Research with young environmental activists in the UK: challenges and opportunities presented by COVID Lockdown to the researcher and the researched

Inevitably recent posts on the site have focused on the significance for youth work of the pandemic. We have shared differing youth worker perspectives from Lauren Barclay and Sally Baxter, the CONCEPT Special COVID issue and the NYA ‘Take the Temperature’ Report, as for the latter watch out later this week for a response to its analysis from Bernard Davies. In the meantime we’re very pleased to draw your attention to an engaging and revealing blog by Dena Arya, who describes herself as a ‘a youth worker-researcher’. Within it she explores the impact of the lockdown on the process and relationships central to her research with young environmental activists.

Really worth reading in full at Research with young environmental activists in the UK: challenges and opportunities presented by COVID Lockdown to the researcher and the researched

She begins on a personal note that might well ring a few bells!

Like many researchers, particularly those whose focus is empirical, my data collection was stopped in its tracks in the days leading up to lock down in the UK in March 2020. Along with my research grinding to a halt, so did my ability to think beyond the basics in those days. This rotated around; how could I keep myself and family safe, what information I needed to absorb and what I needed to discard in the assault of the media ‘infodemic’ on COVID and if washing my food shopping was taking it a step too far!

As the weeks passed the disbelief began to subside as many tried to find a ‘new normal’. I started to remember some of what I had put down in trying to understand what had been happening to the world around me. I remembered to wash my hair, brush my teeth and that I was doing a PhD, somethings I had all but forgotten about in the haze of those early lockdown days.

As the amnesia lifted, I remembered my networks of young research participants. I was two months into data collection in a PhD in Politics and International relations at Nottingham Trent University when the pandemic spun out of control. I remembered that young people across the country were struggling with the shock of what had happened, some only weeks and months away from sitting GCSE’s and A Levels. I remembered that before I was a PhD researcher, I was a youth worker and that my involvement with my participants would always be from the position of a youth worker-researcher.

Some personal context; I worked in the youth sector in the UK for over a decade before embarking on my PhD. Over this period, I had the privilege of working with groups of young people who consequently inspired me to carry out youth-led academic research. The focus of my research is how economic inequality impacts the way in which young people engage in environmental politics in the UK. As these months pass, I find myself more and more certain that this is worthwhile intellectual pursuit as the relationship between COVID, inequality and climate change become apparent.

Within her concluding paragraphs she muses.

There have in this time been some unexpected opportunities for research and activism. I have been able to engage more deeply and with more frequency with the young activist that I had built networks with prior to the lock down. Acquiring reliable and in-depth data requires relationships that go beyond the researcher and the researched. Young people’s engagement, either in consultation, co-production or research can result in participants feeling like nothing more than data points. To do the labour required to create relationships with participants that are not seen as tokenistic, are imbedded in mutual aid and co-operation and built across horizontal lines of power, will yield more authentic understandings of the social phenomena we are observing as researchers. With this in mind, during lock down I have been involved in a variety of activities with my participants which have included; sharing articles and reading materials, running and being a part of reading groups, having video calls simply to chat and share lockdown blues, helping with job applications and personal statements, supporting with school work, attending climate pub-quizzes or quite simple checking in with a text message. At times this has meant exposing myself emotionally to my participants. whilst they have been struggling with the effects of being indoors for weeks on end, so have I. Reflecting on my conflict regarding how much to share and how honest to be through the process has been an important part of development as a researcher.

None of the above would have been possible without the extra time that both participants and I have had on our hands. Whilst some young people are attending online classes through school, others have been furloughed from their jobs or lost their zero-hour contract jobs. Almost all the young people I know have moved back or already live with family, parents or guardians. Consequently, opportunities have arisen in access to under 18s parental consent. Anyone who has worked in the youth sector can tell you that getting a young person to take a letter home, get it signed and bring it back can sometimes feel like the success of the century. Whilst young people are at home during lock down, many times with one or both parents in the other room, getting signed parental consent has far less complicated and increased the likelihood of doing research with this younger and harder to access age group.

These observations require deeper investigation and my work as a researcher is far from over. Whilst this pandemic has forced researchers like me to re-think their methodological approaches as well as the nature of data collection, ethics and access, it has by no means stopped my research in its tracks. I had imagined spending the past two months darting up and down the UK, meeting young activists at demonstrations and actions across the country, hearing chants, photographing placards and listening to impassioned speeches over megaphones. Instead I have been invited into Slack meetings, ‘Zoomed’, had long discussions over Discord and got cramp in my thumb messaging over Signal and Telegram. This intimate, and might I add totally free, expect for the cost of my broadband, way of building relationship during this tragic time in human history has coloured the kinds of stories my PhD will tell. I in no way intend to paint this as a ‘blessing in disguise’ or see the pandemic as ‘useful’ to research with young activist. Instead, I realise that despite the challenges, now more than ever research with young people is imperative and we need to use our tools, in any way that we can to make their voices heard.

As ever your responses appreciated.

One comment

  1. […] Have you had a chance to read the articles on the In Defense of Youth Work website? There's lots of insights into youth work. This latest article is a really good read and so relevant to our times @indefenceyw #YoungPeople #COVIDー19 #ClimateChange… […]

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