The changing face of community engagement

Now, nearly 2 years through the line of Covid, what is the best way to engage our communities? When restrictions around social distancing ease and movements become the norm, do we remain online or return to face-to-face?

When the pandemic first began, with all its uncertainty and disruption of work, it seemed that connecting and engaging with communities nationally, let alone globally, would be an impossible task. Yet, rather than an end, it instead catalysed a great shift in our work – our community reporting model was well suited and could be adapted to meet the needs of a fully remote world.

Training could be carried out at distance, virtually, whilst still reaching communities without a smartphone or stable internet connection. Using e-learning platforms and our own SMS/audio training (which delivers the training module through answerphone messages to overcome low literacy and certain connectivity issues), more and more community reporter networks were developed and supported as they shared their experiences on how Covid affected their communities.

They tracked – and continue to follow – the impacts through their phone, shifting the narrative of mainstream media and giving insight to services and organisations to better support them.

Community reporting during a pandemic

Back in March 2020, one week before Sierra Leone closed its borders, we delivered four days of documentary training and mobile journalism kits to a network of community reporters making up the Beyond the Bite project – tracking the impacts of malaria within their communities and sharing the solutions they wanted to see.

Photo of Eastina working with reporters

One week later, in-person training was no longer an option and the remaining modules and refresher lessons had to move online through e-learning platforms, like Learn.ink, or SMS for those offline. During this time, all reporters were supported by community mentors, who first trained with Radar back in 2021, reporting on the Ebola outbreak.

Over the next 10 months, the network honed their skills and participated in weekly reporting sprints to track their community experiences, sending this into our digital platform, Radius, which enabled our partners to meet communities where they are and feed this insight into their advocacy and support work.

Despite these changes, the network was able to shed insight into the impacts of malaria, through their phones, which fed into a co-produced web documentary, The Road to Recovery, and People’s Healthcare Manifesto that set out their ideas for an inclusive and accessible healthcare system.

As community reporters were advocating for change in Sierra Leone around malaria and Covid-19, in Kenya, the FairVoice project launched soon after the pandemic hit. Here, with Fairtrade, we ran an entirely remote course to train workers as community reporters who could share how flower farmers were experiencing the crisis as it unravelled through their mobile phones. 

Screenshot of the Learn.ink module taken by participants.

Here, onboarding, training and reporting were supported by a toll-free number and Radius, which can receive, manage, and send information and messages, creating a two-way conversation with online and offline communities. Over the reporting sprint, over 60 reporters actively sent in reports – they reported on the huge loss of flower sales, a loss of income, and their appreciation of Fairtrade Premium.

Around the same time, in the UK, we started working with Groundswell to help them stay connected with their communities and capture the unfolding experience of those facing homelessness. As part of this, we trained around 20 community reporters with experiences of homelessness to send in reports via their mobiles. Shared as 10 core modules, each with an interactive quiz, the training took place remotely across 3 days so that individuals could learn at their own pace. 

As their reports came in via Radius, their stories and insight continue to help inform the Covid response by NHS England – you can read and listen to their reports here.

What’s next?

As we plan the next phases of our work – in a landscape that looks much different to that 2 years ago – questions around the need and suitability of a completely remote design continue to arise. Can distanced work fully substitute that face-to-face interaction? And does it always meet the needs and best serve all communities?

Whilst we have proven that we can now do this, it shouldn’t be an immediate option to fall back on. Again, it’s good as an intermediary but it doesn’t hold or solve all of the issues that come up in a project cycle.

With Fairtrade, we were initially planning to run the whole FairVoice project remotely via the project teams in both locations. We set out to develop and deliver a training course via Learn.ink and audio/SMS training – as we had done over the past year. However, this was throwing up several complexities. A lot of the people we’re trying to reach have little to no literacy and many have connectivity issues. 

Yet, following a conversation with the project team at Fairtrade, it was clear that what they wanted and needed was face-to-face workshops. To engage the reporters, when the initial contact is through SMS or audio alone, wouldn’t work here. Because of this, there has been a realisation, and excitement, in the opportunity to return to in-person training.

We’re able to do this mostly due to the context, they’re no longer having to socially distance so this is now feasible. Again, it’s been a really good reminder that to bridge some of those C’s – see the 5 C’s framework – and particularly, support conviction and bring people meaningfully into the project, we can and should go back to basics. 

Coming full circle

How we engage with communities, especially over the last two years, feels very much like a circle. We’ve gone from being completely face-to-face, flying in and needing to be the ones that do it all, to the complete other end of the spectrum, working in a very remote, at distance way, whereby this has pretty much become more or less a norm. There are so many benefits to that – we’ve had conversations with Cote D’Ivoire officials via Zoom which would have been unheard of a year or two ago.

Importantly, we’re not calling for people to go back to that pre-Covid time where practices involve jumping on a plane and parachuting in. Rather, as we come back to this face-to-face engagement, it’s about devolving the reporter/researcher role. For FairVoice’s next stages, training won’t involve the Radar team themselves flying out to deliver it. Instead, it will be the project team who are already there and have an existing relationship with the communities themselves.

Radar will train the project team virtually and they will then train the reporters, making for a much more sustainable and collaborative network. Overall, it’s about finding that middle ground of when it’s most appropriate, responding to the needs of each project and, ultimately, not losing the learning from what both face-to-face and remote working can give us.