By:  Eileen Wattam, University of Salford, School of Media, Music & Performance

The following seeks to summaries the ways in which People’s Voice Media’s Community Reporters Programme is contributing to community empowerment and is linked with urban and community regeneration.

The summary is based on preliminary findings of a wider PhD research project focused on identifying whether and how social media is linked with a potential for community empowerment and regeneration. The summary draws predominately on eighteen semi-structured interviews with Community Reporters and participant and non-participant observation carried out between March and September 2009. The study is focused on the integration of the Community Reporters Programme within key regeneration areas in Charlestown and Lower Kersal in Salford and East Manchester and can thus be viewed as part of a wider picture of urban and community regeneration.

The Community Reporters Programme is centred on using technology to empower people by enabling participants to express themselves and tell their stories about their lives or about their local area online using a range of social media tools. The programme is benefiting and being benefited by people from a range of different backgrounds including people who may be categorised as digitally excluded within popular and political discourses including the unemployed, asylum seekers, and people affected by homelessness, ill health and disabilities.

Interviews with Community Reporters reveal that the programme is contributing to empowerment through the development of psychological and social power at the individual level along with the potential for enhancing personal economic power. Evidence of the contribution to the interlinked areas of psychological and social power at the individual level include community reporters referring to an association between participation in the programme and; increased self confidence and self worth and a sense of importance and value within the community; overcoming periods of isolation and depression through building a sense of connectedness with people and the local community; enhanced communication skills, making friends and an improving social life, forging links and connections with people within the community.

The programme also has a role in economic empowerment and in particular there is evidence that it has contributed to people rehabilitating their lives for employment, self employment and further education in the creative industries after a period of ill health or personal crisis. The development of political power i.e. the power to voice opinions, to influence decision making and engage in collective efforts to bring about change is interpreted as lying at the heart of community empowerment and its relationship with regeneration.  Some Community Reporters referred to an enhanced capacity to express their viewpoints and Community Reporters also contribute to the potential development of political power through giving a voice to and promoting local community groups and events.

Ways in which the programme is linked to regeneration include;

  • Community reporters working together and present views and opinions on local environments, services and regeneration programmes
  • use of the community reporting approach to promote community groups and initiatives and counter negative mainstream media reports of areas through promoting the positive aspects of communities.
  • Meeting with and interviewing local politicians was also an area identified as empowering.

The views of some of the Community Reporters, however, suggest that the potential of the programme for political empowerment is an area which is not as yet being optimised. Preliminary findings suggest that the role of social media in contributing to community empowerment through the Community Reporters Programme is shaped by an approach to digital inclusion which moves beyond simple provision of access and basic skills by fostering a context within which cultural and social forms of technological capital (i.e. the development of technological knowledge and skills and networks of technological contacts and sources of support), can thrive and be constantly developed.

The Social Media Centres, distribution channels, online mail out systems; training and ‘drop-in’ sessions and the associated support of staff and volunteers and the non-traditional, flexible approach to learning and opportunities for peer learning all play a vital role in developing such forms of capital and in engagement. Integrating opportunities to; volunteer for assignments, discuss and be exposed to a range of technologies informally, borrow equipment and attend social events are all associated with these forms of capital and with sustained engagement.

The role of social media is also, the findings suggest, shaped by interpretations of the value and meaning of social media at an individual and collective level and the changing nature of the technologies involved themselves. Social Media for example in this case is projected as valuable for ‘community’ and ‘community reporting’ and thus attracts people who may identify with this meaning which has been assigned to the use of social media.

The identity of ‘a community reporter’ and the badge which accompanies was, for example, linked to feelings of empowerment. Many participants also have existing interests and interpretations of how social media may be useful in their lives and within society and thus the value of social media for community empowerment is ultimately shaped by the personal and community orientated goals and motivations of participants. The increasing accessibility of the technologies involved themselves also influences value in this context in terms of increasing portability, affordability and usability. The actual process of being able to go into communities and talk to people with the technology is, for example, a key aspect of empowerment in this context. The opportunity to reach a global audience and number of people viewing content is also associated with feelings of empowerment.

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