Community Works and Ninti One visit Ngukurr to document key achievements of the Stronger Communities for Children program in Ngukurr. Pictured left to right: Ian Gumbula, Daphne Daniels, Kirsty McKellar.
Despite their remoteness, communities in hard-to-reach locations across the Northern Territory are receiving outside visitors as often as every week.
When I visited Ngukurr in Arnhem Land earlier this year, I was surprised to hear about the frequency with which consultants were visiting the community. Once a week or more, government staff, independent consultants and employees from private firms were flying in and out of Ngukurr, often staying for days at a time.
These visitors come to oversee projects their departments are funding, to monitor and evaluate progress and achievements, and to complete independent research or studies, and more. Many come to measure their deliverables, outputs, outcomes and impacts … however we know from our work in the sector that not all spend time considering how to engage with the community in a meaningful, respectful manner.
What struck me in Ngukurr was how appreciative people were around how we conducted our work, leading me to start asking questions about what other people were doing that was so different to our own practice. Below are seven lessons I drew from these conversations.
Check rules of entry
Check rules of entry for whether you need a visitor permit or pass to visit the community. You can find this information online through council or state and territory websites. Some of these communities have strict rules that you must follow. For instance, some remote Indigenous communities are dry communities where alcohol is prohibited.
Complete desktop research
Complete desktop research on demographics; know the Traditional Custodians and/or clan groups, what languages are spoken, the population and any other information that can better prepare you. Many of these details might look different upon arrival, but at least you’ll enter with some sense of the community make-up. You can find some of this information on the AITSIS website, the Australia Bureau of Statistics data website, and regional and local council websites.
Contact appropriate community members
Contact appropriate community members well in advance of the dates you’d like to visit. In some instances, this means connecting with Traditional Custodians, and in others, it could mean finding and speaking with key community leaders. Even better, plan your visit with a local consultant who knows the community and who the community knows and trusts.
Decide together on a suitable date
Decide together on a suitable date for the consultation to take place. Like anywhere, people appreciate being consulted on when they can meet and have time to be fully engaged in the conversation. I have seen situations where dates have been set by consultants, only to be completely rejected by a community because they were not discussed prior. People lead busy lives, and it’s unreasonable to expect communities or local organisations to give up their time at the drop of a hat. Find a time that works for the community.
Come with an offering
Come with an offering, especially for group meetings such as Focus Group Discussions. An offering like lunch, snacks or tea and biscuits is usually appreciated and demonstrates you value and are thankful for the participants’ time and contribution.
Remain flexible throughout the duration of your stay. Remember, people lead busy lives, and a consultation may not be at the top of their priority list. People have paid work, domestic labour and other work obligations, sorry business and other community commitments too. Be open to meeting with people at a later time than planned or on a different day.
Ask yourself: is my visit necessary?
Ask yourself: is my visit necessary? In many instances, you are likely to get richer, more in-depth and accurate information by speaking with communities in person. The community may also prefer you meet them in-person, rather than correspond online. However, if you feel your work may not require a community visit, you should be weighing up whether you think the benefits elicited through your visit outweigh the disruption to community your stay might bring.
Taking the time to plan out your visit is pivotal to meaningful community engagement built on mutual respect. Working with community stakeholders throughout the process will ensure there are no unpleasant surprises for the community during your visit, and will lead to a better experience for both yourself and the community.