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Community researchers in Firs and Bromford Big Local

February 2012

In the Firs and Bromford Big Local area people locally have trained in research techniques to find out what other residents think of the area. Through the activities that are now taking place, people are realising that there is widespread passion and commitment to see change happen.

We are a group of residents who have been trained as Big Local community researchers. There are currently around 12 of us in the group (although others can join) and we all live in the Big Local area.

Firs and Bromford is an estate on the eastern edge of Birmingham which is very much defined by some physical boundaries, one of which is the M6. There is a sense of isolation with only two access points into the estate. Our community is historically white working class but is rapidly becoming more diverse, including communities from Ireland, Eastern Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Asian sub-continent.

As part of our work for step one on the Big Local pathway (‘getting people involved’) we wanted to have more residents involved in Big Local and also to find out what they wanted for the area.

We wanted to ensure we spoke to the full range of communities living in Firs and Bromford and we decided that a good way to do this was to train a group of residents in community research. Community research is a peer approach that identifies issues that are relevant to the local community, is able to explore them in detail and is carried out in a range of community settings. We chose a community research approach because we needed to engage more residents in driving Big Local.

We recruited people from various services and groups in the area and held a training session. This was a fun and productive day where we learnt new skills including a range of consultation techniques from basic questionnaires to small group exercises and activities that people could participate in when passing by a stall or attending an event.

Importantly, the day also demonstrated the passion and commitment that people have to see change in our local area and the need to work together to solve the problems. Before we came together we didn’t realise that others felt so strongly and were driven to change things in the area too. We also started to integrate as a diverse community group and talked a lot about the fragmentation between different groups in the Big Local area.

Paul Wright, resident and Big Local community researcher said:

"The community researchers group has been a fantastic opportunity to bring local committed, passionate people together to begin changing the community for the better. My hope is that Big Local can be the thing that enables change to happen."

We gained new confidence in approaching community members. We learnt some new techniques called participatory appraisal to engage small groups in discussion and practised these with each other. Through participatory appraisal you can collect detailed information relating to residents’ experiences in order to acknowledge issues they face and make plans for changes that can be made. It offers a great range of tools to support step two of the Big Local pathway, ‘exploring your Big Local vision’.

We quickly realised how we could use these techniques to highlight our own visions, aspirations and concerns about the area.

Since then, we have been out and about in the Firs and Bromford area talking to different people and groups. We drew up a questionnaire and we tried to have fun with it by creating simple questions like ‘what is tops about our area?’ and ‘what is pants about our area?’ We also asked people about their hopes for the future.

We received more than 250 completed questionnaires. These helped us to understand the key things people like and don’t like about the area. We are already identifying a range of themes that we are beginning to take back to the community for more discussion. We will use this to talk about how it links with a vision for the area and how we might get there over the lifetime of Big Local.

We found it has been hard to engage some people while others were happy to be involved. Some people were suspicious about being stopped in the street and others were very willing. We also made use of existing community events – it’s key to piggyback onto existing events rather than just organise our own.

We learnt that personal contact and a conversation is much more productive than just asking people to fill in a questionnaire. In the future we would like to carry on thinking of strategies to keep conversations going and involve more people all the time.

We have set up various initiatives as a result of the work so far, including a weekly drop-in for parents at one of the primary schools and two open events for the Somali community. We also have an after-school club and a local women’s group in the pipeline. Our biggest learning point is that if diverse community groups work together they can achieve a lot.

We are excited about the future. Our experience so far has shown us what can happen when people pull together and work together. We see this as a key area that will develop so that in 10 years' time there is a cohesive community that works together to solve its problems and make the place a better neighbourhood. This will mean more jobs, leisure opportunities, community spaces, activities and genuine deepened relationships within and across communities.

In 10 years' time we hope that a number of barriers have been broken down and we will have created spaces and opportunities for engagement where people can come together to be part of an inclusive community with raised aspirations, achievement and celebration. This will create a better and brighter future for everyone in the Firs and Bromford area.

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