PARC through 2020: Thoughts from the Intern – Elliot James

Joining the Perivoli Africa Research Centre in March 2020 as their Communications and Administration internworked two (which I look back on fondly) full days in the office, lockdown was imposed, and the great migration to the cloud beganHere are some thoughts in reflection on the past year …  

As 2020 draws to a close and we, as a teamlook back over all the work that has gone into the development of PARC during the last twelve months – the early mornings and late nights, weekend working and midweek webinarsproposals and programmesblogs (!), all of the events either hosted by or attended to, and the countless conferences, consultationsand conversations with our community and beyond – a comforting sense of satisfaction can be felt among all those who have been there at some point along the way and formed a part of what has been achieved. And it needn’t be said again, but all amidst the most turbulent year in living memory!  

In these early months of the year when talk of pandemics and lockdowns and vaccines dominated vast chunks of both the online and offline worlds, we undertook our initial scoping period. A process in which we sought to understand the nature of the relevant debates, initiatives, opportunities, and needs in both the UK and Africa to which PARC may be responsive. During this first wade out into the inequitably balanced and (at present) rather murky waters of North-South research partnerships, we gathered pertinent data on existing UoB-Africa research, sparked conversations with potential partners in the continent, and surveyed in a deeper sense the critical literature with which we would be dealing. From this, an initial sense of where the Centre could add value, and how, was distilled 

As the months marched on and restrictions were being imposed around the world, a few rather delicate challenges were generated, or perhaps coughed up as we made our way through the (at the time) vaguely charted lands of Zoom, Skype, Teams, and *shudder* – Google Meets. The issues associated with navigating our way across time zones and geographical locations to schedule meetings certainly required a few months before being fully ironed out, though from April we began what in hindsight is best described as our ‘positioning’ period. Following a little further this ‘initial sense’ of the previous months, our positioning was informed and discussed at length with many key actors, colleagues, and individuals in both Africa and the UK, from which our first strategy was derived, sense made of our internal structure, and plans laid for the pursual of our Capstone Programmes, and key anchoring partnerships.  

As these strategic nuts and bolts were being gleamed and tightened, preparations were underway for the reveal and launch of the Centre to an internal University of Bristol audience. On July 15thwe launched the PARC website after several months construction and hosted a soft launch event to interested members of staff, students, and governance teams – this was our first step into the unknown, a wild leap of faith, a lunge in the darkness. These are all overly dramatic ways to say, more simply, we were nervous – though looking back we can happily say that it went wonderfully wellThe sense of intrigue and excitement engendered among our colleagues from this slight drawing of the PARC curtain blew strong currents of wind through the latest iteration of our sails, thrusting us forward as we embarked on a period of more concrete planning. It was fantastic to have received this first seal of approval on all the hard work that had been poured into center over the months 

The next step was to think up ways to ensure we were building on the feedback we received in the aftermath of the launch. We further elaborated on the Centre’s strategy, developed concepts and proposals for a number of initiatives and projects, including our three Capstone Areas: and established the internal management and external advisory boards.  

As the initial development phase of the Centre came to rest as the year entered summer, the focus was shifted to our active role in the organisation and delivery of various events, webinars, programmesconsultations, and the development of a healthy community to generate momentum to carry us safely and securely into 2021. Our work in the advancement of these areas of activity has maintained a steady progress, leading us down paths that have been varied and numerous. To give a taste of the work, here are some highlights:  

  • We co-convened our first webinar in collaboration with the Bristol Poverty Institute (BPI), which took place on 12th November, focusing on the Poverty and Inequality dimensions of COVID-19 in Africa. This event brought together a panel of fantastic speakers from BPI, Transforming Education for Sustainable Futures (TESF), World Vision and PARC to provide various perspectives and insights into the impacts on youth, vulnerable, and elderly demographics as they cope with life in the context of a pandemic. (Watch and read the write up here 
  • On November 18th“Re-imagining UK education research partnerships in the South: prospects for mutual and equitable relationships” was hosted by the University of Bristol’s TESF network, and contributed to our Director Isabella Aboderin who participated in the panel. This event was another great success, uplifting PARC’s profile within the university and more broadly across African educational research networks. One of the most poignant achievements of this session was the emergence of interest in the development of a multi-disciplinary African Partnerships Charter, which PARC is taking forward into the new year with partners in the UK and Africa. (Watch the event here) 

We also co-convened two webinars with the Worldwide Universities Network’s (WUN) Global Africa Group (GAG).  

  • The first was held on 16th November centering on the virtual launch of a new Global Africa Group bookAfrica and the Sustainable Development Goals, one of the first academic publications to comprehensively and critically engage with the intersection of the SDGs and African development agendas.  
  • The second was held on 15th December, and took the format of a co-creation workshop to establish common frames of reference for GAG’s two year initiative, in conjunction with PARC, on ‘Challenging existing orthodoxies in global North-Africa research and knowledge production’. 

As the guy running the social media accounts (and mailbox!) over the past nine months, I will say that I’m incredibly happy with not only the warmth of reception that PARC has been given by various internal and external audiences, colleagues, and partners, but the depth of communication and engagement that has been steadily and consistently growing since the very beginning. Interacting with, speaking to, and learning from so many different people in many different walks of life, doing many different and interesting things has really been a pleasure.  

When making our way along some of these winding paths, we’ve had to turn around and trundle our way back to where we came, in others, various juicy pieces of low-hanging fruit have presented themselves in timely fashion for our refreshment and led to the invigoration of new projects, whilst others we have missed or thrown awayHowever, there can be one thing noted for certain; its clear from PARC’s first year of exploration and development that there are many, many avenues of discovery out there, and what the team has done and achieved so far has been fantastic, and excitinglyis just the beginning. This is in no small part due to the tireless inputs of Isabella, Susie, and Robfeel lucky to have formed a part of this journey and to have shared it with them, if only for a little bit of the way, and simply put the Centre wouldn’t be what it is now or have the incredibly exciting future it does without the energy and (probably often sweaty) efforts of these three. The next intern will have a blast.  

To run with the metaphor just a little longer and wrap this up; the hope for PARC in the years to come is to play the role of both innovator and collaborator in the picking and discovery of these paths and their juicy fruit, and perhaps – as the name Perivoli suggests, help plant some trees of its own along the way. I’m sure it will.