Politics students and academics from Sheffield’s universities took the Brexit debate out on to the streets to gauge opinions in a city community, which predominantly voted to leave the EU.
The Brexit on the Valley outreach event took place in Gleadless Valley in an attempt to cultivate a positive relationship between members of the community and the universities.
A discussion took place at Gleadless Methodist Church, during which participants discussed a series of questions about Brexit. The second part of the event took place in the John O’ Gaunt pub.
It is the first time staff and students from both universities have worked together on a politics outreach project.
Prior to the event last Friday, students spent time knocking on doors in the area to hand out invitations to residents and ask them four questions: What does Brexit mean to you?, what do politicians need to hear?, what don’t the experts know? and what can universities do?
Dr Knut Roder, principal lecturer in politics at Sheffield Hallam University, said: “We wanted to flip the classroom, reach out to members of the Gleadless community and find out more about the concerns and issues people face in Gleadless. We wanted to talk about the all-domineering topic of Brexit but learn what it means to locals and how the universities can support the residents there.
“The questions were debated one after another with plenty of engagement and always in a positive and respectful way, even when disagreements were clearly voiced.
“We would like to see more conversations going on between the people of Sheffield and the universities so that we can serve everybody in the community by amplifying local concerns and doing our bit as a civic university to help address local needs.”
He added: “It was a great experience to engage with the people of Gleadless in a two-way dialogue and we hope this is the beginning of a new level of engagement.”
Matthew Wood, lecturer in politics at The University of Sheffield said: “Organising this event at Gleadless Valley Methodist Church was a real eye-opener for me. Sheffield is so divided in terms of the areas that voted leave and remain, and we wanted to let people have their say who we don’t usually talk to in our ‘remain-heavy’ part of the city. We worked with The Friends of Gleadless Valley to design a flyer and distribute it to as many residents on the estate as possible.
“At the event we made sure local residents got to speak their minds on a broad set of questions, while university staff sat and listened for most of the hour and a half session. I saw people angry and frustrated with Brexit, feeling they don’t have a say about all kinds of issues ranging from jobs and health to local democracy and food banks.
“The people who came weren’t uninformed or uneducated, but they did speak about feeling patronised and side-lined by politicians. One local resident even suggested there should be a ‘people’s parliament’ to give the public a more direct say in decision making. We’re looking forward to working with Friends of Gleadless Valley again to reach out to more people in the area and continue this collaboration between our two great universities’ politics departments.”
William McGahey a BA politics student at Sheffield Hallam University, said: “It was interesting to hear often deeply personal opinions from people that sometimes struggle to be heard, and it was a privilege to have the opportunity to be involved in a project that aims to enable their voices to be heard. I hope this will be the start of a long-term relationship between the universities and communities in Sheffield, so we can develop a two-way relationship based on listening and learning from each other.”
Szilvia Mattinson, also a BA Politics student at Sheffield Hallam said: “I really enjoyed being part of this event. I was surprised how desperate people were to make their voices heard and that they wanted to come together to share their feelings and opinions. It was great how well everyone got on, regardless of their differences. It felt like a bit of a counselling session, facilitated by the universities. I think it was beneficial for everyone who was there, the locals and university staff and the students.”
Dr Roder said key concerns among residents included the provision of community services in Gleadless, a perceived lack of employment opportunities, increasing levels of poverty, more reliance on the foodbank, infrastructure development issues and financial problems caused by Universal Credit. He said some residents had linked the issues to Europe and Brexit, while other participants rejected such a notion.
He said the university representatives discussed practical ways in which the universities could help and engage with Gleadless residents, with ideas including homework help, workshops, education provision, schools outreach projects and facilitating meetings with decision makers.