This article is more than 1 year old

From tea to civic action

At Aston University, hard work and chance encounters all played a role in harnessing the power of community organising to address issues faced by local businesses and workers. Monder Ram and Angela Jeffery tell us more.
This article is more than 1 year old

Monder Ram is Professor of Small Business and Director of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship at Aston University.

Angela Jeffery is Director of Regional Strategy at Aston University.

Aston University is a university with a social purpose.

We take our anchor role in Birmingham seriously, so having a civic impact is important to us.

Before engaging with Citizens UK our engagement with communities was often limited to student recruitment and outreach, and ad hoc projects. This meant that meaningful engagement with local issues was difficult, and the connection between local concerns and the day-to-day business of the university was hard to make.

Once we started to engage with Citizens UK and understood a bit more about community organising, ideas emerged organically through engagement. By working with established organising structures, and directly with local entrepreneurs and communities, we were able to use the power of a civic-rooted university to support and amplify campaigns that have had a lasting impact. And it all started with two cups of tea …

From a chat in Starbucks to a civic agreement – Monder’s story

I met Saeed (Citizens UK’s Lead Organiser in Birmingham) at the University of Birmingham in 2015 – we then had tea at Starbucks at our first ‘one-to-one’ meeting. This exploratory encounter kindled a relationship that’s inspired a novel long-term programme of community activism and enterprise support and has accelerated since I moved to Aston University in 2018.

Exploring each other’s “stick men” – establishing core motivations and values – is what Saeed and I were doing at Starbucks. I soon learnt how central this process is to the Citizen UK’s approach, and its value to meaningful research. I spoke about the connection between my research passion, migrant entrepreneurs, and local communities – all part of work at the Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship (CREME). Saeed emphasised the power of stories, testimonies and communities–key elements in achieving social change.

Beyond stick men

Following the meeting, I soon found myself engaged in listening campaigns to understand the lived reality of local shopkeepers and communities overlooked by policy-makers and – it has to be said – researchers.

Numerous interactions followed and eventually led to a novel collaboration between Citizens UK and CREME to use community organising to support local entrepreneurs. The initial one-year pilot has blossomed into a long-term programme that’s supported over 200 business owners and developed a peer-led Business Leaders Group who agitate for the local community and ‘speak truth’ to influential gatekeepers. NESTA sees the relationship as an exemplar of grassroots innovation, and its insights filter through to other areas of Aston University.

It’s remarkable how seamlessly research and our activities with Citizens UK intertwine. My colleagues and I engage with Citizens UK as researchers, but also as active members keen to contribute to the priorities that we collectively identify through a continuous process of deliberation. This means that our research experiences are offered in a continuous and contextually appropriate way, rather than as detached ‘experts’ parachuted in at the end of a research intervention. The powerful testimonies from Citizens UK members are a rich source of learning for me and my colleagues – they’re also a spur to look deeper at social issues so we can reinforce the personal testimonies with salient evidence. This means our relationship with Citizens UK is both meaningful and reciprocal.

Joining the Citizens UK leadership group – Angela’s story

The practice of engaging in “rounds” that involve sharing personal challenges and feelings at the beginning of each meeting facilitated a caring and supportive culture encompassing different backgrounds, faiths and ethnicities living in different circumstances across the region. I gained key insights on the Citizens UK philosophy – relational power and local knowledge – from its 3-day training, which was visibly demonstrated at its citizens’ assembly, where around 500 delegates heard commitments from local leaders secured by Citizens UK activity.

Those lessons apply really well in the university context: locate powerholders, collect data supported by personal stories, and mobilise support.

Citizens at the centre of our Civic University Agreement

A key test for a genuinely civic university is the extent to which civic engagement is integrated core activity. Our collaboration with Citizens UK is invaluable in helping to meet this test.

Birmingham Citizens UK’s priorities (families better off, families safer and region of welcome) were reflected in Aston’s Civic university agreement, launched in June 2022. It was hugely symbolic when Saeed, Aston’s Vice Chancellor, the Deputy Leader of the Council and the Mayor of the West Midlands signed the agreement. Several colleagues commented on the warmth in the room – that came from the genuine supportive relationships with Citizens UK built up over the years leading up to the signing ceremony.

Citizens UK insights into what the issues that matter to citizens has informed the way we have taken forward our civic agreement.

A real living wage

Getting employers to become a Real Living Wage accredited was a priority for our chapter especially now with the cost-of-living crisis. Aston University had actually paid the real living wage since 2013, but hadn’t required it from suppliers.

Once the civic agreement had been signed, getting the real living wage accreditation agreed felt like a test of whether the university was serious. There were some challenges to overcome, but in the end the proposal to become a real living wage employer was supported by a range of colleagues from different areas of the university and was an important step in our commitment to supporting the people of Birmingham.

Both of us feel that working with Citizens UK has been personally and professionally a really enriching experience. It has helped us to make change within the university and enabled us to work with colleagues to develop projects to support real need, whilst supporting us as people to understand different perspectives which has had a big impact on our work and home lives.

What’s next – well our “university of sanctuary” application is in…

One response to “From tea to civic action

  1. Excellent. Full of admiration for Aston… ‘Not just looking at’ but crucially ‘joining in from the centre… ‘.

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