Partner Journey: Dr Danielle Robinson, University of Newcastle

Dr Danielle Robinson is a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Leeds. Danielle was involved with Engaging Environments as a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant at University of Newcastle, and played a key role in developing a programme of co-created marine environmental science research with four local community action groups in the Tyne and Wear Region.

Danielle’s is an interdisciplinary marine scientist, and she joined Engaging Environments having completed a PhD investigating socio-ecological indicators for sustainable shark conservation in the Maldives. She worked with a range of stakeholders including fishers to understand impacts on local livelihoods. This work provided a foundation to help build the Tyne and Wear community of practice, addressing issues of marine environmental science – such as plastic pollution and flooding – and the questions and concerns of diverse, historically underrepresented groups in the region.

Here, Danielle reflects on her work with Engaging Environments and shares guidance for future projects focused on co-creation with diverse communities, and those setting out on a similar career pathway to hers.

Seeing a transformative shift in perceptions around science was a real highlight

From our initial meetings and workshops with the community partners, it was interesting to notice how varied the perceptions of science and the environment were. That really shaped the early discussions, as the community co-researchers had a perception that science ‘wasn’t for them’, that it was not something they could contribute to. Seeing a transformative shift in perceptions around science and an increase in confidence in their ability to meaningfully contribute to scientific research and environmental awareness was a real highlight of this project.

Taking the time to co-produce knowledge and build awareness around key topics was very important. Important not only to ensure everyone had a foundation of understanding to contribute and shape ideas but also to ensure projects were culturally and locally relevant.

Understanding the conditions needed for meaningful co-creation to take place was also vital. For example, what a safe space means to the community researchers and how we can help facilitate that. Considering language barriers, not only in terms of English not being a first language but also in words having a different meaning to different people, and definitely not using any jargon or technical scientific language.

What stood out for me was the process of building partnerships

One of the key things I feel I learned from the project as a whole is that everything needs to be done as a team. It takes a lot of people to move forward with this approach to research and it is important to acknowledge that co-creation, science engagement, or citizen science might not be for everyone. The process of building partnerships and extending those partnerships equitably with the communities has been key to ensuring co-ownership of the project, and getting to that point takes a lot of time. It takes time to build relationships, to build trust, and to establish those partnerships, before you even begin the co-creation phase.

We built a good rapport with the groups where the environment was friendly, we talked about personal things at the beginning of sessions with a cup of tea and a biscuit – these might be considered quite little things, or that they take time and focus away from the core aims of the workshop, but I believe they are extremely important to set the scene for co-creation and for people to feel they can be open and share, before getting involved in the more focused discussions.

It is important to get that understanding of the group and the individuals at the beginning, so that you can really tailor the activities to suit their needs and interests. That is also where evaluation comes in, as from the outset we’ve been able to adapt each of our projects as we move through them, rather than waiting until the end for feedback. We collect feedback after each activity and that then informs the next activity or workshop as we progress.

It’s about slowing down and valuing the entire process, what really matters about inclusive engagement

As a scientist we always have outputs or aims and objectives as to what we are trying to achieve from a project, and with co-creation, that develops through time. You need to be flexible and open with the structure for workshops or activities and be comfortable in allowing agendas to sometimes go out of the window if there is interest in a particular topic. I believe that is where we have ended up getting to some of the most valuable content in terms of thinking about what we would like to get out of the project collectively, but also what the project has meant to us, the new knowledge we have gained, how this has benefited our respective communities.

At the beginning of the project I was quite conscious and potentially even concerned that what we wanted to achieve from this project was almost in conflict with what I would be measured on in terms of my academic success. A lot of this work goes on ‘behind the scenes’ and might not initially be acknowledged, but it’s about valuing the entire process and not fixating on the outputs. The process itself is what matters in co-creation and inclusive engagement, so there is a need to find a balance between outreach and research.

It is about putting the community at the centre and shifting away from narrow academic views of success. How will the community benefit? What do they hope to get out of this? What is going to be of value to them? Because those are really the core outputs. You need to work very closely with the communities to identify what conditions they need to be able to move through the process of co-creation. That goes back to relationships, trust, safe spaces, language, and building knowledge, so that co-ownership of the project can be extended to all members.

The community was the driving force behind the project

It is crucial that we bring together all different forms and sources of knowledge and that all of that knowledge is valued equally, whether that be lived experience, local ecological knowledge, or scientific expertise.

It is also about developing the skills, knowledge and awareness of co-researchers collectively so they then have the confidence and empowerment to move forward beyond the scope of the project. We’ve seen this brilliantly with one of our community groups, Sangini, and the partnership they have subsequently formed to share learnings and collectively build environmental awareness among other local women’s groups.

My role was more to inform and provide technical expertise – the communities were the driving force behind the project. Each project needs to be context specific, it needs to be relevant and have a direct relevance to people’s day-to-day lives. We are talking about these huge global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and these can seem far removed and people often struggle to see the direct impact on their daily lives. It is about making that connection and placing people at the centre of what we’re doing.