Community? What do you mean? An investigation into how differing understandings of the term 'community' shapes care leavers' move to independence.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Drama


On face value, community seems like a simple word: one that we all understand. But, if we start to ask questions about how we or others might think about their own communities, or the idea of community in a wider sense, we begin to realise that it is far from straight forward. Instead, it can stand for a complex range of social, political, religious and economic networks of people, places and concerns. How we think about it is shaped by our own life experience.

The project concerns two different communities who are working together to create a new community. The research team will be collaborating with Devon County Council's Children in Care Scheme [DCCCCS], and the young people they work with, to better understand a crucial moment in these young peoples lives: the time when they leave care to live as independent adults. Young people who are in care have been ejected by their communities. They have left their birth families and, through the process of being fostered, are often removed from the immediate community they grew up in. This leads to changes in schools, the ending of friendship groups and links with birth family members. These transitions are problematic, and tend to be a chaotic period of time. When these same young people then leave foster care to live independently this rite of passage is particularly challenging. Their disrupted and often traumatic early lives mean they are operating from an insecure emotional base, and struggle to build positive and safe relationships in new communities. Moreover, for most of these children, leaving care is a very final event with no option to return 'home' if they face challenging situations. In response, their tendency is to seek out others who share their life experience. This often results in communities who share powerful and potentially overwhelming emotional needs, and who can find themselves unable to give or receive what is needed. These new communities can often be unstable and become a place of conflict. During this time, in addition to issues caused by a lack of independent living skills, research has shown care leavers commonly experience three difficulties in securing their independence: isolation from former communities, accommodation breakdown due to problem behaviour and wider problems around mental/emotional health which impacts on their ability to cope with independent living. In this situation the young people's notion of community, and how they find a new community to move into is tested, often to the point of collapse. This case study will work with both groups to better understand the processes at work and facilitate a proactive evaluation of that is taking place. It will then become the spine of a review which seeks to enable the academy and policy makers to gain a clearer understanding of how vulnerable, young people think about community and how this shapes how they see themselves.

This project will have four phases to examine what is happening during this transition to independence. (1) It will interview both the young people and DCCCCS team members about their understanding of community and contextualise this by critiquing contextualising documentation used by policy makers (a process that will be repeated in the second, third and fourth phases). (2) It will use this data to facilitate a series of workshops and seminars facilitated by Exstream Theatre Company (specialists working with 'at risk' youth) tailored to meet the differing needs of (i) the young people and (ii) the DCCCCS team. These will lead to (i) a performance and (ii) a report tailored towards service providers about the idea of community. (3) A two-day seminar will brings the two groups together: the young people will perform their work, the DCCCCS team will present on their paper and collectively we will reflect on our experience, evaluate the process and plan for future collaborations. (4) We will reflect upon and share our findings via the review and papers.

Planned Impact

We are taking a number of approaches to ensure that potential beneficiaries will have the opportunity to engage with the research. We are focusing our efforts on two types of beneficiaries: indirect and direct. The direct beneficiaries are the project's participants, who will benefit by taking part in the project. The indirect beneficiaries are a wider community of policy makers and service providers (detailed below).

Indirect beneficiaries: Ian Stewart-Watson of DCCCCS is a well respected member of and consultant to a number of service provider and policy networks. We will be sharing our findings with these networks via forums, meetings, papers and round-table discussion at (1) Devon's Children in Care Council (similar to a young people's parliament), (2) those who manage services for young people leaving care across the South West region in regional meetings, (3) the National Benchmarking Forum of 50 Local Authorities in England, in addition to a similar (4) group in Northern Ireland for which Watson is a consultant, (5) Devon County Council and a Devon's Corporate Parenting Forum where elected members and senior directors in the council meet with young people and social work managers to understand the needs of children who are in Devon's care.

Direct beneficiaries: (1) Young people leaving care will benefit through their performance-led workshops and creation of performance, as will (2) members of the Devon County Council Children in Care Service, through a development of their engagement with the significance of community in their work. See DCCCCS letter of support (p.2) for a detailed breakdown of his expectation of the impact of this project on an individual, service and policy level. (3) The benefits to the members of the Exstream Theatre Company delivery team are noted in their letter of support. (p.2)

The entire project will be based on a deep-seated respect of, and care for, the differing needs, resources and expectations of all our participants. Goldingay will manage this process and it will be executed by members of the team working as specialist practitioners in this area.


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Title Collaborative Workshops with University of Austin Texas and tour 
Description A UK collaborative workshop and an international visit to the University of Austin, Texas to perform in their festival. (Funded by DCCCCS, participant fundraising and the University of Exeter - March 2013). 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2012 
Impact The participants did the fundraising for this output themselves with the team's support. This support also extended in unexpected directions, for example this also included helping participants fill out forms for passports because they had not been abroad before. 
Title Performance Labs/workshops. 
Description Methods: Our project employed performance-led, studio-based, participatory action-research methods. These involved reflective practice and centred on meaning-making. The interdisciplinary nature of the team necessitated and facilitated a mixed-methods approach to research development, analysis and interpretation. Our methodological underpinning combined applied drama practice and analytical methods. The project's central premise was that the creation of a theatre company could provide a useful modelling-method of how communities can be formed and thrive. Such a company would offer a performative space within which new ways of behaving, relating to one another, and dealing with responsibilities, could be imagined and embodied, accepted and rejected, tested and revised. This would be shaped by a shared trust while being sustained by a continued collective, creative collaboration, enabling the whole company to create and share performances with an audience and workshop participants. The core question - 'Community? What do you mean?' - was central to the project's research approach. Throughout the facilitator-researchers continually re-evaluated how explicitly the research question need to be expressed to the participants and what impact direct questioning might have on the participants' response. (Discussed below). Output Activities: The project's activities were grouped into three phases: Initiation, Consolidation and Development. Initiation: finding company members • Planning with Devon County Council and research team. • Two, day-long, taster workshops: invitation sent to young people leaving care across the South West via an email flyer. This was communicated via their individual care workers who were invaluable advocates throughout the project. 13 young people attended: (6 & 7), along with 4 (2 & 2) adult social-care workers and a drama facilitation team of 4 at each event with one member of the research team as participant observer. 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2012 
Impact The young people leaving care, who have become the core participators in this project have been working with Exstream Theatre Company and University of Exeter post-graduate students for almost 12 months now - well beyond the original scope of the project. During this time they have been able to collaboratively create a community. This community has taken the form of a theatre company which includes them and reflects them. We would argue that, although challenging for all involved, the performative nature of the theatre-as-community offers something unique to its participants. It is a real community, operating in real time, where participants are themselves. Simultaneously, it also holds open a space where they can 'perform' life with less risk: they can try out, problematise and modify other scenarios built on their own sense of (future) identity and community. In their testing of these other possible realities, they are scaffolding from what they know to create an alternate future in reality. Their growth as people and community members has become clear through their public performances. They have been empowered by this experience. This is evident in their fundraising efforts to help the whole company travel together to perform in Austin, Texas in March 2013.