Roll with it: teamwork and research in a pandemic

Kept Apart: couples and families separated by the UK immigration system

Image credit: Michael Grieve

Health issues started to impact on our project (Kept Apart: couples and families separated by the UK immigration system) before the UK locked down in response to Covid-19. Just before our first workshop, Katharine (the PI) was struck down by a nasty case of food poisoning. If we cancelled the workshop, with lockdown looming, it seemed unlikely we would be able to meet at all. So, led by Rissa, we pressed ahead, documenting the workshop in photos and notes so that when Katharine recovered she was relieved to find that she could get a good sense of what had come out of the day.

On a practical level the pandemic and consequent lockdown meant moving all project activities after the workshop. online, including the co-creative process with our project participants. Hence, the second ‘workshop’ which would have been an in-person meeting of the group focused on working with the draft material from the first workshop to co-produce final prose and content for the book had to happen through a series of online meetings and correspondences with the participants. Whilst this was disappointing given that the first workshop had provided so much in terms of feelings of unity and support for those affected but it was a good alternative given the insurmountable restrictions. We were able to carry on with most elements of the research – working on the text and developing illustration ideas through email, holding the second workshop and team meetings online using Blackboard collaborate.

As a co-produced project, we relied heavily on the willingness and ability of our participants to stay involved. They had signed up for two face-to-face workshops, but ended up in a more protracted process of developing and refining the work online. The fact that they did continue to contribute was all the more remarkable given that for those still going through the immigration process, the Covid crisis had often made their situations worse – increasing the uncertainty about when they would be reunited with family members, or whether they would be able to meet the requirements for visa extensions.

But Covid may also have created opportunities. The travel restrictions and social distancing measures have  seen a large proportion of the general population experiencing enforced separation from family members and friends. Therefore, there is a sense that this may have opened up new possibilities for empathy and paths of understanding and connection for those people who haven’t encountered the experience of family separation before. Combined with renewed debates about immigration regulations, and greater recognition of the contribution of migrants during the crisis, we see this as a moment of potential for change.  In this context, Reunite Families UK, one of the project partners, launched a renewed campaign to scrap the minimum income requirement for family migration, gaining celebrity support, and providing an opportunity to release the ebook which emerged from our project into what we hope will be a more receptive environment.

We were of course fortunate – for many projects the practical impediments to research plans during the Covid crisis will have been insurmountable. But each stage of the project, as new challenges emerged, a simple core principle emerged that we will take away for the future – that a strong and collaborative team (including the research participants) who are committed to the importance of the research, increases the chances of being able to ‘roll with it’ as the unexpected gets in the way of original plans.

Read more about Kept Apart: couples and families separated by the UK immigration system here.