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Bringing the voice of lived experience and community learning into research

In this piece written for the Fuse Open Science Blog, our former Research and Evaluation Lead Ang Broadbridge describes our peer-led approach to research and how we have developed our ongoing partnership with Fuse.

Bringing the voice of lived experience and community learning into research
By Ang Broadbridge

“There’s something really interesting in our data here, we don’t quite have the full picture, let’s talk to some people to puzzle it over more.”

This is something I hear myself or the team at Fulfilling Lives Newcastle Gateshead (FLNG) say really regularly. We’re an 8 year National Lottery Community Fund learning programme working to improve the lives of people facing multiple disadvantage and build a trauma-informed approach within the services that supports them. We have a wealth of data from supporting over 250 people locally, and we work with a team of Experts by Experience, people with lived experience working to bring about change across the systems they have been through, using their voices to be heard across different platforms.

As the programme has developed our relationship with Fuse has changed and connections have grown, we now do much of our ‘puzzling over’ with Fuse colleagues! I joined Fuse as an associate member back in 2017 when I took up my post as Research and Evaluation Lead for FLNG. I attended Fuse Quarterly Research Meetings to build up my contact base and learn from others operating in this interesting space between frontline practice and research and learning. As I began to see frontline practitioners come into those sessions, I invited some of our own frontline staff to join me to share their experience of working with people who have experienced complicated and challenging circumstances and struggled navigating systems.

I want to highlight some of our learning from building collaborative relationships through and with Fuse researchers, as this has proved to offer new platforms for the voice of lived experience not just to be heard in research, but to set research agendas and co-produce work alongside academics.

In 2018, Dr Sheena Ramsey (co-lead of the Fuse Healthy Ageing Research Programme) invited me to attend a Research Hub Initiative event with Public Health England and I pitched a seed grant funding idea with support from Fuse researchers. Our recently published work on deaths in the multiple complex needs community, an issue our Experts by Experience Network encouraged us to explore, was borne out of this funding.

We have since joined up with Sheena again in a new study identifying effective and sustainable interventions to improve the oral health of adults with severe and multiple disadvantage. This collaboration works because Sheena and other researchers associated with the study took the time to really get to know our programme, and our Experts by Experience Network.  Sheena visited us at the men’s accommodation project where we were based a few years ago, met some of our frontline staff and also built trusting relationships with the network, introducing us to academic and practice colleagues to further situate our programme learning within Fuse.

While this was happening, Prof Susan Carr (Fuse Associate Director), set up a meeting with her team at Northumbria University and FLNG peer researchers to talk about projects we were both working on and to explore collaborations. She also arranged for our peer researchers to present early findings from their work to Prof Kevin Fenton, Public Health Regional Director for London, and it was at this point that we started to see how people with lived experience could be involved in local research and practice beyond being participants. There were opportunities for genuine collaboration and learning together.

Fast forward to early in the pandemic and we were involved in two applications to the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) for the North East and North Cumbria. One of these applications was exploring food insecurity with Fuse Associate Dr Steph Scott, and Kevin Dobson and Keith Gibson from FLNG’s research team set about exploring our own programme data around foodbank use. Our Lottery funded programme is quite unique in that we have a personal budget fund to use to support people on the programme with anything from their basic needs, including food and accommodation, to more creative uses like buying art materials or enjoying an afternoon at the cinema. Once again we had a ‘there’s something interesting here’ moment.

I sent Steph an email saying:

“we’ve worked with 259 people in Newcastle Gateshead over 6 years and of these 127 individual client records contained a reference to food insecurity or food poverty. We had 14 unique cases, interestingly all female, whose notes had 10 or more references to food poverty and we can see from the notes frequent references to benefits being suspended, people not eating, or missing the foodbank opening times.”

The conversation that followed led to us talking to the Experts by Experience about food insecurity, they were similarly enthused by the topic and together we made a successful joint application to the Catherine Cookson Foundation within Newcastle University for a project exploring mutual aid during Covid-19. Using our Lottery funded programme learning and building on our experience co-producing research in other projects with Fuse researchers we are working with a group of Experts by Experience who have developed research questions to start a listening exercise with their peers around their experiences of food insecurity, mutual aid and Covid-19.

This relationship with Fuse is evolving and changing, and it now feels like a relationship truly rooted in the principles of co-production. Our team report that they feel their frontline experience is listened to and helps shape research projects, and our peer researchers are involved in numerous projects and have the confidence to approach Fuse researchers to develop new pieces of work building on the issues that are important to them and their communities. As our programme comes to an end in March 2022, the Experts by Experience Network is now thinking about its legacy, we very much hope to continue to build on this strong foundation for collaboration and learning.

First published by Fuse Open Science Blog