Addressing Barriers to Community Engagement

The content for this article originates from a panel collaboration at the Development Studies Association Conference 2023, between representatives from Engagement Environments, Participatory Action Research (PAR) at University of Reading, and the National Association for Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN).

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. There is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

Dr Martin Luther King Jr.

The urgency with which large-scale solutions need to be found to crises of environment, health, welfare, and social fragmentation is increasing exponentially. However, historically minoritised groups, whether based on race, gender, disability, or other protected characteristics, frequently remain unheard, unsupported, and disempowered in evolving debates. This is despite often being the most immediately and significantly affected by these issues.

Many of these issues are rooted in histories of colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy, which have created and continue to perpetuate systemic barriers for minoritised communities. This remains evident in an academic and public engagement setting, where communities continue to be marginalised and extracted from, whilst already powerful institutions benefit from their cultural knowledge and lived experiences.

Here, we explore barriers to community engagement with higher education and academia, from the perspectives of activist researchers and community partners. We also share some ways that community-centred initiatives have attempted to navigate these barriers.


Accessibility is an extremely broad term which, in the context of community-centred research, can cover many different factors. It is essential at the outset of an engagement that considerations are made towards these factors to ensure that projects are inclusive and solutions reflect the diversity of participants.

Clearly, language barriers to those for whom English is not spoken or is a second language must be accounted for, but scientists also primarily engage in their own discipline-specific language, in their own environment, and often in ‘traditional’ ways.

“To wider audiences, this does not necessarily appeal or engage, and in fact, the language of science can alienate people”, says Dr Danielle Robinson, Research Associate for the Tyne and Weir Community of Practice of Engaging Environments. She adds: “Science and research can raise certain connotations for different communities, of an elite or exclusive environment, which can be intimidating to enter into. Considering language which allows people to connect with a key theme and express themselves in ways which are most natural is very important.”

Danielle also emphasises that utilising creative methods, such as arts practices, which transcend language can serve as a means to break down the barriers to engagement with science and research: “Finding ways which allow participants to express emotions, thoughts, feelings, concerns, in a way which is truly inclusive can provide the capacity to communicate with anyone at any level.”

Community researcher at University of Reading, Sonia Duval, adds to this focus on language, saying: “We need to build in the mechanisms for people whose first language is not English to be able to participate – whether that’s translation of questionnaires, literature, additional resources, so that people do not feel isolated when it comes to research.”

Taking an inclusive, solutions-based approach to accessibility is an area from which we can also learn from the disabled community, and the motto of ‘Nothing about us without us’.

Professor Yota Dimitriadi, Chair of the Staff Disability Network at University of Reading and NADSN board member, comments on this, saying: “Following a more social model of disability, we can think of accessibility in terms of co-producing intersectional solutions to identify structural inequalities and support communities to flourish. However, there are often challenges when such an approach is not applied at the beginning of an intervention, but as an afterthought – when communities are not consulted at the starting point, but are provided with a ‘solution’ under the assumption that it will work for them.”

Accessibility is about bringing people into a discussion so that solutions are made available which represent them and their needs. This leads to solutions which are agile, respectful and inclusive. By involving communities in conversations at an early stage, we can create holistic solutions which are intersectional, and that can benefit a variety of different groups.


A key prohibiting factor to address in community-centred research and participation is time. Academia and research environments often operate on short timescales, with staff on short-term contracts and a need to generate impact within a limited period. These timescales rarely correspond to the rhythms of communities and do not necessarily lend themselves to longevity or long-lasting impact.

When engaging with communities, we need to consider one of the most crucial phases being the building of relationships, trust, and safe spaces, and the additional time that this requires when compared with more traditional research methods. The nature of co-creation also means that aims and outcomes are not fully formed at the start – they develop over time and through dialogue with communities as to what is relevant and responsive to them.

Partnerships between institutions and communities have often resulted in inequity, extraction and tokenism, which can lead to distrust and disillusionment from communities towards academia. One means of ensuring this does not continue to happen, is to allocate an appropriate amount of time and resource to all stages of a partnership, to establish what is meaningful and impactful to community partners, and how their contributions will be recognised and valued. There are also very distinct and complex ethical considerations at the outset which can take a significant amount of time to navigate.

This allocation of time extends to the overall lifespan of projects, and what the sustainable legacy can be for communities as a result of academic partnerships. Danielle highlights this, saying: “Even when appropriate time is taken in the early stages to co-design something mutually beneficial, the impact tends to only last as long as the funding – by building in skills development, or efforts to shape new partnerships, or assisting with further funding applications, the benefit of research engagements can stay within the community for longer and help drive sustainable change.”

Institutions must also consider the additional time that is required for individuals to carry out participatory research, and assessing the value of quantitative vs qualitative data. Eva Wangui, who is a coordinator for the Whitley Researcher partnership with University of Reading, expands on this, saying: “When conducting participatory research, part of the process is in-depth reflection with community members on their lived experiences of certain issues. You are often listening to their life stories. This leads to incredibly rich qualitative data which requires a different level of interpretation and additional time before formulating into research questions.”


Funding equates to power, and it can be a great enabler for communities, but access to funding is an ongoing challenge for smaller, community-based organisations. We need to critically reimagine who is entitled to funding and why, how these decisions are made, and how people and organisations are involved in this decision-making process in a more democratic way.

There is a need to redress how the labour, the relationships and the knowledge of communities is valued by institutions. Yota comments on this: “Many communities will do things for the common good, and this work will be unpaid, so there are ethical considerations on what crosses a line in terms of free labour. How can we involve people and make sure they’re compensated for their time and expertise – this is a significant gap when academia works with communities, there is an expectation that they will volunteer their knowledge.”

This point is reiterated by Anita Shervington, Co-Investigator on Engaging Environments, and Founder and Director of BLAST, which is an engagement platform that explores science and technology through Black arts and culture. Anita says: “Often community-university partnerships are underwritten by the efforts and the experiences of the communities, and this has been done over an extended period of time – the community is the philanthropist in this scenario.”

She adds: “There is a tendency to think that whoever brings the money is the ultimate enabler and as such, retains the power in that dynamic – this creates a vulnerability between communities and research institutions. This is a situation that is a recipe for exploitation. Participatory research should be about the community being shapers and leaders of their own engagement, not just the targets and receivers of it – a collective impact approach is necessary.”

Equitable funding for communities is a step towards levelling the playing field – institutions need to care what the circumstances of community-based organisations are and how increased access to funding can aid development and delivery. Once this happens, real progress can be made in terms of knowledge exchange and responsive, inclusive research.


Community-university partnerships should ultimately work towards power sharing. Equipping communities with the resources to address their own issues and developing an infrastructure which can support this is what shared, collective power can look like.

Tariq Gomma is a Community Researcher in the Whitley Research partnership, and he says of power: “Power to community means passing the ownership to the community to enable them to develop – there is currently an unequal distribution of power and wealth. Communities have limited power to generate impact in a research or policy setting, but when you give them the voice and enable them to call for their rights, this is what can create change.”

Universities are often a dominant force in a local or regional setting in terms of creating change, generating impactful research, and informing policy. However, the communities around them rarely share in any of this power. It is essential for communities to be heard and needs met in partnership with institutions willing to share power and resource.

Anita discusses the routes to empowerment of communities, saying: “You cannot give empowerment, you have to create the conditions for it to emerge. Equitable partnerships and funding link to power because these will allow you to build a community-based infrastructure which means communities can partner with institutions from a position of power, rather than the vulnerability which currently exists through inequitable funding and extraction.”

The spaces created for this to happen need to be developed carefully, as Yota says: “Power links to safety, and the ability for communities to take risks. Communities can feel fearful of speaking up because of the potential consequences, and because safe spaces have not been created for them to do so.”

The ways in which we relate to, engage and interact with each other matter a great deal if participatory research partnerships are to be equitable and these barriers are to be addressed. Funders and institutions must create the conditions for communities to engage in a safe and sustainable which can lead to positive outcomes for all partners and participants. In doing so, they can improve and advocate for culturally and socially responsive and ethically responsible research.

Credits & Further Information

Matt Burrows, Policy & Communications Officer for Engaging Environments, University of Reading

Professor Yota Dimitriadi, University of Reading, Steering Committee member for National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN)

Sonia Duval, Community Researcher, University of Reading

Professor Hilary Geoghegan, Principal Investigator for Engaging Environments, University of Reading

Tariq Gomma, Community Researcher, University of Reading

Eva Karanja, Community Research Co-Ordinator, University of Reading

Dr Sally Lloyd-Evans, Public Engagement with Community Research Fellow, University of Reading

Dr Esther Oenga, Community Participatory Action Research Fellow, University of Reading

Dr Danielle Robinson, Research Fellow, University of Leeds, formerly Research Associate for Engaging Environments at University of Newcastle

Anita Shervington, Co-Investigator on Engaging Environments, Founder & Director of BLAST (we would additionally like to thank Anita for the timely reminder of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘Fierce Urgency of Now’ quote which served as provocation for our panel)

Robyn Woronka, PhD Candidate, University of Reading