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Social Reporting and Civic/Citizen Activism – reflections from recent workshops in Belfast/East Renfrewshire

Back in April, I was invited over back over to Belfast by Democracy Society NI to deliver a day long workshop on ‘social reporting‘ with community groups who were connected to the Building Change Trust programme.

I really love visiting Belfast. After my tall ship sailing experience last summer between Liverpool, Belfast and Glasgow – sailing between ports in a week, you can see the shared histories and similarities between the three cities, and I have the same warm feeling I have for the others as I do for Glasgow – like a sense of belonging that I still have even when Glasgow drives me nuts.

Without going into a potted history, Northern Ireland has a long standing history of community development, cohesion, management – and the Building Change Trust (BCT) work (funded by the Big Lottery) is an extension of that, if more focused on funding ideas and approaches beyond simply managing status quo.

So there are two things happening here – community work in the context of Northern Ireland, and community media in the context of wider trends in community work. In some way, NI has a head start in some regard – because it has had to – but in other terms, some of the stuff we might take for granted in Scotland, could not happen in the same way.

Therefore, it was unusual to have a request for workshop specifically on the practice and concept of social reporting – where BCT detail the activity and process as a defined term and process on their website, and as a form of civic activism.

This was actually the first time I’d been involved in a intervention where seen term being used in this way.

In my experience of teaching and workshopping this stuff, like citizen journalism, social reporting sometimes garners the response of being a bit ‘edgy‘ or ‘risky‘ or not considered ‘proper‘ journalism/media making. It doesn’t claim to be – it can compliment the other stuff, but I’ve heard and experienced a lot of unnecessary comparisons. It can be both a gateway – and a alternative to and doesn’t need to challenge or replace existing models.

Perhaps this is because I work within and with bigger institutions as my day job, where actually these more ‘informal‘ practices are normally associated with grassroots activism, fringe activity, or even just things that we do that is situated more in practice, therefore it is assumed that these things that can be conceptually or formally taught.

This usually makes the definition – or a request for a particular type of workshop, intervention – more interesting to negotiate and plan, mainly as it requires a lot of context, storytelling and demonstration of worth – compared to (assumed technical) workshops in say, social media, or web development – where there are a shared understanding of what it might look like before the workshop takes place. I tend to do the social media workshop, but build social reporting into the workshop as an exercise- I never call it that but I use it as an option for content creation – mainly because I worry if I call it citizen journalism, it might ‘scare’ people, seen as too risky – so I mash it up like carrots in baby food and feed it to people in a more familiar language they might understand.

Anyway, my point – what made this invitation interesting was that I was met with a description and definition of social reporting before I arrived. BCT have and promote full toolkit of civic activism tools that social reporting is situated within – it was very refreshing – and a fantastic reference point where to build my own practice as a trainer and a researcher in this area.

I’ve found that since delivering this workshop, I am explicitly calling this practice ‘social reporting’ now, rather an exercise within the practice of digital storytelling (which is kind of the same thing but not, but we used it a lot during digital commonwealth – as it was about storytelling, rather than reporting-on activity) – and recent conversations I’ve had about new projects have included the requirement for social reporting – if it is part of an event’s media, an opportunity for training for community groups, or a more light-touch intervention where you are encouraging people to capture their activity as they do it to save them time later on.

Even just the process of seeing how media is prepared and constructed – the process is far more interesting than the final product that is created, although a well made product using accessible tools is also a benefit. It’s all important.

Also, by offering different scenarios where the same language and tools can be used, it gives the people who are curious about trying social reporting various entry points to do so. I am still using #citizenrelay and digital commonwealth as my main case studies, as they were large projects – connected to major events – and probably the largest, unique, unusual intervention that could possibly happen – but they are social reporting, digital storytelling, citizen journalism AMPLIFIED, much like how the major events themselves are sunday five-a-side, riverside festival, country fete, coffee morning AMPLIFIED. 

If you can deliver and operate on that scale, then scaling down is almost desirable.

Similarly, I always borrow the term from John Coster – “the cutting edge of mundane” – the interviews, the recordings, the capturing, can all be things that are already general word of mouth or activity that is already happening. I’m currently drafting this in the Whiteinch Community Centre cafe, home of the Whiteinch News – surrounded by noticeboards about activities that happen, will happen, have happened.

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All of which are great opportunities for practicing and undertaking social reporting – people coming together, stories and glimpses into the life and soul of the community. For connected stakeholders (funders, community builders, participants) – evidence, illustrations, archives, without going into too much formality. It’s interesting and engaging at the heart – but also an opportunity to discuss issues and challenges of digital ethics and rights, permissions, online safety, ownership of content.

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Since Belfast, I’ve been asked to support the growth of social reporting in other places- I’ve just spent two days working with East Renfrewshire Council, training young people to work on the recent launch of the Corporate Parenting initiative “East Renfrewshire Help Us Grow”.

Social reporting allowed for the young people to approach key stakeholders who were in attendance of the event and have a key role in the promotion of pledging the role of corporate parenting in their organisation. By focussing on the skills such as interviewing and research, they managed to secure permissions to use the footage, asked questions (rather than a corporate media team doing it on their behalf) and be part of the process where they are beginning to have a say and to meet these people on a more equal level.

Again, these videos do not need to be polished and the final product – but it was great to see them look for good lighting, sound and ensure they didn’t need to do much editing afterwards.

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So social reporting, we have the event and ‘call to action’ based stuff – where else could we use this in our practice?