to all CommUnity Thinkspace members (i.e. those who were part of the CommUnity project and those who have only attended the Thinkspace: What have you valued about the CommUNIty Thinkspace so far? 1.It is a welcome window in my busy work/home life to discuss important issues and ideas. It has informed me on a mixture of local, national and global issues. It has also brought a social element through meeting people at other events. 2.New ideas. New ways of thinking about things that concern me. Discussing things/talking about them with a group of interested individuals. 3.We have good conversations and lots of opportunity to share ideas and learn from each other. We have the opportunity to information share and invite people to visit the campaigns or projects we are involved with. 4.**Networking and meeting like minded people. Updates on stuff happening that are related to my line of work. Joint working and knowing who to contact when. 5.The opportunity to meet and connect with other activists in Bradford, to share ideas and reflections on power, change and activism in an informal, social way. It feels very democratic and non-hierarchical. 6.Listening to people who care about the world. Space made for dreams and confusion. 7. It is keeping me connected with people from the course who I admire and have learnt much from. Kept me informed about events. I have attended a lot more lectures at the university I continue to learn and to be enthused. I loved the zine session, the inspiring film and the last session on democracy.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Learning City: Building a Community University in Salford 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact For the last six months, I have been working with Salford Council to develop a framework for fostering ongoing skills and learning development with communities in which the idea of the Community University would form a part. We have a Learning City/Community University Working Group, composed of Salford's Mayoral Adviser,, two Councillors and the Assistant Director of Public Health/Children Nursing who has a particular interest in new approaches to learning in the community. It is early stages, but in the course of this year we will be building broader connections with Salford University and Community Organisations, exploring the potential of a second experiment in building a Community University to the Bradford one.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017