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  • Author or Editor: Karen McArdle x
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This book aims to explain how you can implement the processes of gathering evidence of the impact of your practice in the community. We hope this book will work for you as a practical ‘how to’ guide, but the book also contains theoretical insights to practice and how these come together in the form of ‘praxis’. The term praxis refers to the way we make meaning from experience and theory, which in turn informs our practice (Stuart et al, 2015). This chapter explores the idea of impact with work in the community and provides an introduction to the remainder of the book, which focuses on practical ideas and examples of methods of showing this impact. The book contains case studies to show how our ideas work in the field. We hope the three case studies in this chapter are similar to work you undertake; we present them here to encourage you to start thinking about practice and hope that the questions we raise will prompt reflection about the change you make and the impact of such change. By the end of the book, you should have the answers to the questions prompted by the case studies. You may wish to try to answer these questions at the end of the individual case studies as you encounter them: The population of Maryville is 800 and 80 people came to a meeting in the village hall to discuss the future of the village, as there were plans afoot to build another 60 houses on the edge of the village, some of which were earmarked for social housing.

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In this chapter, we discuss the importance of values and the link to power and empowerment that is a purpose central to work in the community in democratic countries. We discuss voice, which is making the perspectives of the people with whom we work heard by ourselves and by others. We also introduce ethical choices, which must be applied to our activities linked to gathering evidence. We return to ethics frequently in this text, as we think ethics are fundamental to the processes of gathering evidence because they govern how it ‘should’ be done and the ‘right’ way of doing these processes. What is right in terms of what we do in community work and in gathering evidence is linked to morality and the following questions: Why we do what we do? How we do what we do? How does this link to ideas about self and others? Morals, as Driver (2007) explains, comprise those things one ‘ought’ to do. Moral norms, with which this book is concerned, primarily, as Driver explains, concern our interactions with others in ways that have significance to the latter’s wellbeing. If we do something that could harm or benefit others, Driver explains, this is arguably a moral matter. There are many examples of ways in which things have been done that are linked to what most people consider to be atrocities. We can perhaps all agree that genocide is not acceptable, but many of our choices of what to do in community work are less clear-cut.

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As professionals, not only do we work in complex and sometimes demanding community roles but also sometimes in challenging contexts in which we seek to generate evidence of impact. These challenges come from a range of sources and require us to have a means of dealing with them. This chapter introduces the social context in which many of us work and considers the means of dealing with challenges. We consider in this chapter the different kinds of knowing that we can use in gathering evidence, the ways in which values underpin this knowing and the impact of this on the evidence we present to others. The power of knowledge is discussed in different domains alongside its importance in the process of gathering evidence. For each of us, the social context will be different and will depend on the culture of our country, our location in that country, the culture of our organisation or profession, and the experiences we have of our team or colleagues and of our supervisor or manager. It will also depend on the character and history of our participants. There are, however, arguably a range of factors that influence our experience of work that are common across social professions. It is important here to introduce the notion of history, and the idea that it lingers with us longer than we necessarily need it and it is imbued in all of us. Much is written about history and how it affects individuals. Arguably, the most commonly referenced ideas are those of Pierre Bourdieu (1977 [1972]), who used the term ‘habitus’ to refer to ‘second nature’.

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Narrative inquiry is a method of finding the stories we wish to tell others about the impact of the work we do in the community. It is relevant to community work, because the method is highly accessible to the respondents. It seeks deep and rich accounts of experience and is consistent with the values of community work, in that it seeks to assist participants to frame their experience rather than asking them interview questions. It is the study of the stories people tell about their lives. Its purpose is to see how participants in interview impose order on the flow of experience to make sense of events and actions in their lives (Riessman, 1993). People in general, in our experience, like to tell stories about their lives. People’s stories tell us about their identity, who they are and who they have become through experience. Narratives are case studies in the context of gathering evidence. The reason narrative inquiry is so consistent with the values of the community work profession is that it does not lead the participant in terms of what to think about or consider. In interviews, you can ask about confidence and self-esteem, but this may not be of interest to respondents, nor may they conceptualise in this way. In narrative inquiry, participants choose what to discuss and you can interpret what they say to answer your questions. There is, however, a big question about the truth of what they say. Stories are representations of what people want to communicate, including the identity they wish to portray, as well as the impact they wish to have on the listener.

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This quotation refers to the importance of respecting the people with whom we work and affirms that local people can work in a research or, we would say, evidence gathering, context. It also affirms the rights of these participants to set their own agendas for inquiry and to have ownership of the process. Participatory approaches can also be viewed from a more pragmatic perspective. The following quotation enumerates some of the practical advantages of participatory research. [Participatory research] raises the likelihood that research questions and designs will be more responsive to community needs; that research executions will be more accurate in capturing community nuances; and that community members, having been brought into the research enterprise, will be more likely to pay attention to, agree with, and implement the recommendations of the research findings. (Jason, 2006, p xvii) Approaches to gathering evidence that involve working together with participants are sometimes called collaborative approaches, and sometimes participatory approaches. Collaborative approaches typically involve communities of practice with different stakeholders functioning as co-inquirers (Messiou, 2019). Participatory approaches typically involve the clients, learners or service users. They are founded on the fundamental principle that most people can and will participate in the generation of evidence in a research-focused environment. Those who see research as an elitist and difficult activity find this approach hard to comprehend, but we are of the view that, with appropriate training and support, most people are well able to contribute at all stages of a research, inquiry and/or evidence-gathering activity should they choose to do so.

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Thinking about social justice leads inevitably to thinking about social problems, for example poverty, homelessness and crime, and the interrelated nature of these problems. Human rights and community work are interlinked. Change for individuals and groups is linked to social justice. As community development has at its heart active citizenship, to achieve social justice we need to engage in consciousness raising of the social, economic and policy context and social mobilisation. Thinking about social justice is important, but can make the community worker feel the problems are too big or too political for them to tackle, from our experience. We suggest moving beyond equating social justice with simple equality in practice.

We propose the need for:

  • Counter-hegemony and critical education;

  • Sharpening up of our language and speaking truth to power;

  • Amplifying and interpreting voice and stories.

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A community focus is common in many different work contexts but, when we are looking for evidence of impact, it is usually change we are seeking to achieve. Transformation is moving from one state to another, a process transacted through personal or community experience. The word transformation has a quality to it of significant change and difference. We propose that it applies to communities in the same way that it applies to individuals, embracing the notion of change in form to a new and positive identity. There are many models of evidencing impact but here we choose to explore the scale, quality and significance of impact. Scale refers to the size of the impact. Did our work affect one person or a whole community of 30,000 people, for example? The quality of impact refers to the nature and the strength of the impact. Did our work affect people in a particular way, such as enhanced community spirit and was this widespread? Finally, significance is important. This is more difficult to pin down and refers to why it matters.

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Thinking about working with participants usually includes working with community activists or residents, volunteers, or people with whom you have an empowerment agenda, as well as people in organisations who wish to engage with these participants. Empowerment practice enables people to gain influence and control over their lives, particularly with social institutions. When thinking about participation it is crucial to think about empowerment, and hence power, including how and where it impacts on people and how it impacts on some people more than others. Empowerment may be thought of as a product of participation in decision making. It is impossible to talk about participation or work to include people, without thinking about politics at local, national and international levels. The work we do in communities must always be in the self-identified interests of the communities with whom we are working. Sometimes community workers, in our experience, are seeking to further their own political ends, rather than those of the people with whom they are working, often assuming they are one and the same. At other times, community workers consider they have to be apolitical, especially when working in the public sector. It is our firm viewpoint that it is impossible to be apolitical. The context in which people live and develop, or not, is characterised by politics.

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Communities are places of change, and the community worker needs to be able to be aware of and work at the different levels of change – individual, group and societal. This chapter explores the values of community development which distinguish it from other practice. These values include empowerment, participative democracy, social justice, human rights, equality and sustainable development. We need to critically reflect on these values to make sure they stay real. Asset-based community development and appreciative inquiry are explored as examples here, with contrast made to needs-based approaches. Community development is often seen as local and issue based, supporting the voice of the marginalised. It also needs to have a strategic dimension in order to bring about sustainable change with the increasing emphasis on community resilience.

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This chapter focuses on only two approaches to research in the community. These are narrative inquiry and action research, the latter including participatory action research (PAR). These have been selected as they are considered by the authors to be of most use to practitioners, as they are both consistent with the values of community work. Also, in the case of action research, it has a developmental and change focus as well as one of inquiry. People are storytellers by nature, we suggest. Stories provide coherence and continuity to an individual’s experience and have a central role in our communication with others; stories assist us to explore and understand the inner world of the individual and his or her identity. Narrative inquiry looks at the past (the story); the present (how it is framed now) and the future (what this means for future identity and behaviour). It is not the same as interviewing people; rather, it sees people as individual case studies of self-narrative. We know or discover ourselves and reveal ourselves to others by the stories we tell.

Action research is about collaborative and democratic practices, which make it political. It is also about change to the status quo, which is why we propose that it is so relevant to community work. PAR is not just doing research projects as a practitioner. It is more a philosophical stance that enables people to question and improve taken-for-granted ways of thinking and doing.

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