Thursday, 10 August 2017

Meaningful external partnerships (PART 2): "Nothing About Us Without Us"

Anna Nibbs
Enterprise Education Developer

In my last post, I invited readers to view the design of external partnerships for learning and teaching through the lens of Lean Startup methodology (Ries 2011), based upon the development of USE's 'Making Ideas Happen' (MIH) module.

To recap: in considering whether it would be beneficial to use external partners, designers of a learning experience need to ask:
Grey tarmac, viewed from above, on which is painted the word "respect" in all upper-case bold, red, stencilled lettering with a white drop shadow
“Should we use external partnerships for this project?”
And if so:
“How can we use them in a way that is both sustainable and manageable?”
We considered our first 'customer' segment - students. But of course, we only scratched the surface of this approach, and I now want to turn my focus to our other key 'customer' - the external partner.

'Nihil de nobis, sine nobis'

I'd like to take a little sidestep from Lean, and talk about the relationship itself. There is a well-known phrase in social justice movements:
"Nothing About Us Without Us" (Latin nihil de nobis, sine nobis).
Although the concept has its origins in the development of a 1505 Polish act of parliament (Wagner 1991), the phrase itself was popularised by disability rights movements in Southern African countries in the 1980s (Charlton 1998), and is widely used today by self-advocates and firsthand representatives of many marginalised, disenfranchised or underprivileged groups. 

The idea comes from a common tendency among stakeholders holding privilege or positions of power relative to a particular group (in the case of disabled people, for example, parents and professionals) to take centre stage in discussions concerning that group's issues, rendering invisible the voices of group members themselves. This skews the way such groups, and their experiences, are represented, recorded, and more widely perceived, leading to biased, incorrect, and potentially damaging assumptions.

And it's a common complaint by those who are the subjects of research and other outward-facing scholarship activity, or those most directly impacted by policy development. The same can be said of student projects.

During 2013-14, our MIH project partner was a committee of representatives from community groups in a particular area of Sheffield. A complaint I frequently heard during initial meetings with committee members was that "people from the University" would sometimes descend on the area for short periods of time, and either temporarily put the community under the microscope of research, or undertake short-term volunteering projects that served more to make the student volunteers feel good than to offer any real, lasting benefits to residents or foster any deeper mutual understanding.

Which takes us back to customer discovery (Blank 2013) (as always, using the term 'customer' in its widest possible sense).

Taking the time

Once you've established that your module, course, or project might benefit from students working with a partner, and begun to to hypothesise what that partnership might look like, you need to establish a firm basis from which to design a project that benefits your partner, your students, and any other stakeholders. 

And getting this right can only come from building a mutually respectful, meaningful relationship with your partner, and seriously listening to what they are telling you - and not only listening, but truly taking on board what they are saying.

There was a lead-in time of at least 18 months from my initial approach to the representatives of that community, to the finalising of a project brief given to students at the start of the module (it doesn't always take this long; there are innumerable factors that may have impact on the project design process).

During that time I attended committee meetings (listening rather than participating, unless invited to do so), visited community centres, and followed up with individual, informal and often lengthy meetings with key representatives from each group - always conducted in spaces and at times that they were most comfortable with, on their terms.

The module itself didn't, in the end, deliver as many usable outputs for the community as we had hoped. This is sometimes the case, and it's important that everyone's expectations are carefully managed. Nevertheless, USE received positive feedback about our involvement, and the sensitivity with which we undertook the project.

'For the people'

The University of Sheffield's Principles of Engaged Learning and Teaching aim to ensure that activities involving communities involve reciprocity and co-creation or -production. There is an emphasis on:
    "Exploring ways to facilitate partner-led approaches, in which initiatives can respond to community needs and/or aspirations"
      This is what we continually try to do with MIH, and what we encourage the academics we work with to do whenever they are involving external partners in enterprise education activity. There are several excellent examples of positive enterprising, but also engaged, learning and teaching projects under the case study label on this site that firmly adhere to the Principles.

      As academics, you are the experts in your discipline, and in teaching and/or research. Your external partners, however, are the experts on their own experiences, and when you work with them, it is this expertise that will be of real value to you and your students.

      This open-ended blog series is partly informed by my development of the Enterprise Academy’s External Partnerships Planning Pro-Forma.

      This resource is available to members of the University of Sheffield (TUoS) via our Online Resource Bank. If you’re not part of TUoS and are interested in the tool, or even if you are but you’d like to discuss potential external partnerships for enterprising learning and teaching, please get in touch.


      Blank, S. (2013). Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products that Win. Bookbaby.

      Charlton, J.I. (1998). Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-22481-7. [Last accessed 03/08/2017].

      Osterwalder, A., Pigneur, Y., and Clark, T. (2010). Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers.

      Ries, E. (2011). The Lean Startup. Crown Publishing Group.

      Wagner, W.J. (1991). 'May 3, 1791, and the Polish constitutional tradition'. The Polish Review. 36 (4): 383–395. JSTOR 25778591.[Last accessed 03/08/2017].

      [Image credit: Martin Abegglen, 2010. Re-used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence]

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