Participatory research in the ‘new normal’

In this blog, originally published on the Covid Realities website, Mika and Mimi (Young Researchers on CCoM) reflect with Rachel (CCoM co-lead) about our experiences doing participatory research during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stress. Anxiety. Concern. Looking back to mid-March 2020, these three words sum up how we felt. What would life be like in a pandemic? When would the lock down end? What would happen to our participatory research on the Children Caring on the Move (CCoM) project?

Now, six months later, we reflect on what has changed in our project and share some of the things we have learned. The bottom line: don’t stop! Inequalities and injustices have only gotten worse with COVID. We need to do research that improves things more than ever.

Getting used to the new normal

In the weeks leading up to the lock down in the UK, we had just been preparing to start our research with children and young people who had come to UK without parents or carers. The Children Caring on the Move (CCoM) project investigates the experiences of children and young people who have come to England on without parents or other adults to look after them. In this multi-university project, we use participatory and creative research methods to learn about these children and young people’s experiences, as well as creative methods with adult stakeholders and an analysis of the political economy of care of and by lone child migrants.

Since September 2019, a group of five Young Researchers with their own experiences of migration (including Mika and Mimi) and two university researchers (including Rachel) had been working together to prepare for the research with young people in the West Midlands. We did training on participatory research and ethics. We tried various creative research methods and designed the methods we planned to use. We even booked a date to invite other young people to take part in research interviews and activities. In other words: we were ready, but COVID had other plans.

Living in a pandemic

Mika remembers hearing about the lockdown for the first time when she was travelling. She was worried that the National Express bus wouldn’t get her home in time, but she couldn’t afford to travel any other way. She made it home safe and sound, but spent March and April calling the doctor, worrying that she had corona virus. She didn’t have it!

Mimi was at home when she heard the news. She thought she was going to pass out. The day that the lock down was starting was clear, but when would we ever come out? She felt so scared to open the front door and didn’t see the outside for four months.

Rachel was messaging with another Young Researcher when the news came in. She immediately wondered what would happen with all the groundwork the team had put into the research and, more importantly, what it meant for young people on the move alone. How could young people physically distance in shared accommodation? How would they be affected by long periods of isolation on top of their other struggles in the UK? What about young people on the move alone as national borders closed and hardened?

At the beginning of lock down, the West Midlands team began meeting on zoom every week. We chatted about how we were feeling and how our lives had changed. Eventually, we began talking about what to do about our research.

Everything is different, everything is the same

In those early days, the team felt that online research methods would not work. How would we build trust with young people who have insecure immigration status? How could we make sure that their information stayed safe and confidential? Being online felt alien, a different vibe than meeting face-to-face. You can’t hug people online or offer them a cup of tea. It can be tiring to sit in one spot, and it can feel like you always have to say something smart.

Six months later we know COVID is with us for the longer term and that we may be in and out of lock down. Online meetings have become part of the new normal. It helps us feel like we are together, even from a distance, and we can carry on with our research. This is one lesson we have learned: uncertain times require us to be flexible with research design. What is hard to imagine one week can feel possible the next. It is important not to rush decisions and stay open to different possibilities.

We have learned that many of the ethical and research design issues that were important to us before COVID remain important. The principles and skills we developed for face-to-face research are as relevant as ever, even if it feels different to do research online. One example is about developing trust in research interviews.

Our team always knew that we had to be clear to young asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants that an interview with us is not like an interview with the Home Office. Home Office interviews can be extremely stressful. In the UK’s ‘hostile environment’, it often feels to young people that the Home Office tries to catch them in mistakes in order to deport them. The recent letter from the Home Office urging local authorities to contest the age of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children whenever possible, and offering to pay legal fees if age assessments are disputed, is just the latest example of this climate of suspicion.

Whether we are doing interviews face-to-face or online, we always reassure participants that it is different than a Home Office interview. Young people don’t have to answer our questions, and they can talk about what they want even if it is not the focus of our research. Interviews are an opportunity to speak up about things participants think are important. If we ask about tea, and a participant tells us about bread, we listen carefully and are happy to do so. We encourage participants to sit where they feel comfortable, have a drink or some food, and we always play games at first to get to know each other. Our research team has the ground rule ‘laugh a lot’, and we try to do that in our interviews too.

At first it was hard to show people online we were listening. The first thing we decided is that individual interviews were better than the focus groups we had planned. Most young people speak to us from their phone and it is hard to see everyone if there is a group. Individual interviews are easier. We also use big smiles and actively nod in response so that participants know we are listening. Our follow up questions always quote what the participant has said to us, so they really know we are listening carefully. We often share our own stories so that it is not just a one-way conversation.

Don’t stop! We need change

The positive responses we have received from participants and richness of the interviews online have been surprising and rewarding. The most important thing we have realised: COVID has only made things harder for young people who have come to the UK on their own. Racism, anti-migrant discrimination, and exclusions have not gone away. While the world may have changed completely in the last year, our commitment to making positive changes through our research for young refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants is stronger than ever.

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