Partner Journey: Sarah Staunton-Lamb, Earthwatch

Sarah Staunton-Lamb is Learning, Communities and EDI Lead for Earthwatch Institute, based in Oxford, UK. Sarah has been a Co-Investigator on Engaging Environments since 2018, and has worked alongside the partnership to develop an extensive programme of work, particularly focused on the development of early career researchers [ECRs] in fields of environmental science and beyond.

The main element of Earthwatch’s work with Engaging Environments has been to develop Science Camps for ECRs, incorporating modules on Community Engagement, Citizen Science, and Science Communication. This initiative continues to grow beyond the project, with more than 100 ECRs now engaged as part of a returning cohort, with participants from dozens of institutions and across disciplines.

In this piece, Sarah describes her experiences and learnings from Engaging Environments, as well as providing guidance for those in a similar position looking to engage in a project like this.

I was really excited about what was going to come next because it was new

When I started in this partnership, I had worked with NERC previously from an engagement perspective but not from a research perspective, so initially I was slightly out of my comfort zone. I knew I was contributing from a research organisation, but not being a researcher myself, there was a process of working out how I fitted into the project whilst also wanting to be true to myself. There is knowledge and experience I would be able to bring, but also understanding where my knowledge gaps were going forward. I was really excited about what was going to come next because it was new, so it was a case of being open to a whole range of different perspectives on the project.

It is important at the outset to understand the skillset that you are bringing but equally you need to be aware of your limitations. In the early stages of a project such as this, listening is crucial. Through hearing this range of perspectives, you can start to find a common language, meaning and purpose. You need to be open to listening to what the experiences of other partners have been, and particularly their thoughts on key themes within the project – for example, what community really means, how to connect with communities, what is meant by co-creation, and what we mean by supporting communities to engage with science.

Growing that understanding can help you realise there could be a whole different way of framing these themes, in terms of how we make engagements more accessible, and determining what is important at the community level rather than the organisational or institutional level.

I’ve looked for opportunities to put things into practice in my own organisation

One of the main things I’ve taken through the project is how to apply a broad range of knowledge and experiences to my own learning. I’m an ‘action learner’, so I prefer to go through the process of doing something and reflecting on it rather than theorising about it. This approach has really helped me as I’ve definitely looked for opportunities to put things into practice within Earthwatch. It has enabled me to illustrate the value of the project to the organisation through being able to process and apply what I have learned from Engaging Environments to help take things forward. It can be very easy as an organisation to say you deliver something, such as community engagement or co-creation, but having examples of how you are delivering it, who and what you are learning from to develop the delivery, and acknowledging that ongoing improvements can be made, is extremely important.

Multi-partner projects like Engaging Environments can add a lot of value to organisational learning, but they are difficult and complex in their nature. Learning about how these partnerships work and how knowledge is shared is really valuable. Every partnership will be different because every set of partners is different, so being aware of that from the start is crucial, and finding opportunities to put learning into practice through a multi-faceted approach is a mind shift.

I’m often surprised how people within organisations view change. Being involved with EE has helped me to share how we might take different approaches to shift perspectives, how to help others within my organisation to adapt to change, and explore ways to take colleagues on the journey with you, rather than feeling like you’re alone in trying to move things forward.

It is important to not try and predict what the outcome is going to be

When working to develop genuine co-inquiry and genuine community engagement, not entering into this work with a set idea of what the outcomes could or should be, is something that’s very hard but also essential. You can know what your own knowledge base is and what you can contribute to support the project, but what positive outcomes look like can be very different to different partners and participants, so you need to be open to ideas and change as they happen. The whole framing of grant and project funding is set on very rigid deliverables and outcomes, but over the course of a five-year project, the world can change a lot – as we saw very clearly with Engaging Environments and the COVID-19 pandemic – so we should value flexibility, adaptability, and openness to change.

Reflecting on the process we went through with EE, we ran some brilliant opening sessions to foreground the project and align what we wanted to try and achieve, what we wanted to get out of it, and how we wanted to treat each other, but that manifests itself in different ways for the people involved. It is important to consider how you navigate this within the context of equitable partnerships, so you can build trust, support and understanding as to what you what to achieve collectively and individually. For something to really resonate across different audiences and with partners you’re working with, there does need to be quite a deep dive into what you are trying to achieve.

Developing the Science Camps has been massively beneficial

One of the core activities for Earthwatch with Engaging Environments has been to develop Science Camps for Early Career Researchers. The contributions from across the partnership throughout have been hugely influential in shaping what Science Camp looks like now and can look like in the future.

The Science Camps are a residential learning experience for ECRs which take place over five days, and provide training and support to develop knowledge and skills in science communication, community engagement, and co-creation approaches, such as citizen science. We had the programme in an early stage when we brought it to the partnership and it felt like it was something that could really add value, and the partnership could add value to the programme.

Bringing the concept to the partnership and understanding what was needed to develop it ultimately led to a lot more freedom and it felt very collaborative, but it wasn’t without its challenges. We had the different modules but we really had to unpick the programme and then start building it back up. It was a painstaking, point by point process to go through, but it has been massively beneficial in terms of what the format and delivery of the Camps look like now and how we could develop them further.

Reflecting on this, in relation to the original proposal, it is important at an early stage to almost do a phase of translation – take stock of the proposal, understand what each partner brings, what we want to achieve collectively and individually, and formulate the actions we are going to take.

Positive change can only happen if people act, and only if all people are given equal power to act

Being part of this partnership has shown me the importance of diversity, the challenges and pitfalls on the path towards equity and inclusion, the discomfort it brings but the huge rewards it reaps when you keep on the path. It would have been an easy path to accept the norm, stay within the comfort of what I already know and don’t rock the boat because it will mean more work. However positive change can only happen if people act, and only if all people are given equal power to act, will positive change happen for all.

Being part of the programme has made me re-think what partnership means. Real partnership needs trust, understanding and a willingness to learn and change. I think in the past I’ve always thought about compromise in partnerships to ensure everyone gets what they need, but actually this programme isn’t about compromise, it’s about shared perspectives, common understanding and shifts in behaviour and change.

Engaging Environments has opened my eyes to what it really means to be inclusive, not just box-ticking, but really inclusive. When we make decisions about how to communicate something or work with someone how inclusive are we really – what language are we using, are we really open to any ideas or suggestions or are we looking for something which reinforces our current beliefs? I’ve been in Earthwatch for 20 years and I strive to learn something new every day and be open to new ideas and perspectives – but I still have much to learn.