'Being with people is key'

Rebecca Lawthom, Professor of Community Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, on her working life.

I have a job which is hugely varied and challenging. Monday morning I am up and at it. The title of my professorship is very much what is says on the tin – I do psychology with a Community feel. It is psychology as we work with ways that people act, feel and behave in the world.

This approach is Community because it assumes that context is important, the systems that surround people. A recent project with disabled people explored the ways in which individuals with the label of learning difficulties/disabilities were faring during times of austerity. Working with disabled people’s organisations, and paying disabled researchers (and their supporters), we explored how the big society agenda impacted upon work and community for them. Using a range of creative methods and using disabled artists, we researched community circles, self-advocacy and employment. Rather than labelling people, treating or curing, this approach works from an asset approach – we see flourishing and strengths. Working with people who are marginalised is key to a community psychology approach which has social justice at its core.  

Trying to maintain this set of values and collaborative working is a challenge but worthwhile and a passion. I strongly believe that universities have resources which need to be shared with both local and international communities. This is a key plank of our faculty in Health, Psychology and Social Care. Taking an asset based approach, we tend to work with experience experts. Indeed, the journal I co-edit, Community Work and Family, is one of the few academic journals which actively gathers the perspectives of non-academics in the Voices section.

This philosophy of recognising knowledge capacity in others is often translated in our work with PhD students – so passionate students working on issues such as disability, migration, ageing are always working with community partners on issues. The university has become part of the Manchester charter working across services and with people with lived homelessness experience. Using partnership models and participative ways of working the team are using creative methods alongside understanding how services can be coproduced. As a research professor and involved in assessing research for the research centre, we are always thinking of ways to communicate the research and crucially make a difference. I belong to Metropolis, which is a policy think tank, developing briefs linked to research. Part of the job involves writing academic papers and books whilst also communicating to a wider audience. Here, bringing academic work to life through accessible means involves linking with creative partners. Earlier this month we organised a community psychology festival with workshops on place making, arts practice and building a cardboard city across generations. 

Key to the doctoral approach at the Metropolitan is to have brilliant supervision teams where a group of supervisors work with a student. This enables established academics to share knowledge and good practice. I am currently working with teams in this way around voice hearing, homelessness, migrant women and food, advocacy, ageing and disability. Whilst I do less hands-on research than earlier in my career I still love hearing about how students are tackling ethics, methods and access. It is still a rare treat when I visit ongoing research projects – the Men in Sheds initiative provides actual shed space for older men at risk of ill health or loneliness. The Brazilian collaborators we work with on place making in cities in the UK and Brazil are teaching us about the importance of context – whether in Baguley or Belo Horizontes.

In a typical week, commenting on draft chapters and peer review is a large chunk of the role. I supervise students doing Masters and doctoral work, alongside academics engaging in research. I am currently editing a special issue of a journal around the ways in which scholarship is linked to activism. 

The explicit research agenda here is about development of excellence  – either sharing literacy about the latest strategy for improving excellence or from the research councils. Preparing research bids and mentoring early career researchers is vital to grow our culture.  I often do not know all the answers but can point someone in the right direction – perhaps someone with a distinct disciplinary difference or methodological expertise. I mentor women through the Aurora scheme which is directed at women and collaborate on the Athena swan agenda (which prioritises gender equity across the sector).

I am always in possession of a to-do list, am lucky to have a good memory and always entangled with my phone which has my calendar and emails, alongside my Twitter account.

Luckily I love communication and spending time with people, which is a good fit for my role where being with people is key. 

- Find much more community psychology in our archive, and more from Rebecca Lawthom.

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