My journey through the Highlands & Islands so far…..

 

The Growth at the Edge project (aka ‘the rural one’) is all about building a picture of the health and wellbeing benefits of social enterprise activity in the Highlands & Island of Scotland. As I have journeyed to some of the most remote and rural communities in Scotland in the past few months, I have been keeping a photo diary of my adventures….

I’ve met the most amazing community spirited people dealing with major transport issues, lack of services and issues that us urban folk may take for granted, such as access to fresh fruit and vegetables, or being able to reach a doctors surgery. Some rural inhabitants see themselves as the ‘forgotten people’, with ever depleting populations and a lack of vital infrastructure.

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A run down filling station in Helmsdale, the only one in the area

 

In spite of such challenges, the people of rural communities are defiant and resilient, both making the most of what they have and continually fighting for more. They are coming together and building new community centres to create meeting places and to provide activities for all ages…….

 Atlantic Centre, Isle of Luing and the Seaboard Centre, Balintore

They are encouraging people to curate their heritage, and are fiercely proud of their history….

The Mermaid of the North and Fish Sculptures, celebrating the fishing folklore of the Seaboard Villages

They are bringing education, arts and crafts to their communities, utilising and nourishing the skills that they have in their populations…

Art projects and handmade woodwork at Cantray Park, Cantray

As well as offering employment to people in the local community, including vulnerable groups and those in need……

Shetland Soap Company, Lerwick and The Elgin Youth Cafe, Elgin

They are encouraging people to ‘grow local, eat local’, with many communities investing in land for traditional crofting and market gardens and education to promote healthy living….

Blooming polytunnels at Cantray Park, Cantray and healthy living education at Elgin Youth Development Group, Elgin

And they are also investing in renewable energy and the recycling of materials to aid the sustainability of their communities for the future of their generations……

       Wind Turbines and a brand new ReStore furniture upcycle workshop at Cothrom, South Uist

I have met some very interesting service users along the way…….

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Some happy ducks and geese using the pond at the aviary at Cantray Park, Cantray (some had flown all the way from Canada just to use their service)

And I’ve literally been to the very edge of civilisation…..

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Views from sunny Lerwick, Shetland

But what is most exciting is that this is only the beginning of my project and I’m looking forward to uncovering so much more! My journey will be taking me to many more remote and rural communities, all with their own stories, of which I hope to share with you along the way!

Reflections on our Knowledge Exchange Forum: Inverness

Thursday 5th May might have been a significant date in the calendar for Scottish politics, but more importantly it was also the date of our Knowledge Exchange Forum in Inverness. The event invited an audience of social enterprise practitioners, academic researchers and associated organisations to share their thoughts and ideas of social enterprise and its links to health and wellbeing.

The forum included fantastic presentations from 3 local social enterprises; Calman Trust, Highland Blindcraft and Eden Court; alongside presentations from NHS Highland and the Highland Council. The event also allowed us the opportunity to discuss in groups what we mean by health and wellbeing, how our work might affect the lives of others, and how this might be measureable, leading to some thought provoking insights! As there were so many interesting points raised we have asked our CommonHealth team to highlight just a few……

A massive thank you to everyone who attended and shared their views, and a special mention to the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) for their support and input!

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Working as a social enterprise

The presentations from Calman Trust, Eden Court, and Highland Blindcraft reflected the diverse ways in which social enterprise has become both a structure -around which you can build an organisation- and a tool -which third sector organisations can make use of to fulfil their social missions. For example Calman Trust operates the social enterprise Ness Soap and Cafe Artysans; Eden Court is a publically funded arts organisation that uses elements of social enterprise in its practice; Highland Blindcraft has existed in one form or another for 140 years. Currently it operates as a charity limited by guarantee and has been variously labelled a social enterprise, and a supportive business.

People and organisations who want to create social change and generate social value don’t worry too much about what they’re called. For many organisations, if ‘social enterprise’ is a title which might bring in funding to help their users, then they’ll happily slap ‘social enterprise’ stickers on everything. But equally, if the funding flavour of the month is ‘social business’ or ‘charity’, then that’s the name they’ll use. Participants’ commitment to their social purpose was prioritised over the label used to describe their work.

This raises questions for academics like us at Commonhealth, and suggests that we should perhaps think of social enterprise as a set of processes that organisations use, rather than a group of organisations that share common characteristics. In turn this leads to further questions for policy makers and the support that should be in place for social enterprise.

For those of you interested in this discussion you may be interested in Simon Teasdale’s upcoming professional lecture: What’s in a name?

Addressing vulnerability and providing support

Several of the discussions throughout the day picked up on concerns that practitioners were witnessing increased levels of vulnerability, especially in connection to young people and youth unemployment. In this context the imperative to balance the ‘business’ elements of a social enterprise with its social purpose, becomes an ever more delicate balancing act; and for some this was likely to become a central challenge for the sector in coming years. Social enterprises therefore felt that while they could not hope to solve all the problems they faced, they could help to make young people more resilient and able to cope with the challenges they faced in the future.

When discussing support and vulnerability, often what can be neglected are the effects that social enterprise activity might have on its founders, board members and managers. When individuals volunteer their time and energy into creating and building their social enterprise we can forget to consider the impact that this might have on their personal and family life, and the sacrifices that they have to make. This can be in terms of personal finance, lack of time spent with loved ones and having to work long and anti-social hours to make things work. Yet support for such groups can be scarce.

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Amazing illustrations by Sarah Ahmad

From pathways to evidence

Social enterprises frequently need to prove (or attempt to) the outcomes of their work. Practitioners from the numerous organisations in attendance could relate to us the pathways that individuals had taken through their organisations, but often felt that these stories alone were not taken seriously as evidence of their impact on health and wellbeing.

Often the most small and subtle changes were felt to be the most powerful. In environments where social enterprise practitioners are working every day, the most satisfying aspects might be simply putting a smile on a young person’s face. Yet, not only is it difficult to measure the value of a smile, it may not be what funders are interested in anyway. There are ways of measuring impact (e.g. SROI or Social Audit) which may give a snapshot of the social value of a social enterprise. However, such measurement can be tough when funders want hard numbers not stories, or can’t think about long-term outcomes beyond the funding period.

Moreover, what was commonly found was that measures do not always account for major differences in social enterprise type and scale. For example, a community centre might benefit 1,500 community members, yet a childcare service might only benefit 5; and each activity impacts to a variety of different levels. Therefore, how can measures be truly representative of how people are individually affected?

Taking all of these insights into consideration we have a lot to keep us busy until the next event! 

Gillian Murray, Bobby Macaulay, Danielle Kelly, Clementine Hill-O’Connor, Fiona Henderson, Steve Rolfe

The insider/outsider debate

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I recently attended a British Sociological Association (BSA) early career forum at Sheffield Hallum University entitled ‘Demystifying the insider outsider, involvement/detachment debate- locating the researcher in qualitative research’.

As an ethnographer by heart, my interests lie in being able to attempt to understand a culture before making any grand assumptions about the way it works; I believe that quantitative enquiry is often not enough to provide a picture of a population; and that participatory research should have far more stature. For that reason, the event left me with a multitude of questions about our role as a researcher and the extent to which we are able to immerse ourselves into a culture that we may be researching.

Firstly, there is the issue of access and inclusion. Before we are able to plan a research project and imagine ourselves existing in the field, how do we get in and stay in? On one hand, it must be questioned that if we don’t look, speak or act like the groups we are studying then we may be unable to blend in as an ‘insider’ and this may limit what we can see, especially in terms of gendered arenas. The location of the research may be exclusive, intimidating and unwelcoming. Yet on the other hand, we must ask if the individuals that we are studying are truly native and part of that culture, especially if the culture is fluid and interchangeable. For example, can we claim that all participants feel the same way, have the same thoughts, or even feel like an insider themselves?

Building on this idea, there were a number of researchers at the event who were studying cultures from which they came, in theory making them insiders. For example, a member of a roller derby team was studying the culture of roller derby, and a young female student was measuring the views of young female students on pornography. Yet, what was clear is that as researchers and academics we cannot escape the field from which we come from and the knowledge that we have internalised that may affect the way we formulate ideas and beliefs, as Bourdieu calls it our ‘habitus’. Therefore it must be questioned if we can even be an insider on the inside?

Another important issue raised was about the consideration of ethics and personal limits. What if the participants are doing or saying something that we find offensive?  To be an insider this means that we may have embrace things that we may be against in our normal life to be able to represent informants in their own words. Yet as researchers we must have limits to what we are participating in. It could be that a person is being racist or homophobic, or that they are taking part in illegal activity in your presence. Do we choose to put our views away in our back pockets? Or do we choose to temporarily remove our ‘insider’ status and retreat back to the safety of ‘outsider-ness’?

Since my early days at University studying anthropology, I always assumed that to become fully immersed as a ‘native’ in a culture was the epitome of ethnographic research. Yet there’s something to be said for outsider-ness in laying claims to the authenticity of our work. Having a reflective awareness of who you are, your role and where you have come from as a researcher can actually serve to strengthen your research. This is especially true in research nowadays where we are restricted by time and funding that may inhibit our chances of ever understanding a culture. But in any case, even with unlimited time and resources, can we ever wholly be an insider?

The Ins and Outs of Rural Migration (Part 2)

This week we continue our conversation about rural migration from first-hand experience. Using themes drawn from literature Bobby Macaulay will guide us through his experiences. Bobby is a CommonHealth researcher who left Shetland shortly after his 16th birthday.

Rural economies are dominated by low paid labour markets and there is a lack of training and education opportunities for young people……

Bobby: I don’t think it is necessarily true that you are more likely to go into a low paid job, but I would say that the choice of well-paid industries is much more limited in Shetland. Despite its ups and downs, the fishing industry in Shetland is still strong with some of Britain’s largest pelagic trawlers based in the isles. Another source of well-paid jobs is the energy industry, previously dominated by oil but now developing into natural gas and renewables. Through the UHI-affiliated Shetland College and NAFC Marine Centre, there are possibilities of gaining certain sector-specific training within Shetland. However, outwith these industries and the upper-echelons of the public sector, well paid jobs may be harder to come by.

Young people face scrutiny and hostility for wanting to move away……

Bobby: Cultures die if young people do not keep them alive. Therefore, there is a natural and understandable desire from the older generation that young people remain in the community to continue that culture, whether it be in the form of language or dialect, livelihood or local practices. So for those families and communities very deeply rooted in the culture of an island (which can be totally different even to the neighbouring island) there would be a desire for their young people to stay, or at least promise to return home.

I have never personally experienced hostility for leaving but that may be because (a) my parents are not native Shetlanders so don’t have such a deep rooting within the culture, (b) there may be a belief that new practices and viewpoints may not necessarily be detrimental to an island culture as it evolves, or (c) they weren’t too bothered about losing my presence within the community!

There is little to keep young people occupied in rural locations, which can affect emotional wellbeing…..

Bobby: Similarly to Jack’s response to this last week, I have never found this myself. Before I left home I was involved in a huge number of sports, clubs and activities and rarely found myself with nothing to do. Even now when I go ‘home’ there is always too much to do. This may differ between people and communities but I subscribe to the belief that ‘you get out what you put in’ so those people who are willing to get involved in the community will find that there is a huge amount to do and gain from being part of it.

There are many older retirees moving to rural communities which can be a burden on local services e.g. healthcare…..

Bobby: Of the people who have moved to the island I am originally from, I don’t know that I could say they tend to be much older. I’m not sure about the strain placed on public sector bodies but I can see the opposite effect on local businesses and schools. The bigger the population, the more products the shops can sell. The more kids are in the school, the more jobs can be supported on the island. In this way a steady in-migration to an island community can help sustainably support local businesses and preserve local jobs.

Incomers tend to interfere or try to take over the running community activities, leading to hostilities….

Bobby: This is a very poignant question for me as my parents were incomers to the island, moving there 2 months before I was born. Over the past 28 years they have been involved in a huge number of community activities. Over that time they will have undoubtedly done things in their own way, but I don’t think there is any suggestion that this has been detrimental to the island, and I am unaware of any particular hostility towards their involvement. As Jack said last week, the values held by an island culture are not necessarily compromised through the involvement of incomers. Indeed, it may be these very values which attracted people to move to the island in the first place. As any community evolves, it must decide which elements it carries forward and which it lets slip away. Perhaps the level of hostility towards incomers in community depends on which elements of the community culture fall into each camp.

The Ins and Outs of Rural Migration

In compiling my literature review on the challenges and opportunities for social enterprises in rural Scotland, I have been struck by the negativity often associated with life and conditions in rural communities.  Two of the biggest challenges for rural community culture are found to be: the decreasing numbers of young people remaining in the community, leading to the increase in ageing rural populations; and the consistent number of ‘incomers’ to rural areas, such as retiring city dwellers, and the effects that this ‘counter urbanisation’ has on community life.

Despite these issues having been highlighted in academic literature, I was keen to hear the perspectives of the Yunus Centre’s own islander population, Jack and Bobby, dubbed ‘the faces of rural migration’, on a few prominent themes from the literature highlighted below. This week we begin by chatting to Jack Rendall, one of our PhD students, who left rural Orkney at the age of 18 to study at University here in Glasgow.

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Jack en route to sunny Glasgow

 

Rural economies are dominated by low paid labour markets and there is a lack of training and education opportunities for young people……

Jack: To gain a highly skilled job within certain industries in Orkney you would need to have college or university education and the chances are that this would only be achievable by moving to mainland Scotland. Consequently, for those remaining on the island the chances of walking into a high paying job would be slim; therefore many people end up in low paid jobs within local businesses. Young people who stay in Orkney may consider something ‘well paid’ if it makes them enough money to support their family, perhaps reflecting differing priorities within the isles. There is a lack of training and education in areas such as renewable energy and other growing industries in Orkney where skills are essential and in demand.

Young people face scrutiny and hostility for wanting to move away from rural areas……

Jack: The reverse is often true amongst young people and their peers in Orkney, as many are ridiculed for having ‘little ambition in life’ if they don’t want to move away. However, older generations may view this differently as young people are necessary for the survival of communities and maintaining history and tradition. Hostility may be felt towards those who have already moved away and openly express their reluctance to return. I’m choosing my words very carefully in this respect so as not to be met off the boat with pitchforks and torches, I would love to return home one day. Either way, there are no real vehement views, part of being an Orcadian may arguably be the understanding that people will always come and go, it’s about making the most of the community you have.

There is little to keep young people occupied in rural locations, which can affect emotional wellbeing…..

Jack: I would disagree, by and large young people are willing and motivated to get involved in island living and there are many opportunities to learn and get involved with things. There’s a great sense of freedom in being able to walk around at night and feel safe or having easy access to beaches and countryside. I appreciate that many people may struggle with this, but for me living in Orkney has only affected my emotional wellbeing positively.

There are many older retirees moving to rural communities which can be a burden on local services e.g. healthcare…..

Jack: It is more apparent in Orkney that those who retire to the islands usually have the money to do so, therefore they are often more economically active; restoring old homes, building new ones and attending local events. They also tend to be very socially active, getting involved in community groups and bringing with them their experience. Whilst this does not lessen the need for elderly social services, it does highlight the fact that they are often some of the most valuable members of the community.

Incomers tend to interfere or try to take over the running community activities, leading to hostilities….

Jack: There are many different types of incomers, so as with any community it is not likely that everyone will be embraced in the same way. Most people are active community members bringing with them enthusiasm, new skills and expertise. Many incomers inevitable get involved in decision making as it is often them who are affected directly by community activity. The way of life on Orkney is constantly changing and adapting, however this does not mean that islanders can’t maintain the same values, and that is what people strive for. Two very important values are to be welcoming and friendly; ‘incomers’ are even front page news on a local island community newspaper which is just one warm example of our hospitality.

Next week we will be continuing the conversation with Bobby Macaulay, one of our Commonhealth researchers who migrated to Glasgow from Shetland…..

Artistic License

Last week’s blog looked at the relationship between art and social enterprise, and what particularly stood out to me was the idea that art can facilitate community expression.

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As academic researchers we may strive to collect information from communities that can be objectified and rationalised, using mediums like interviews, focus groups, or perhaps even a bit of participant observation. The community talks to us, we write it down, then we display this in fancy reports or papers for peer reviewed journals in our quest for institutional credibility. However, the combined effort of using big long words and academic jargon can serve to isolate the very population we may be looking at, and they may be left feeling underrepresented by our own bias. This leaves us asking how we can fully represent communities through our outputs, and who is this for? This is a conversation that keeps springing up between Yunus Centre staff, most recently at the Unusual Suspects Festival and our CommonHealth Knowledge Exchange event.

The CommonHealth projects Growth at the Edge and Age Unlimited will both be applying participatory research approaches (design thinking and action research) to measure the effects that social enterprises can have on health and wellbeing. This will allow the research to be guided by the individuals and communities that we will be working with. In using such approaches we hope to potentially encourage creative thinking and the collection of data and documentation using non-conventional visual models, such as drawing, mapping, photography, and maybe even sculpting things out of plastercine, who knows?! Yet this will be ultimately up to the communities themselves to explore the most appropriate ways to express themselves and communicate with the research team. Of course we will be using interviews and focus groups to provide further data, but one of the most important things is to find ways to incorporate the visual outputs from the community members themselves into our findings.

Some social enterprises in the Highlands of Islands of Scotland, like ATLAS Arts in Skye, exist to allow community members to create art pieces that represent their landscape, histories and traditions. These visual art projects are used as a form of individual expression, and represent a persons’ subjective understanding of their culture and the world around them. Therefore in researching the people within such social enterprises, surely we need to utilise the visual artwork they have produced as ways of understanding their culture and context.

This got me thinking about how we can possibly analyse and disseminate the visual data we may collect. Ethnographers have faced this problem for decades of how to understand and aesthetically interpret tangible documents and art pieces to understand the culture from which they emerged. Visual anthropologists use methods of collecting cultural artefacts such as photographs, films, artwork and sculptures and then allow individuals from that particular society to both describe them and place them within history. This may still be viewed as pretty niche in academia, yet we could learn a few lessons from this approach on a wider level.

In terms of dissemination, it may be questionable whether visual arts have a place in academic conferences, perhaps displayed as ‘pretty posters’ alongside theoretical case studies and novel ground-breaking policy contributions? But this could just serve to further isolate research participants from their outputs. Or should we encourage community members to organise their own events that display the visual arts they produced within research projects, with academics in attendance? Hopefully our own CommonHealth Knowledge Exchange events will encompass this viewpoint going forward.

In terms of my own participatory study and the use of action research, my view is very much that we must work with communities not on them, so in fully engaging with individuals their problems become our problems. This goes all the way to research outputs; my papers become our papers, in the same way their art becomes our art.

 

Playing the game: balance or trade-off in social enterprise?

This week we have a guest blog from Dr Micaela Mazzei. Her ethnographic research with social enterprises in northern England looks at how organisations deal with operational challenges. Both the subject and the approach to her work is of interest to the CommonHealth team, so we hope you enjoy hearing about her research as much as we do!

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The more social enterprise has risen as a government priority the more it has been defined narrowly around the form of a firm able to balance social and economic objectives. One aspect of my research has been to question this idea of ‘balance’ and how this plays out in practice. I adopted an ethnographic approach; involving 20 organisations for a period of time and using interviewing, observation, and interactions as the main data collection techniques. I focused my research on two northern English city regions that shared a common industrial past but varied in their policy approaches to social enterprise.

Immerging myself in the social economy of Greater Manchester and Tyne and Wear for more than a year, I found that contrary to the idea of balance, the reality is one of constant negotiation between diverse and often competing goals, motivations, and commitments that often lead to trade-offs. The nature of the tensions and challenges arising does vary, however, with differing implications and degrees of intensity depending on the circumstances, motivation and the market in which organisations operate.

Organisations operate in a volatile environment where changes can occur unexpectedly. A central challenge is dealing with changes that effect finances as this then dictates what happens to an organisations social aim. This has different implications depending on whether organisations operate in consumer markets or public service markets. In most cases organisations struggle to maintain sufficient income to guarantee service delivery and are often involved in ‘playing the game’ to gain resources. However, public funding is also seen as potentially limiting as it dictates delivery, sometimes with poor reflection on the actual needs of the communities organisations are trying to serve. Often services are costed by taking into account all expenses and trying not to work at a loss. However, the more support that is needed for beneficiaries, the more resources organisations need to deploy in order to provide a quality service. This is seldom recognised in contractual agreements. Even those organisations born from an explicit business idea that have successfully benefited from changes in the mainstream market (for example organic food sale) cannot claim a secure position. Despite establishing their offer through a solid client base and expanding organically by investing in ventures in line with their ethos, these organisations are still vulnerable to market changes.

The complex ethical space between the interests of beneficiaries, funders and organisations themselves lead to different prioritisations depending on the circumstances. Generally, when time and resources were available, organisations were found to reflect and debate about the ethical implications of change. However, time and resources were often lacking and therefore decisions had to be made quickly. It is in these situations that the propensity of organisations to focus on either high quality services/products, sharing, or reducing costs emerges, revealing the diverse ways in which organisations deal with tensions.

Recognizing the tensions social enterprises experience implies that there is a need to scale back on market expectations and/or support welfare functions more appropriately.