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A relational journey rather than a project

January 19, 2024

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In this blog, Patrick Nyikavaranda from Diversity Resource International shares his experiences of how to build mutually beneficial relationships between researchers and community groups.

Diversity Resource International is a non-profit social enterprise that supports ethnically diverse and migrant communities in Sussex. Our core work includes community development, community research, leadership and enterprise and training towards equity. Throughout these strands, we aim to actively centre the different voices and experiences of the communities we work with in all that we do.

We aim to work with individuals, families, and whole communities through coproducing solutions to problems that individuals and whole communities face.

Fostering relationships that work

At Diversity Resource International we are proud to do what we love and get satisfaction from seeing the positive impact it has on the people and communities we work with. We love working with different people from different backgrounds. We love working with organisations that have the community at the heart of their work.

Over the past three years, we have worked alongside National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), organisations in the South East: Research Design Service (now the Research Support Service), Clinical Research Network and Applied Research Collaboration). As well as other ethnic minority-led organisations such as Bridging Change, Ethnic Minorities in Canterbury (EMIC) and Surrey Minority Ethnic Forum (SMEF)) in challenging health inequalities and fostering relationships.

Our journey with these organisations started with funding from NIHR’s Reaching Out funding scheme, the aim of which was to develop relationships between researchers and communities seldom involved in research. We had an online consensus workshop which brought together NIHR staff, community organisations and researchers. This was followed by a series of online consensus workshops to explore how health and social care research could be improved. We have also created a podcast series Talk In Equality and are working together on a research bid. There have been various spin-off projects and opportunities that have emerged as a result of the relationships we have built. For example, I talk about diversity, equality, and inclusion in an online course on patient and public involvement for the Agora Digital Centre (founded by Dr Gary Hickey who was previously at Research Design Service South East) and am currently working with them on a community event.

The work we have conducted is proof that when done right (i.e. when there is mutual respect and mutual support), co-production can be an impactful tool. Our working relationships have been developed over the last three years and we have now begun work on several strands to enhance research for our communities. This includes joint bid writing, supportive raising awareness of each other’s organisations, sharing best practices, joint research, and easier referral processes.

From when we first started working together, a key element of the success of our relationship was an agreement that we would move away from transactional connections toward more relational ones. So rather than having short-term relationships and just meeting up ‘when someone wants something’ we would seek long-term relationships based on mutual trust and respect. As a result, this has now created a space where we can have formal, open, and honest conversations, where we can openly disagree with each other without falling out. If our relationships had remained transactional, as they had been in the past, this would not have been possible.

So, what factors have helped to foster these successful relationships?

Nurturing Long-Term Collaborations

Our enduring partnerships with community-led and research organisations stand as a testament to our shared commitment to fostering meaningful relationships alongside accomplishing project goals. Over time, we have discovered that consistency in people involved plays a crucial role in effective collaboration, as it strengthens bonds and fosters mutual support. While maintaining consistency of people involved may present challenges, such as time constraints and differing opinions, the mutual respect and open communication cultivated over time enable us to navigate these differences effectively in coproduction settings.

Our diverse communities face unique challenges that demand diverse approaches to solutions. Through our shared commitment to addressing these challenges, we have engaged in discussions about both common and specific issues. For instance, our communities grapple with significant health disparities, and our collaborative efforts have focused on addressing these inequalities by sharing knowledge and expertise through co-produced podcasts, research proposals, and presentations at partner events. These working relationships are constantly evolving and getting stronger.

Trusting relationships

Trust is the cornerstone of our co-production relationships. We cannot overemphasise the importance of trust in this process. Co-production requires us to entrust others with personal experiences, power, and responsibilities. Our unwavering commitment has been to build trust within our communities and with those who seek to work with them. The past few years have allowed us to cultivate this trust with community partners and researchers. The Reaching Out project has provided valuable exposure to working opportunities with researchers while serving as a safe space to build trust and relationships.

Having fun!

Working on projects should be an enjoyable experience, and our collaborations have been no exception. We have learned that finding joy and passion in our work is essential. The anticipation of catching up with colleagues or sharing a brilliant new idea – these are just a few of the elements that make co-production both rewarding and enjoyable.

Sharing power/Being involved on an equal footing

We – the community organisations -wanted to be involved on an equal footing. We wanted to present issues our communities were facing, and we as an organisation wanted, alongside our communities to be involved in research that was meaningful and impactful. We did not just want to be a name on a piece of paper but wanted to develop, guide and be involved at every step of the research process. Sensitivity towards the needs of the ethnically diverse communities we represent is paramount to us. We are aware that in research projects there can often be a power imbalance between researchers and community-led organisations. So, to ensure this wasn’t the case we recruited members of the diverse communities as community researchers. This platform, the Reaching Out Project, has provided us with an opportunity to co-explore with researchers some research needs that can be addressed by joint research.

Learning from one another

We have learnt a lot about ethics, and governance and some of the challenges academic researchers may face. They often face risk and budget constraints that community organisations are not always aware of. Indeed, until we started working in these long-term relationships, we weren't aware of the constraints they face. Likewise, as a result, we have also had the opportunity to provide them with our local knowledge and expertise about their specific needs as well as providing insight into some of the challenges community-led organisations face when trying to conduct research. It has been a learning process, not without its challenges, for example, the limitations of involving small community-led organisations when there is no financial support for involvement beyond making connections with the participants.  Another challenge we identified is that not everyone knows what co-production means and how to do it well, both within our communities and also within the research world.  But has it been worth it? Of course! The results speak for themselves as services, research and people's lives have been improved!

"Researchers need to be comfortable with dealing with uncomfortableness."

Community member who took part in the Reaching Out Project

Co-production isn’t all about consensus.  The trust we have built up means that we are all comfortable in disagreeing with other.  We have that safe space.  We have those adult discussions where we disagree agreeably, listen to each other and the different pressures we have to address and audiences we have to satisfy, and then work out a way forward. 

Dr Gary Hickey

If you have any feedback or questions about this blog, please contact Patrick Nyikavaranda at

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