• One story, many journeys: an auto/biographic narrative case study of a community-university partnership

      Walker, Peter; University of Derby (2016-10-07)
      This is the story of a project to connect the resources of a university to the struggles of a group of Congolese asylum seekers in the city of Derby. It represents a case study of a whole process: this includes a specific project established to explore how a university might fulfil its stated goals of being closely anchored in the local and regional community; and how it might engage and marshal its resources to provide educational and maybe research opportunities, while giving priority to community-based projects that tackle social disadvantage. The thesis is made up of a number of overlapping elements: there is the story of the project itself, of why the University became involved, and the nature of the interaction with a particular community, as seen through the eyes of some of the Congolese and me the project coordinator/researcher. It includes my struggles to establish a steering committee with the Congolese and the creation of a range of educational/recreational resources to help members of a community manage the difficult, stressful and even traumatic processes of asylum. The project led to the establishment of a community association and various initiatives to dialogically engage with the community and gather diverse narratives. Finally it led to various outcomes leading to what might be a ‘Reconnecting the hearts and minds’ project, that created spaces for story telling for a number of women and men migrants. The project also included an evaluation, which developed at its core, into a collection of narratives chronicling the difficult processes of forced migration, where people experience the pain of family separation, the dislocation of landing in a foreign country. A country whose language was different, whose customs were strange and where the processes of claiming asylum could be alienating, and where racism is experienced. We can call this project and its evaluation a piece of action research with a series of narratives at its heart. The project and evaluation together raise questions about the role of creative activity and narrative in managing painful transitions. There is another story within the bigger one, however, a story of a project coordinator and his relationship with the community and the University of Derby... of initial enthusiasm followed by marginalisation and the closure of a supportive community development unit in the University; and of the placement of this role, for want of a better home, in the marketing department. This is also a narrative of registering for a doctorate, of being rejected, and of seeking to think through, with the help of others, what a good enough doctorate might entail. The end product has become a process of auto/biographical narrative reflexive research in which the narratives of the migrants intertwine with the researcher’s own; around the themes of dislocation, and of the struggles for voice and agency. The basic threads of the study are of a dislocating experience, and of how resources of hope can be found in creative activity – whether a sewing class, telling stories, fashion shows or engaging in auto/biographical narrative reflexivity. The basic argument has to do with tokenism and the disrespect that can surround university civic engagement as well as how asylum seekers are treated callously more generally; but also how resources of hope can make a difference. There is also the troubling issue of voice in research and whose story really counts; of a white, middle class male engaging with distressed women migrants, and of what might have been a silencing of the women concerned. But through values of commitment, and of learning to listen, the project became more dialogical, as evidenced in the women’s stories.