June 29, 2022
Being a member of Co-Production Collective's staff team has been a privilege and a joy. I might have spent a good chunk of the last few years struggling to explain what my job actually is… but that means I’ve also been able to spend every day championing co-production and building relationships with incredible people from so many different backgrounds. I can’t really convey how much I’ve learnt from you all; the best I can do is to say a heartfelt thank you. But I can say that our four core values now run through me like a stick of rock. Not that I always live up to them perfectly - far from it. But they help shape the way I do my job, view the world and relate to other people.
I genuinely believe that these four values are the foundation for change. There's no such thing as the perfect co-production project but if we're being led by our values first and foremost, then we're heading in the right direction. Here are a few of my reflections on being human, inclusive, transparent and challenging.
For me, being human means being kind, compassionate and always trying to see where someone is coming from. This can feel like a big ask (especially when we read the news or log onto Twitter) but I really do feel that this approach is how we will begin to heal some of the divisions fracturing our society. We’re all human before we’re anything else - listening and learning from each other is how we will regain more of what we share than what separates us.
Nowhere is this more obvious than the Co-Pro Cuppas. They’re the highlight of my month because they’re truly unique. The virtual room is filled with such a variety of people, most of whom would never normally meet, yet the conversations flow and we come away feeling energised, inspired and motivated to keep on keeping on. People don’t shy away from difficult topics, but they work towards seeing and understanding contrasting perspectives with a grace which feels pretty rare elsewhere. I feel so lucky to have got to know and spend time with so many of you through this space (and I hope one day to do that with you in person!).
Our co-pro community really is one where everyone is welcome. But being inclusive, I now understand, goes far deeper than statements like this, important as they are. Power and privilege can be hard to see when we hold them, which makes it even more crucial that we do. Whilst their visible manifestations – our racial privilege, for example – may broadly stay the same, the intangible markings ebb and flow from one situation to the next, often in relation to other people.
To truly be inclusive, we must be attentive to this, acknowledge it where appropriate, and take the steps we can to ensure that those with the least power and privilege are able to participate on their own terms. It’s problematic to suggest we can ‘empower’ others, but we can work to rebalance power dynamics and tackle barriers to access, as well as acknowledging our own positions and stepping aside for others.
Co-Production Collective genuinely strives to be a community where our multifaceted identities, experiences and knowledge aren’t labelled or questioned, but embraced. That said, there’s still more to do and we must hold ourselves accountable, even - perhaps especially - when that feels uncomfortable.
Why do we feel the need to pretend that we have all the answers? I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t. Yet this is far more common an approach than being transparent and open about what we don’t know. Similarly, assumptions about other people or situations only ever seem to get in the way or lead to misunderstandings. There’s so much more we can do when we lay it all out on the table, acknowledge our own limitations and work together in a true partnership which builds from our strengths, but also seeks to broaden them.
Some of the most common concerns raised by those running co-production projects from an organisational or professional perspective involve the fear that ideas will develop which cannot be achieved in practice. But this happens when people join a project with expectations which aren’t discussed, or when funding or timeline limitations aren’t communicated. My advice is usually the same and very simple – have these conversations! Ask people to share what they’re hoping for and make it clear from the start what this piece of work can and can’t influence. This doesn’t mean restricting ideas or shutting down hopes for more – all these ambitions are evidence of what change is really needed – but it does mean distinguishing between those and the smaller (but still valuable) steps you can take together now.
Last but not least, challenging. This is probably hardest of our core values to do alone and can be seen as a negative. But being challenging (or causing ‘good trouble’) can be so powerful and transformative when practised together.
There is so much that needs to change in the way that research, policy, and services are designed and delivered, not to mention in terms of who is valued our wider society. Despite this, the growth of the co-production movement and Co-Production Collective, in the wake of the pandemic, does give me hope. We’ve seen what can happen when we do things differently, when an external challenge forces us to rethink the structures and processes which organise our lives, and who is involved in them.
It can be difficult to hold onto this sometimes, especially we’re still hearing or experiencing so many examples of faux-pro and tokenism rather than values-led practice. But when I look back at where we were in 2018 and where we are now – both in terms of Co-Production Collective and the recognition given to co-production more generally - the journey we’ve been on really is worth celebrating. As we move into another period of consolidation and change, this special community of co-producers is getting stronger, louder and harder to ignore.
Taking the decision to leave Co-Production Collective as a member of staff has been a real personal challenge, one of head versus heart. But the beauty of Co-Production Collective is that this doesn't need to a proper goodbye. We’re a movement of anyone and everyone interested in co-production and that very much still includes me. I might be taking my staff badge off, but I am firmly keeping my co-producer badge on and look forward to sharing the next steps on this journey with you all.