Stepping into Their Shoes: Building Empathy for Community Champions in Research

Public and patient involvement in research (PPI) is essential. It ensures diverse voices and lived experiences are woven into research design, leading to more impactful results. But finding the right participants can be a challenge. That’s where Community Champions come in – a trusted member of the community who can bridge the gap between researchers and the communities they want to connect with. Understanding their role is crucial for successful public and patient involvement.

This blog explores “A Mile in Their Shoes,” an immersive workshop we designed and piloted with 17 researchers last month to help with this challenge!

“Looking forward to “A Mile In Their Shoes” pilot this afternoon. Exploring the juggling role of community champions and the golden thread that they can bring to the tapestry of research.”

 – Aneela McAvoy from ARC GM, via X

Beginning with Empathy: Have you ever walked in these shoes?

The workshop began with us asking researchers to shed their shoes and focus on a shoe rack full of shoes in the centre of the room. These shoes, we told them, are the shoes of Community Champions.

“‘Have you ever walked in these shoes’?” We sang together, “‘have you ever walked in these shoes?”

We asked the researchers to choose a pair of these shoes and, when they felt ready, we invited them to put them on, lace them up, and, while some music played, take a walk around the room. Let the shoes tell you about the Community Champion they belong to, we told them. Really imagine the challenges your Champion faces: the competing demands on their time, and the immense responsibility of advocating for and supporting their communities day in and day out.

Then we asked them to return to their seat, take off the Champion’s shoes and place them next to their own and notice: “These shoes might not be so different from your own. The person and role these shoes represent may not be so different from you.”

“‘Have you ever walked in these shoes?”

Hearing The Voices of Community Champions

With the shoes still in front of them, we opened up discussion around the challenges and opportunities for researchers and Community Champions to work together. We played audio clips of our Community Champions sharing their thoughts and reflections too. These firsthand accounts provided a powerful counterpoint to the symbolic act of wearing their shoes at the start of the workshop.

Lively Discussion

The discussion we had was wide-ranging, with researchers sharing their experiences and thoughts. Some didn’t know about Community Champions before today, or how they could be helpful at making connections for their research projects, while others had worked with them before and were curious about how to work with them differently and better.

After the discussion, we invited people to put the shoes of their Community Champion back on the rack and put their own shoes back on their feet, symbolising the transition back to their own roles.

“Have you ever walked these shoes?” We sang again, “Have you ever walked in these shoes?”

Shared Understanding, Stronger Partnerships

Finally, we asked participants to reflect on what they would take away from the workshop. Here are some of the things they said:

  • “Made me think about barriers more, but also about opportunities.”
  • “Appreciation for the hard work of community champions”
  • “Inspiration for how I can try to address some of the barriers/challenges that researchers present to community champions – e.g. giving more time!”

The Journey Continues

We invite you to join us in continuing the journey towards community-powered research. Sign up here for our free PDF best practice guide and hear directly from our Community Champions themselves in some handy audio clips.

Click here to hear a little taster and listen to our Community Champions describe their shoes:

This work was funded by NHS England, as part of the ICS Research Engagement Network (REN) Development Programme. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of NHS England, the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.  This initiative aims to address the lack of representation and systemic barriers in health and care research. You can read more about this brilliant work here.

Don’t forget to sign up for our free PDF best practice guide on working with community champions.

For more information about how Made By Mortals can support your project including a quote, please email or call 0161 804 2078