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Case study: Meaningful Allyship: a Reflection

CRN Project Manager Duncan Courtney reflects on the challenges presented for inclusion during the pandemic, and what he has learned from the Ethnic Minority Research Inclusion (EMRI) group.

Some challenges present themselves, and some are presented to you. In 2020 the particular challenge faced by my colleagues and I was to establish a response to the facts that (a) people from minority ethnic communities have historically been under-represented in health research and (b) these same citizens experience worse outcomes as COVID-19 sufferers. The response required us to find inclusive ways to engage minority ethnic communities so that members could understand the value of their participation in health research, particularly in the face of a new, deadly and rapidly spreading disease.

Almost two years later I’m privileged to still be working with the group of people who came together to take that challenge on. Describing ourselves as the “Ethnic Minorities Research Inclusion” group, we’ve become an established presence in the health research landscape in our region through activities such as the work of funded Research Hub Leads, webinars and partnering with other organisations and community groups. We are an active Network of research staff and members of the public from across the Yorkshire and Humber region, working alongside the Clinical Research Network Yorkshire and Humber, with a shared interest in increasing levels of participation in health research within Ethnic Minority communities throughout Yorkshire and Humber. How have we managed to sustain our enthusiasm and momentum throughout these difficult months?

Reflecting on the experience it seems to me that the following factors have and continue to contribute to the group’s effectiveness.

  • A clear, simple and shared aim was established very early in the group’s life. Everyone in the group understands and buys into the aim, and we revisit the aim often in discussions to help retain focus.
  • The EMRI group has a strong listening ethic, which has been consistently modelled by the project leaders.
  • Collective and mutual respect for the knowledge and experience in the group is a fundamental factor. This has grown as the group has developed in the usual process of forming, storming, norming and now performing.
  • The group values and respects the individual and collective creativity amongst our membership. This has helped us carve an agenda that addresses serious and substantial issues relating to the relationship between clinical research and citizens in minority ethnic communities and a range of contributory solutions aimed at addressing these issues.
  • Membership of EMRI is based fundamentally on the individual’s interest and ability, and freedom to act. The level of involvement is entirely based on an individual’s capacity and availability.
  • In the light of all the above, the group operates on the principle that “the leader is the person who knows what to do next”, be that practical or theoretical. In this sense, the group is consultative as well as active.
  • Our model for decision making is consensus to allow for differences of opinion with the facility to opt for acceptable choices. We do have a term of reference to manage locked decisions with a chair’s vote but have never had to resort to this.
  • Finally, the Clinical Research Network is a facilitating partner, rather than a controlling entity. Practically the CRN has funded our three hub leads and provided project coordination. The CRN has not restricted the group in formulating its vision and mission, investing considerable trust in the integrity and activities of the EMRI group. This has encouraged group members to think creatively and act relatively independently in delivering the group’s stated aim.

It’s worth stressing that the characteristics described above were brought about by a combination of leadership style and participant values taken through the process of group development, rather than being predetermined outcomes. The EMRI group has provided a forum to which individuals have brought their own commitment and passion, becoming part of a collective expression of a wish for things to be better.

The EMRI group experience has been described to me through the lens of Allyship. One description of allyship suggests that those who dominate institutional leadership roles should realise that they must personally step up to make organisations more fair and inclusive, meaning that they should play a truly personal and active role in helping marginalised colleagues advance. This position does seem to reflect the EMRI experience both institutionally (expressed in the CRNs position as a facilitating partner) and individually (in our listening ethic, collective respect and support and the philosophy that “the leader is the person who knows what to do next” and should be supported in that capacity).

Readers may point to other aspects of allyship that may not be made explicit here, for example, the position that allyship should also call out and challenge systems of inequality and prejudice. To my mind, EMRI is a very meaningful, positive and empowering embodiment of that ethic.

On a final and personal note, I should say that the last eighteen months spent with EMRI have been some of the most enriching of my life (I’m 62 years old). My experience as the project manager for the group has been by turns daunting, exhilarating, frustrating, humbling and (sometimes) joyful. EMRI has taken me to places of reflection that have been (and continue to be) new, challenging and, I hope, growthful.

As a person who tends to an introverted and facilitative nature, writing this piece has been its own challenge. I’m seldom happier than when I see a person develop or progress and from that perspective my involvement with EMRI has been a privilege.