Towards the end of July 2018, I took on the role of Impact Officer for an action research project called Jam and Justice. My post is funded by three partner universities (Sheffield, Manchester, and Birmingham) each channeling funding received from the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to accelerate the societal consequences of research.
Jam and Justice is itself funded by the ESRC as a major research project, and benefits from additional funding from a Swedish-based research network, Mistra Urban Futures. The additional funding is not accidental: Jam and Justice’s principle investigator, Professor Beth Perry, is also the UK lead for Mistra Urban Futures, which has other international bases in Cape Town (South Africa) and Kisumu (Kenya) and in the Swedish cities of Gothenburg, Stockholm and Skåne.
Jam and Justice aims to learn ways of improving citizen involvement in policy and decision-making within urban settings, working within the Greater Manchester city-region. Among its distinctive features, at the outset the project recruited non-academics to be part of an Action Research Collective (ARC) and work together with the paid research team to set up and trial different ways of involving citizens in the city-region’s future. Work began in 2016, ahead of the first GM Mayoral election, explicitly framed as an attempt to make devolution matter.
Together, the ARC co-designed and selected a series of smaller action research practices, each taking advantage of newly devolved powers, and weighing the question of how power might truly come back to the people. After lengthy deliberation, ten projects were chosen. Each underwent a different pattern of initiation, with just one failing to get past the necessary first steps of formation. (This failure had a later benefit, with un-spent funds channeled to other ARC projects, if they had yielded particular promise, to take the action one step further.)
My role, then, is to help track and record, evidence, and where possible amplify the consequences of the ARC’s action research.
How does it feel?
I have been plunged (or perhaps I plunged myself?) into a new world of Combined Authorities, elected Mayors, and (key word!) co-production — sharing a problem with those at the raw end of it, and designing solutions collectively without bias towards particular centres of power or knowledge.
Since December, my work with Jam and Justice has become a full-time role. On a practical level that means that, while I remain an Honorary Research Fellow in the Humanities Research Institute, I am now part of the University of Sheffield’s Urban Institute. Much of my work is carried out off campus (including in Greater Manchester) and I’m conscious of losing some of the close connection to my ‘native’ faculty (i.e. Arts and Humanities). And I spend a bit less time talking about the Bible!
The shift of identity from academic to para-academic (i.e. someone working alongside and in support of academics) is not always easy, but I work with lovely people, supporting something really important: an evidenced call for more equal ways of being and doing, whether that’s with regard to climate change and energy ownership or Care at Home and fair pay for home-carers.
I startled myself this week by explaining to someone from a politics-based NGO how devolution deals vary around the country; and explaining the demands of Local Industrial Strategy-writing to a public sector manager. (Both in the same day!) It is a little hard to believe that in the course of eight months I’ve gathered a new variety of expertise – however partial.
More anon, no doubt.
If you’re interested in Jam and Justice, a visit to the project’s website will answer many frequently-asked questions: http://jamandjustice-rjc.org
I took the photo at the top of this page when members of the Action Research Collective gathered to review their journey so far. (1 March 2019)