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World Changers: Not ‘hard to reach’ but ‘hardly reached’ Empowering communities by engaging them in research
Episode 46th May 2022 • Changing The World • University of Leeds
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Not ‘hard to reach’ but ‘hardly reached’ Empowering communities by engaging them in research

When Jasjit Singh was researching media portrayals of British Sikhs, he wanted to make sure his research was a true representation of the people whose lives he was talking about. Working with the community then gave him the authority to take the findings forward to influence national and international policy.

Here, he reflects on how universities can raise the profile of ‘hardly reached’ communities.

By explaining how research works and embedding open dialogue in their projects, academics can make sure their work is relevant – and that it will make a real difference to society.

Transcripts

Simone:

Research that changes lives.

Simone:

Four simple words, inspiring researchers at the University

Simone:

of Leeds to reshape the world.

Simone:

I am professor Simone Buitendijk, since arriving at the University

Simone:

in 2020 as Vice-Chancellor.

Simone:

I've been amazed by the passion, creativity and ingenuity of the

Simone:

research community to make a difference.

Lucy:

Having the opportunity to exercise choice is really key to palliative care

Lucy:

and that individualised care that supports the person in the last few months of life.

Cristina:

To learn from the mistakes that we've made and we

Cristina:

need to learn from the instances where prevention atrocities work.

Leah:

I think the COVID-19 pandemic actually forced us to become a

Leah:

little bit more digitally literate.

Leah:

Although I do think we still have some room to kind of, continue growing.

Simone:

One of my priorities has been to learn more about the sheer

Simone:

range of research carried out by early career researchers at Leeds.

Simone:

They are the new generation of world changers people working tirelessly

Simone:

with communities and academics around the world on finding solutions to

Simone:

seemingly intractable problems.

Simone:

Over the course of this podcast series, I will be in conversation

Simone:

with those researchers.

Simone:

Join me as our World Changers described new discoveries and

Simone:

approaches that will make the world a better and more equitable place

Simone:

to live.

Simone:

It's about research that changes lives.

Simone:

Hello and welcome to the podcast.

Simone:

I'm Professor Simone Buitendijk Vice Chancellor of the University of Leeds.

Simone:

In this edition, I will be exploring whether there is sufficient diversity

Simone:

in terms of the communities who are asked to take part in research.

Simone:

And we'll also be asking, is enough done to build trust with groups and individuals

Simone:

who might see the findings of research as sensitive or controversial?

Simone:

Dr. Jas Singh, Associate Professor in the School of Philosophy,

Simone:

Religion and History.

Simone:

of Science at Leeds, found himself asking those questions when he decided

Simone:

to investigate the portrayal and realities of Sikh radicalisation in Britain.

Simone:

A project that was part funded by the UK Security Services.

Simone:

It prompted him to rethink the way academics should engage with communities.

Simone:

Jas, thank you for joining us.

Jas:

Thanks so much. Good morning.

Simone:

Thank you. And you've just told me I could call you Jas.

Simone:

Your formal first name is Jasjit but we’ll go with Jas.

Jas:

Yeah, absolutely. Yes.

Simone:

So you're a sociologist with research interests in religion and identity.

Simone:

Although your routine to academia has not been very typical, has it?

Simone:

Can you say a little bit more about that?

Jas:

Sure, so my first degree was actually computer science and accounting, that it's kind of

Jas:

quite a standard degree for many South Asians.

Jas:

And I worked in I.T.

Jas:

for about 10 to 15 years.

Jas:

I started a Master's of Leeds part time while I was still working.

Jas:

I did very well in that.

Jas:

And then I got PhD funding as part of a large

Jas:

AHRC ESRC, religion society program.

Jas:

And now to make this decision,

Jas:

do I, stay in my IT life or do I make move across to academia?

Jas:

And yeah, I took the plunge to start a PhD in Sikh Identity Bridges in Youth .

Simone:

And I'm so happy you did, because you're such a great member

Simone:

of our community and such and such a wonderful role model.

Simone:

And I really like your comments on what we traditionally call

Simone:

hard to reach communities and basically pointing out that they don't exist.

Simone:

And the problem is on the institutional side, as you just said,

Simone:

that we fail to engage with those so-called hard to reach communities

Simone:

So can you say a little bit more about that, what's actually going on?

Simone:

And how can we how can we balance that?

Simone:

How coming rectifying that?

Jas:

I suppose it really kind of focus my mind through the pandemic

Jas:

when I see lots of references in the media about hard to reach communities,

Jas:

you know, one, health messaging and not receiving health messaging on this.

Jas:

This wasn't really the experience I'd had over the years.

Jas:

So, you know, when I engage with community groups doing my research

Jas:

that they're very open to understanding what research is.

Jas:

They're very open to understanding what I'm looking to do.

Jas:

And it seemed to be that I was often the first person that they never engaged

Jas:

with from academia, I thought is the issue with communities themselves.

Jas:

Or is the issue the fact that they've never actually been spoken to?

Jas:

Are they really hard to reach?

Jas:

Are they hiding away purposely?

Jas:

Or is is the issue the fact that they're not actually being engaged with,

Jas:

you know, in the right way?

Simone:

Yeah, I think that's such an important,

Simone:

different way of looking at it for academics and for academia as a whole.

Simone:

And I remember a story you once told me about that this was all brought home.

Simone:

You were sat in the back of a taxi driving past the University.

Simone:

Would you mind retelling that story?

Jas:

So I was coming back

Jas:

from a meeting in London in a taxi and the taxi went up past the University.

Jas:

And I told the taxi driver that I was a lecturer at the University I worked there,

Jas:

and I undertook research and he said, “Oh, so what goes on there?”

Jas:

And I thought, this is such a huge institution

Jas:

in the city, you know, so it's top the hill.

Jas:

Everyone knows about the University of Leeds,

Jas:

but there'll be lots of people in Leeds and beyond to lots, you know,

Jas:

what the university does beyond it being an extension of schooling.

Jas:

Many people I thought haven't really engaged with the power of research and the fact

Jas:

the research can change lives, and that's what's happening here?

Jas:

Are all of Leeds benefited from the University of Leeds and all institutions, really.

Jas:

And how can we try to ensure that the research we do

Jas:

benefits as many different groups and communities as possible?

Simone:

Yeah, and it's also in the questions we ask ourselves as researchers, isn't it?

Simone:

If we don't think about those communities when we're setting out to

Simone:

to define research and to ask for grants and to write proposals.

Jas:

Yeah, Simone: of course we're going to overlook them.

Jas:

And I guess you're saying researchers and academia

Jas:

are overlooking communities in their very research.

Jas:

Having worked with communities over the years and looking at

Jas:

how research is structured, I'm not sure it's made as easy as possible.

Jas:

So for instance, my PhD project was funded

Jas:

as part of this large bridging society program.

Jas:

And one of the things I had to do was I had to find

Jas:

an external partner to work with, and that could be anyone.

Jas:

So it was up to me to engage with, to meet the groups

Jas:

and see who was interested in the same sorts of questions.

Jas:

And there's lots of scope

Jas:

there whereas I think since then that's actually been narrowed

Jas:

where the collaborators are specified already.

Jas:

And that already kind of narrows down the kinds of groups that universities

Jas:

can work with, whereas before

Jas:

there's a lot more scope and range to find community groups whereas

Jas:

now it's basically looking for partners that look like universities

Jas:

and that that does narrow the scope of what it means or what

Jas:

sorts of organisations, universities, could work with.

Simone:

Yeah.

Simone:

And that also narrows what we can do with the research that we're carrying out.

Simone:

I'm just thinking as you're speaking about work that I've been doing

Simone:

in my research past around gendered innovations, women

Simone:

not being used as participants in research

Simone:

and especially in medicine, and how that actually really harms women

Simone:

makes clinicians less able to treat them well, for instance, in heart disease.

Simone:

Now, for many decades, the only people who were included in studies were men

Simone:

So for many decades and still clinicians and the public think

Simone:

that heart attacks and heart disease are predominantly male diseases.

Simone:

It's not true. It's 50-50 men and women

Simone:

but women die because they don't recognize their symptoms.

Simone:

Clinicians don't treat them as well.

Simone:

And I guess this is the same.

Simone:

So I wonder if you can talk to me a little bit about what happens

Simone:

when we overlook parts of the population

Simone:

in the research for doing that is so influential and important.

Jas:

I absolutely agree with what you said that I think the issue is that you only ever

Jas:

get one perspective on a problem or an issue.

Jas:

But then part of this is about this reaching out.

Jas:

How are we trying to ensure that these groups

Jas:

are even aware of the research that is taking place, especially now

Jas:

were previously there were few ways of maybe disseminating information,

Jas:

but with the way that the media is and I actually research religion and media

Jas:

at the moment as well, with the fact that the media's become so diverse,

Jas:

you know, it's quite easy to I think it's easy not to miss

Jas:

you know, I think it's easy to miss

Jas:

what would have previously been, you know, kind of key announcements

Jas:

and key messages because there are so many places to consume information now.

Simone:

Yeah, absolutely.

Simone:

Now, that's a really, really important point you're making.

Simone:

And all of this that we're discussing now was made very real

Simone:

in the research project that you did that and looked

Simone:

at the portrayal of Sikh radicalisation in Britain.

Simone:

Can you tell me a bit more about that project and also how sensitive

Simone:

it was with the communities that you ended up working with?

Jas:

As a University Academic Fellow at Leeds?

Jas:

I was encouraged to develop my own research projects and work again

Jas:

with communities and having looked at religious transmission during my PhD.

Jas:

I've always been interested in it portrayals of minority

Jas:

religious communities in media and in policy.

Jas:

And many people were talking to me about this issue, about the way in which

Jas:

minority religious communities are represented,

Jas:

particularly Sikhs and the way they’re often often linked to extremism.

Jas:

particularly Sikhs and the way they’re often linked to extremism.

Jas:

And this really came to a head in 2015 when the Indian Prime Minister visited

Jas:

the UK and the headlines about a dossier that he was going

Jas:

to get to the British Prime Minister and lots of headlines in media

Jas:

both in India and in Britain about Sikh radicalisation.

Jas:

There'd been very little systematic research done on this topic

Jas:

unless people I engaged with were raising concerns about this

Jas:

and I thought I should do some research to at least shed some light on this topic

Jas:

so that both policymakers, media and the community

Jas:

would have something to talk about because they terms are quite loaded.

Jas:

Extremism, radicalisation, they use a different context.

Jas:

It's not always clear what they mean.

Jas:

So it was extremely sensitive, especially given the fact

Jas:

it's part funded by the security services.

Simone:

Yeah, exactly.

Simone:

And I'm wondering now to what is your ideas of the importance

Simone:

of the fact that you're from the Sikh community yourself?

Simone:

So I think you probably add more credibility

Simone:

than that and white middle class English researcher would have had.

Jas:

Absolutely.

Jas:

I think the fact that I've done my PhD in collaboration with an organisation met

Jas:

that I'd already built up links over a good six or seven years with key

Jas:

stakeholders, key organisations, and I kind of understood the politics

Jas:

of the community as well, which was really interesting

Jas:

to kind of work out who the key players were.

Jas:

So this isn't something that I could have just come in and said, OK,

Jas:

I'm an academic and I'm doing you a favour by researching this project.

Jas:

You know, it was using the relationships I've built up over the years.

Jas:

I mean, honestly, this was the scariest thing I've ever done.

Jas:

Because it was a contentious topic, but I felt it needed to be tackled

Jas:

I felt I was best placed to do it,

Jas:

given that I'd already had this experience and networks going forward.

Simone:

Yeah, and what made it scary?

Jas:

Just the nature of the topic and the fact that there was suspicion around the funding

Jas:

was I working for the government?

Jas:

Previous to my research, these terms had been used about the community

Jas:

a community that itself had very little agency to respond to the to these terms.

Jas:

So I think it always been seen with suspicion

Jas:

and the fact that I was coming in saying “Okay look..

Jas:

actually going to shine a light on this and see what's going on,

Jas:

but I'm not just going to keep it to myself.

Jas:

I'm going to involve you guys as much as possible.”

Jas:

As the project progressed, it became easier.

Jas:

But just the start of it, there was lots of kickback as to

Jas:

why are you even doing this?

Jas:

Why are you even normalising these terms?

Simone:

Yeah, I think it's wonderful

Simone:

you did it in a such an important examples for a lot more of this type of research.

Simone:

I think we need to do if we want to properly serve all of society.

Simone:

Thank you for listening to this World Changers

Simone:

podcast from the University of Leeds.

Simone:

I am Professor Simone Buitendijk and I am in conversation with Dr.

Simone:

Jas Singh to look at his work to connect with groups traditionally

Simone:

not involved with academic research.

Simone:

So can you tell me a little bit

Simone:

about your provisional findings and how controversial they were?

Simone:

Or weren’t?

Jas:

I found that the terms themselves extremist and radicalisation are used

Jas:

very differently in very different contexts.

Jas:

And the various incidents that have taken place involving Sikhs

Jas:

in the UK over the years have happened for very, very different reasons.

Jas:

I suppose the key finding

Jas:

is it's all about nuance and it's all about not lazily labeling

Jas:

particular events with these terms, particularly in a post-9-11

Jas:

securitisation context, where these can have a really significant impact

Jas:

on communities locally, nationally and internationally.

Simone:

It's always

Simone:

more complicated than you think and that's a really important research outcome.

Jaz:

It is open access, which again was really an important point,

Jaz:

Simone just to say because it was open access,

Jaz:

it was used significantly by policymakers and the community and media.

Jaz:

So I was going into meetings with policymakers

Jaz:

and they'd actually read the report.

Simone:

And I think you also gave the people in the community an opportunity

Simone:

to feedback on your findings before they were actually published.

Simone:

Is that right?

Jas:

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Jas:

I don't really see any difference here between presenting.

Jas:

at an academic conference where you're getting feedback from your peers

Jas:

and presenting to communities where a knowledge of a different kind exists.

Jas:

So what I thought I would do it, I thought I would partner

Jas:

with some of the organisations I'd worked with over the years

Jas:

and ask them to host me in open access workshops and what that meant

Jas:

was I wasn't some stranger coming in, putting on an event.

Jas:

I was actually doing it

Jas:

in collaboration with an organisation who had their own audience.

Jas:

And secondly, if these open access events meant that people could feed back to me.

Jas:

So the way I organised it was that I said, “OK,

Jas:

we're going to organise open access events all around the country.

Jas:

Anybody can attend.

Jas:

But once you are in the room that is Chatham House rules, no tweeting,

Jas:

no Facebook, nothing that said in the room could go out of the room.”

Jas:

And I got this comment from them.

Jas:

We haven't seen this level of engagement with academia before.

Jas:

We haven't had a place to have difficult conversations before.

Jas:

And I think this is a case with lots of minority communities where much of it

Jas:

is just being about survival, building institutions and just living day to day.

Jas:

The feedback was really positive

Jas:

but that's not to say that the events themselves were easy.

Jas:

The events themselves were very challenging as well.

Simone:

Yeah, I can imagine that, but it's so important

Simone:

also as a way to indeed tell the community that we're doing more than just teaching

Simone:

and that the research that we do actually benefit them always strikes me

Simone:

when I'm traveling or people at Customs ask me what I do

Simone:

when they have work at the University of Leeds.

Simone:

The next question always is, what do you teach?

Jas:

Yeah, it's true.

Simone:

People never say, Oh, are you a researcher?

Simone:

What's your line of research? Never ever, ever.

Simone:

Doesn't matter whether you're in the UK, US

Simone:

or Singapore or whatever country, they always ask, What do you teach?

Simone:

Yes it’s fascinating.

Simone:

So so how just how how concerned are you about your own independence?

Simone:

Because that's something of course, that every researcher needs.

Jas:

For me these workshops were like academic conferences in there for me.

Jas:

They were a way to present my findings, present what I'd found

Jas:

to a knowledgeable audience,

Jas:

and it was a case of getting feedback on my findings from the audience.

Jas:

And also justifying my choices, I thanked people for their feedback.

Jas:

It made me discuss my methods in depth as well, which is always, always good.

Jas:

You know, it made me justify everything so I didn't necessarily change

Jas:

much of what I'd presented in my draft report,

Jas:

but I did take on feedback in places around terminology or particularly

Jas:

where I had individuals in the audiences who were part of the events

Jas:

that I was actually discussing and describing, which was fascinating.

Jas:

Knowledge exists in lots of places, and I think

Jas:

I think it would be quite egotistical for us

Jas:

as academics to think that knowledge only exists in academia.

Jas:

So for me it was just a place to gather knowledge, but in a different context.

Simone:

It's really fascinating and do you think your research also had more impact

Simone:

because you consulted before with the individuals and during and after?

Simone:

Do you think it was easier for them to to actually accept the findings

Simone:

and use them also in ways that benefit them as a community?

Jas:

Absolutely Simone

Jas:

So, you know, an issue with academia is we write lots of stuff, but

Jas:

it's not always read.

Jas:

Creating a buzz around your research is often difficult.

Jas:

But over what this did was my report was going to be launched in November,

Jas:

and Summer, May, June, July and August, I'd been on this on this roadshow.

Jas:

So there was a buzz created already about the findings

Jas:

and people were asking me, “when can I read?” .“when can I read?” “when can I read?”

Jas:

And because I'd engage these kind of key community groups

Jas:

and organisations early on, there was a buzz

Jas:

when the research came out

Jas:

CRESS said it was one of the most downloaded reports that they'd ever had.

Jas:

I got messages from other parts of the world.

Jas:

It was it was featured in The Times of India.

Jas:

I got invited to Canada as well.

Jas:

So because I'd done this groundwork and because the buzz existed

Jas:

among various key players.

Jas:

Yeah, it seems of impact.

Jas:

I mean, it went way beyond my expectations.

Jas:

And in fact, it became an impact case study

Jas:

for the school because of all this buzz that’d been created,

Jas:

I was in media, I was talking to policy makers

Jas:

and community groups as well. It really all kind of snowballed.

Simone:

And how did you ensure that you got the voice of the entire Sikh community?

Simone:

Because I can imagine that

Simone:

even with you going out into the Sikh community, there's still power

Simone:

imbalance there’s still certain groups that more reluctant to step forward than others.

Jas:

Oh, of course, yeah.

Simone:

How did you make sure that you kept across the entire community?

Jas:

Yes, so part of the value of these events was that they were all held in

Jas:

community venues.

Jas:

So they were held in places where there were large numbers of the community.

Jas:

And the fact that they were open access meant that I wasn't deciding

Jas:

who could turn up.

Jas:

In one meeting Southall of there were people who said to me afterwards that we'd had people

Jas:

on in different parts of the spectrum all in the same room together.

Jas:

I was quite moved by that

Jas:

because it was bringing all these groups together that hadn't been together before.

Jas:

And what surprised me most about all this was the fact that the community

Jas:

saw the value of open dialog in this context.

Simone:

Yes it's so wonderful.

Simone:

And can you see this approach being adopted by other researchers,

Simone:

whether that's at the University of Leeds or wherever?

Simone:

Could it be a good role model for how to do these things?

Jas:

I think it could lay the groundwork in the early stages in ensuring

Jas:

that you talk to the necessary people.

Jas:

You ensure that the research questions your asking are relevant

Jas:

because the power of developing research questions with a partner

Jas:

as early as possible means that your findings

Jas:

are automatically going to be relevant when you complete your research

Jas:

so there is the case of looking for somewhere to put your research.

Jas:

It's already there because you have somebody there

Jas:

who wants to know that the answers to these particular findings previously

Jas:

before this project I only ever feed back to the partners as I was working with,

Jas:

but I think we often underestimate the level of interest in particular topics

Jas:

in wider communities, and as the University we do so much good stuff,

Jas:

but I'm not sure we're good enough at showing what we do off to people

Jas:

just just to the wider public.

Jas:

You know, it's service, isn't it?

Jas:

In a it's part of our role as an institution.

Jas:

Just to show what we're doing.

Jas:

Yeah.

Jas:

And it's such a great example of how universities are

Jas:

incredibly impactful locally, but also nationally.

Jas:

You just spoke about your national impact and then even internationally,

Jas:

you can see how this can translate to the global stage.

Jas:

I'm also wondering Jas whether these are the kinds of projects

Jas:

that students were dying to be involved in.

Jas:

Absolutely Simone

Jas:

so after each workshop, I was getting students either emailing me

Jas:

or contacting me in person,

Jas:

saying that they were now interested in social scientific research.

Jas:

And it wasn't something that they’d actually considered before.

Jas:

I'm thinking about my own journey now.

Jas:

I went into computer science and accounting

Jas:

because they’re safe kind of migratory.

Jas:

You know, it's either medicine or it's law.

Jas:

It's business you know, there’s a kind of

Jas:

standard list of migratory degrees that people do,

Jas:

and I don't think the arts, the humanities is something that have often

Jas:

been considered by certain groups.

Jas:

I do often get Sikh students from all over the world

Jas:

emailing me about asking me for bibliographies or references

Jas:

or advice on dissertations or this sort of thing, which is absolutely

Jas:

fine because I also recognise my status as an academic at the University of Leeds.

Jas:

You know, I'm in a very privileged position.

Jas:

There aren't a lot of people like me in these sorts of position,

Jas:

so I understand my role as a as a mentor too.

Jas:

And that’s, that's absolutely brilliant.

Jas:

I think if I can get more people involved in these areas of research,

Jas:

that's absolutely great.

Simone:

Yeah, no, I think it's really great.

Simone:

It's so true

Simone:

that if we don't have role models who are slightly different from the norm,

Simone:

people won't feel invited to even think about studying at the university,

Simone:

let alone the university career.

Simone:

I always like the saying, I wish I had invented it.

Simone:

You can't be what you can't see.

Jas:

Yeah. Simone: and it's so clear in your example.

Jas:

So hopefully it will also encourage students from different communities

Jas:

to come and study at the University of Leeds and follow your example.

Jas:

Because you're right, it's real poverty in a way.

Jas:

academic poverty that we have so few underrepresented minority groups

Jas:

in arts and humanities and social sciences because it's so important

Jas:

to have all these voices at the table and also in the classroom.

Jas:

To make your lived experience something that's a positive.

Jas:

Not, you know, well we’ll

Jas:

teach you how to to behave differently.

Jas:

let's go towards the end of this interview.

Jas:

I wish we could keep talking, which I’m sure we will out of the studio.

Jas:

And I'm very happy to support you in your career

Jas:

and do your mentor role even even better than you're already doing it.

Jas:

You're one of the World

Jas:

Changers, this group of essayists, and that's why I'm interviewing you today.

Jas:

And can you see that this approach

Jas:

that you've pioneered could help us establish this University

Jas:

Without Walls that we want to be?

Jas:

Can you say a little bit about how you can inspire me and others in leadership

Jas:

position to to go beyond what we're doing now.

Jas:

The big question is, you know, who currently feels comfortable engaging

Jas:

with the University of Leeds and then thinking about who's outside that?

Jas:

How do we ensure we're tackling the most important questions for everybody?

Jas:

I think is is a key driver.

Jas:

And I think engaging with these groups will help us do that.

Jas:

It's easy for us as academics to think this is an important topic of research.

Jas:

How do you know it is?

Jas:

You know, so

Jas:

the approaches that I've pioneered and I'm hoping to build on on looking

Jas:

to empower everyone through education, through research, and not do things on

Jas:

maybe on necessarily our terms, but do things with other people on their turf.

Jas:

It's all about building a level of trust between us

Jas:

and all the other people from which the whole of society can benefit.

Simone:

I think that's an absolutely brilliant line to end this interview always.

Simone:

This has been fascinating.

Simone:

Jas, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.

Simone:

But of course, more importantly,

Simone:

for all the wonderful work you're doing for the University

Simone:

of Leeds, for the community and ultimately for the world.

Simone:

Thanks a lot.

Jas:

Thanks very much, Simone an absolute pleasure. Thank you.

Jas:

Thank you for listening to this podcast from the University of Leeds, to find out

Jas:

more about the work of our early career researchers and to read essays written by

Jas:

World Changer researchers, please go to the World Changers page on the University

Jas:

website, details can be found in the information that accompanies this podcast.

Links