We know that Birmingham, a vibrant and diverse city with over 1 million residents from various cultures, faiths, and backgrounds, has faced significant challenges due to the Covid 19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. These unprecedented times have exposed and exacerbated existing inequalities, especially among marginalised communities. 56% of the city’s population reside in the 20% most deprived areas in England. Shockingly, one in three children in Birmingham live in poverty. We also know that health inequalities disproportionately affect individuals from minoritized ethnic groups such as Black and Asian communities.

In response, Birmingham City Council has identified key challenges for the City in its Corporate Plan (2022-2026) which includes equalities an inclusion, unemployment, opportunities for children and young people, community resilience, health and wellbeing, and the climate emergency.

The voluntary, community, faith and social enterprise (VCFSE) sector plays a crucial role in addressing these challenges, serving as a conduit to reach under-served and marginalised communities and often filling gaps in service provision. As a bridge between service providers and marginalised communities, the sector often reaches those who are unheard or overlooked. It is because of this unique role that the sector plays, that we believe the potential to address existing power imbalances by involving the VCFSE, communities, and citizens as active participants and co-producers of research is huge.

At BVSC Research we believe it is crucial to shift from engagement and consultation models where research is done ‘to’ communities, towards building relationships of trust and reciprocity. By sharing power and influence, communities can actively contribute to bringing about change. We believe community-based research that fosters a better understanding of the issues and supports neighbourhood level innovations and outcomes can make a real difference. Engaging the sector and citizens in these research endeavours is therefore essential to develop a robust evidence base, inform future decisions and contribute to inclusive and effective policy responses.

However, we are conscious that for this vision to become a reality, some organisations working in the sector, and indeed citizens themselves, may need access to extra support to develop the necessary skills and expertise to engage meaningfully in the research process.

Reframing Research: Our ambition is to reframe research for the VCFSE and citizens. Community Research recognises both the expertise of the VCFSE sector in serving their communities and the unique contribution of citizens trained and supported as Community Researchers. We also recognise the important part played by academics and other research bodies. Over the past 18 months, we have delivered a series of events and training programmes aimed at increasing the research capacity of the sector, and supporting the development of research collaborations that bring together the VCFSE sector with academic partners. You can read more about this work here: Research Better Together 2023 Webinar | Birmingham Voluntary Service Council (bvsc.org)

Building Capacity and Collaboration: To align with the broader ambitions of the city, BVSC is also exploring our internal capacity (including policies, procedures, and staff resource) to establish as an accreditation centre that will allow us to offer accredited Community Researcher training – fostering collective city and region-wide capacity for the benefit of all. As part of this work, a revised suite of Community Researcher training resources is being co-designed with a wide range of academic and VCFSE partners. This collaborative effort aims to incorporate existing best practices from academia, and local VCFSE partners, creating a comprehensive resource that will be accessible to all stakeholders.

In the longer term, we aim to create a central database of trained Community Researchers, ensuring quick and easy access to organisations and citizens with specific expertise, when academic, local authority, or health partners require research on particular topics, demographics, or geographic areas.

Opportunities for Community Researchers: Establishing a community researcher network offers numerous opportunities for organisations and individuals to continuously develop their skills and potentially pursue a career in community research. Community Researchers recruited through VCFSE networks, grassroots community groups, volunteers and citizen groups will have the chance to refine their skills, contribute to meaningful research, and supplement their incomes on an ad-hoc basis.

Current partners: We are already working with a range of partners on this activity, including the Institute for Community Research & Development at the University of Woverhampton, the Centre for Urban Wellbeing, the Institute for Local Government, Institute for Research into Superdiversity, Applied Health Research and Social Policy teams at the University of Birmingham, Newman University, Aston University, Birmingham City University, the Centre for Trust, Peace & Social Relations at Coventry University, Catalyst 4 Change/Black Thrive and existing expert Community Researchers.

Get Involved: We are at the early stages of developing these initiatives, and new collaborators are ALWAYS welcome. If you would like to hear more about the work happening in this space, or if think you might like to get involved, then please feel free to reach out to me: [email protected] and I will bring you up to speed!

Funders: The various elements of this work have been developed and co-funded by the Research England Quality Related Research fund through the University of Birmingham; Clinical Research Network Improvement & Innovation funding again via UOB, Fusion21 Foundation, which is part of the national procurement provider Fusion21, and Birmingham Community Healthcare Foundation Trust. We are hugely thankful to all our current (and future!) funders!