Partner Journey: Megan Shore & Rick Hall of Ignite!

Ignite! is a Nottingham-based charity which focuses on community engagement with young people, equipping them for a rapidly-changing world by taking a curiosity-first approach to disrupt traditional education, connect with people, and nurture natural creativity.

Founder of Ignite! and former Director of Programmes Rick Hall, who has recently retired, and Megan Shore, Programmes Manager, both served as Critical Friends of the NERC-funded Engaging Environments programme since its inception in 2019. They offered input and feedback on activities  across the project, providing a community-focused perspective based on their work with children, young people, families, and refugee groups in the Nottinghamshire region.

In this article, we share reflections from Rick and Megan on working with Engaging Environments, as well as broader themes of community engagement, building equitable partnerships, and funding for public engagement.

You can’t separate out qualities of leadership from how projects should proceed

Rick Hall [RH]: One of the most important aspects of the whole Engaging Environments programme is that it was led by people who had a concern for and an interest in equity, inclusion, and wellbeing. Those values underpinned all of the programme activity, and you can’t separate out those qualities of leadership, those human qualities, from how things should or could proceed in the project.

The sense of an engaged community within the project was very affirming. The initial conversations and the formation of the community contrasted with some of our previous engagements with academic research, and the leadership of key figures within the project was central to this.

Megan Shore [MS]: As critical friends of the project, some of the relationships with the different hubs or partners were very fluid, and I think that fluidity should be embraced and seen as something commendable. Large institutions aren’t always particularly agile when it comes to community engagement, and this was a project across a number of institutions with a lot of moving parts. There is a balance though, in terms of keeping things open whilst also being clear on expectations. Being able to find this balance relies on people and partners being confident to share things and collaborate with each other.

Researchers don’t always realise the barriers people have in accessing them

MS: At Ignite! we have connections with researchers across all manner of disciplines because of the history of the programmes that we have run, so we can help create those links. However, the institutions themselves are so hard get through to, and you have to be able to navigate that system to be able to get anywhere. So, even if there is that sense of willing, there is not always a sense of research being open.

I think it is important for researchers to consider how they can see themselves as not just needing to do projects and tick boxes, but being an open researcher that can be an asset to the community and bring their skills to it. Can we ask researchers to be more open and confident in saying to the community, ‘ask me anything, I am skilled and I can bring a toolkit of skills to this’?

RH: Time and funding will always be an issue, but, without wanting to be too critical of large academic institutions, you do encounter some research departments that are almost obsessed by definitions, acronyms, and measurability. They are quite restricted by regulations and requirements.

Of course, there are ethical requirements for research, but there is another level of bureaucracy you have to go through, which community-based organisations are actually better-placed to deal with. We are able to approach a community group or a school for example, with everything in place to set up an engagement very quickly – this can make us more fleet of foot than larger organisations. So perhaps this is something to consider in terms of universities or funders being more agile and working with groups that already exist within and benefit their communities.

Consider the notion of the ‘holding form’ when structuring projects

RH: From my own background working in theatre, particularly in improvised and devised theatre pieces, one of the things you search for very early on is what I call ‘the holding form’ – what is the framework for what you are creating, the structure upon which you can build something. What is the foundation on which people are able to engage, express, improvise, and can develop their own interests and projects, and how can people feed into them.

My recommendations to funders would be to consider the notion of this holding form. What is the structure of a research project that enables very disparate and diverse groups to be able to contribute, at academic levels, community levels, or to independent institutions – I think Engaging Environments has come very close to being good at that. But it would be worth considering how we can be more explicit in the ‘holding form’ in those early stages, so that it can help to facilitate the engagement at various different levels.

MS: One example from our work around the structure of community engagement is the Festival of Science and Curiosity. When developing this, Ignite! essentially holds the space for all different partners and participants in a way that enables them to do a variety of different things and develop them in a way which works best for them, so it is self-directed and relevant to community curiosities.

Our job is to help shape the shared vision for what we are trying to achieve together and ensure that we understand the motivations of the partners, what they want to contribute in terms of outputs, and why they think that it is something worth being involved in. So, the onus is on the partners, but our role is to help them and to understand why they are motivated to be involved, and what we can do to connect them better. For academic institutions, it would be beneficial to consider how they can improve holding this space for communities in a research engagement, to ensure that the outputs and outcomes are relevant, responsive, and valuable.

Not all evidence is measurable, but all evidence is valuable

RH: When working with and for communities, there needs to be thought put to how we measure success in a more holistic way. The assessment of a programme and its value is not solely based on numbers and should not be measured in that – it is the real-world impact, the change, the personal statements of participants, the human angles. All of that is evidence, and it is all valuable. Not everything is SMART.

MS: We have been considering our own reporting when focusing on organisational objectives and our ‘theory of change’, addressing how we evidence certain things, as it is very different when it comes to community engagement. For example, how do you evidence joy? How do you change perceptions and open up different possibilities through evidencing impact. We have the numbers in terms of the people and groups we are working with, but the human stories offer something more indicative of the value of the work. I want to bring in the human element of what we do in terms of working with communities, and I think academic research could incorporate more of this in terms of measurement and reporting.

RH: Linked to this measuring or understanding of ‘success’, is how we build in sustainability and longevity from projects, and the ongoing benefit to the communities involved. We are interested in identifying the changes we need, and what affects the ethos and the values when addressing this. The commitment that you are making to the groups that you are working with requires more at the end of a project than a toolkit or a closing event – you become an advocate for them and you try to help empower them, so within this you want to be able to build in sustainable development and ongoing benefit.

MS: Working with families or young people, it can be very difficult for you to do a project and develop it with them but for it to have no longevity, either because of funding or because those next steps are not built in. There is a toll on working with certain groups and we need to look at how we can fund continued projects to keep those relationships going, because you make a commitment to that organisation or those people when you initiate working with them.

Credits & Further Information

Rick Hall, Founder & Director (now retired), Ignite!

Forward projects include:

Megan Shore, Programmes Manager, Ignite!

Matt Burrows, Policy & Communications Officer (Editor), Engaging Environments