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The social impact field is getting serious about co-design, and we are here for it!

Over the past few weeks, I've been speaking to dozens of people, from Afghanistan to El Salvador and everywhere in between, who work in a niche area, supporting children associated with armed forces and armed groups (CAAFAG). Regardless of whether the person was a teacher, child protection officer, government officer, or had formerly been associated with an armed group, one of the things that kept coming up was the importance for programmes and policies to be co-designed with instead of for communities. For example, people I spoke with said their most significant successes when designing programmes for children to return to their schools and communities came from making sure, from the onset, that the people with the greatest proximity to the issue were able to collaborate and inform in all parts of the project design, from the very beginning. As a result, dozens of innovative & impactful projects are underway.

These examples of co-designing projects with underrepresented groups got me thinking. Although co-designing sounds logical, I'd only seen and experienced meaningful co-design processes a handful of times over a decade of working in the social impact sector and academia- which in the UK context, at least, is even further behind the non-profit sector- but that's another blog post!. Even when I had worked in organisations where there had been attempts to be more inclusive, be it participatory consultations, 'needs assessments' or by integrating action research during a project, without putting equity at the centre, more people might be invited to the party, BUT fifty per cent can't turn up because they still need to receive, understand or like the memo!

Luckily, many people working in the social impact space, whether aid practitioners, social entrepreneurs, academics or activists, are turning to participatory methods to ground their projects in community needs using community-led research approaches. Research has shown that projects are more likely to result in sustainable solutions because they are more likely to be grounded in the needs and perspectives of the community. It also challenges some of the power imbalances and moves social impact work away from doing work for towards with, bringing us towards solidarity. Feminist writer bell hooks tells us that:

Solidarity is not the same as support. To experience solidarity, we must have a community of interests, shared beliefs and goals around which to unite, to build Sisterhood. Support can be occasional. It can be given and just as easily withdrawn. Solidarity requires sustained, ongoing commitment.

There are many approaches to building solidarity in our work. I'm convinced by Critical Participatory Action Research (CPAR). CPAR is a framework for engaging research with communities interested in documenting, challenging, and transforming conditions of social injustice. And I'm not alone in this; take, for example, the brilliant Public Science Institute at City University New York (CUNY) in New York. I was blown away by how the public science project partners with many community-based organisations to promote social justice and co-learn with marginalised communities to develop radical research and advocacy. One of the many inspiring examples is their work in prisons, where they have supported incarcerated women in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. They established a Research Collective and worked with the women to conduct an advocacy initiative grounded in research findings that led to the facility reinstating college education access. You can listen to the Public Science project's approach to using action research to drive social change here.

The Bedford Hills Correctional facility's success is just one example of how relevant CPAR is to social impact work, as it allows for a more nuanced understanding of the needs and experiences of marginalised communities and provides a platform for these communities to take an active role in shaping interventions that directly address their concerns.

As someone who works in academia and the social impact field, I always want to connect theory to practice. Over the past few years, through Equity EiE Consulting, I've worked with brilliant organisations, institutions, academics and activists, co-creating and building tools and resources to support people working in the social impact space, design programmes, policies and organisational structures rooted in equity. Whether people work in international development, humanitarian aid or academia, CPAR is a fantastic way to hone in on community engagement and ownership, putting in place participatory data collection and analysis, and tools for measuring social impact, examining different power dynamics, and coming to project design with anti-racism, social justice and equity-centred principles at the centre of your work.

My approach doesn't shy away from discussing historic and structural inequities and their current implications. Instead, I work with people to centre assets-based, trauma and culturally-informed approaches honouring peoples' knowledge and lived experience.

Recognising that CPAR training isn't widely available in organisations, or academic institutions, I am SUPER excited to host the first in a series of workshops focusing on practical ways to redesign social impact work on the 31st of March. This is part of our Redesigning Aid strategy. Through training, workshops and a traineeship, it seeks to shift power in social impact work and ensure more people from underrepresented groups are in the room, at the table and design solutions.

This introductory workshop is for you if:

👌You work in the social impact space; you may be a practitioner and academic or PhD student looking at ways to meaningfully co-design projects or research with people.

👌You want to learn more about creating inclusive, equity-based, solidarity-focused approaches to working with people.

👌 You'd like some direction and recommendations for critical resources that you can contextualise for your work.

👌You want to connect with others in this area, share ideas and learn.

The introductory workshop will be practical and interactive. We'll start by looking at CPAR and its origins in social activism before exploring how you can apply CPAR to your research, projects and policy development approaches.

🎉Subsidised and free spots are available, and do get in touch at if you want to chat about any adjustment/provision related to disability - we need you all in the room.

For more information, sign up below:

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