Being a link between the academic world and local communities

by Lisa McKenzie

Coming into Higher Education as a 30 year old mum was daunting to say the least. I arrived at the University of Nottingham in 2000 as an under-graduate on the joint honours course of Sociology and Social Policy. Even though I had lived in Nottinghamshire for all of my life until this point I had never been into the University, or even onto the grounds of the University. I knew little of the University, and was ignorant to the process, and the practices which went on within it. I believe now it was my ignorance to higher education which led me to this particular Russell Group Institution. In all honesty had I known, I would be one of only 4 mature students in a year of about 150 students, and the only student who lived on a council estate, I probably would have gone to Nottingham Trent University, the route that other local people in Nottingham had taken into higher education. However there I was, meeting young privately educated people for the first time. I remember trying to explain the poll tax to them, what it was, and why it was wrong, and realising like Dorothy I was not in Kansas anymore.

From day one my interest in Sociology was inequality, social class, and community studies, although at the time I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it in that way. My dream was to research the neighbourhood where I lived, St Ann’s a council estate in Nottingham, I had been inspired to do this by a book written in the 1960’s by Ken Coates and Bill Silburn ‘Poverty the Forgotten Englishman’. I realised this ambition in 2009 when I submitted my PhD thesis ‘Finding Value on a council estate: Complex lives, Motherhood and Exclusion’.

I knew very early on as a mature student that higher education is a special gift and also the importance of Sociology, it had changed my life, and I remember the enlightened moment I had while sitting in a lecture that my failure to go to University as an 18 year old, or my failure to attain decent qualifications at school was not my failure, but the failure of a structure, and of a system that needed neat and clear classifications of who you were, and what you were entitled to based on social class. I also realised that the University of Nottingham was an extremely privileged place with vast resources, most of which went un-used for large parts of the year.

Throughout the PhD research I was often enraged moving between the University and my local community, witnessing and seeing the massive inequalities even in a small City like Nottingham. My local community, in actual fact even my family didn’t really know what I was doing, or what others did at the University, I have often said it is like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, people go in, you don’t know them and they are not from your community, and you don’t know what happens in there. I felt the unfairness of this sharply, and also encountered the University’s reluctance in engaging in any real way with the local community. There are individuals working in Universities who almost wear themselves out, and teetering on the edge of nervous breakdown trying to do work in the local community, or fighting inequalities in other ways, this is on top of their jobs, very little of what they do is officially recognised, and supported. I have also met others who work in academia who are ‘off the radar’ and are unlikely to be interested in real community engagement unless it is somehow linked to their careers, or the Impact Agenda or the REF.

Because my research was based in the local community, and because of the stark inequalities and unfairness I felt and because of my own social position, but also because Sociology changes something within you, where ignoring social inequities becomes impossible, I was available and motivated to working and becoming a link between the academic world and my local community in Nottingham.

Over the years at the University of Nottingham, I was engaged in many different projects, some worked, on one occasion the Lakeside Arts Centre at the University paid for 50 members of the St Ann’s Community to come and see Ken Coates and Bill Silburn’s film connected to the ‘Poverty the Forgotten Englishman’ study, and see a photographic exhibition of ‘Nottingham Life’ where the stills from Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 film based on his book ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ were shown. Other things did not go so well, I used my contacts with a local Youth Worker who has actually got an MBE for his voluntary work with gangs in the City, to have a meeting with the University of Nottingham sports department in trying to set up a football match between local young people, and the University of Nottingham’s team, the response from the University was that it was too much of a risk, because the young people might want to come back at night. This was a low point during my research at the University of Nottingham, and I struggled to continue. The people from my community had been told they were not welcome, and after that I was suspicious that neither was I.

I think because of the community and voluntary work I have undertaken over the years, and also because of the nature of my research, I am very honest about my own background when I write, which I believe has made me appear approachable. Therefore I get many requests to speak at community centres, schools and colleges all over the country now. I try very hard to go to as many of them as possible. I was recently at Ruskin College where I spoke to a group of mainly working class mature students. I was very proud of this, as Ruskin College was the only University my parents had heard of. I received an email from a student afterwards who was in the audience who said she had felt very alone in the academic process, and described herself as ‘an ex-care girl from a mining town’ who thought she had nothing to give to sociology her last words were ‘and then there was you’. I cried all night when I read her email. I know that our participation as Sociologists in the fight for social justice, whether that is through working directly or indirectly with those who are at the sharp end of inequality is as important to the discipline of Sociology as is the academic reading, writing and teaching we do in our institutions, and I take this responsibility seriously. I know that not all of us can engage in local communities in the same way as I do, we all have different strengths and skill sets, and passions. However to think about Sociology as a subject we learn, and then teach only to those who have the cultural, social and economic capital to get themselves into institutions of higher education, is not how I understand our discipline of Sociology, and this is not the Sociology which will benefit anyone either inside or outside of the University. It could be argued that my philosophy is in conflict with the institutions that employ me, but I don’t think it is; I’ll quote my mentor and friend Professor John Holmwood,

‘I am committed to my discipline rather than my institution, my commitment to my discipline therefore makes me a good employee and consequently committed to my institution’.

Lisa McKenzie is a research fellow at the London School of Economics. She previously held an Early Career Leverhulme Research Fellowship conducting a re-study of the 1970 St Anns ‘Poverty’ study, focusing upon the changing shapes of community, family, and belonging in contemporary Britain. She is writing a book on this research to be published by Policy Press in early 2014.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Higher Education

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1 reply »

  1. Indeed, the more lower-class students understand the role vast social structures play in the formation of their perspectives and in their relatively bad school performance, the less they will blame themselves about it. Keep on!

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