LESSONS FROM A PhD
Effective Health Communication With Indigenious Communities
IN 2016 I was awarded a PhD. My research area is health communication with indigenous communities. Over the last decade, I’ve had the privilege of creating documentaries in collaboration with Maori and Native American communities. I’ve learned a number of important lessons that I believe have broad applicability to people and organisations that want to develop meaningful partnerships, effective community engagement, and culturally relevant communications. The academic details and theoretical nitty gritty can be found in my journal publications. But in the following blog posts I will share these lessons in a more conversational tone-not a footnote in sight! What’s my motivation? Quite simply I’ve always wanted to produce work that produces tangible results and has practical implications and applicability beyond a university setting. It’s the reason I create documentaries and to a certain extent why I produce commercial work. My hope is that the insights will prove helpful to people and organisations engaged in work with diverse cultures.
In the following blog posts I will discuss the five indiginest principles that can produce culturally relevant results. These principles were originally developed by a team of academic researchers working with an indigenous community in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. There are eight in total but I’ve chosen to concentrate on five that have broad applicability outside of academia. They are reflection, respect, relevance, resilience, and reciprocity. Following them allows you to work on and reflect on your relationship with your target audience and improve the chances of creating a culturally relevant output. Some might seem obvious, but I’m amazed at how often they are not followed.
Principle 1: Reflection
Reflect on the influence of your own power. This includes your race, gender, education, class, sexual orientation, religion and how that might influence the research/work relationship. This isn’t a fluffy PC dictate; it is pivotal to forming successful partnerships and generating meaningful results.
When working with other cultures there is an understandable tendency to fear making mistakes and committing a cultural faux pas. I’ve found it’s far more helpful to draw on a research idea originally developed in New Zealand, that of cultural humility. This idea is rooted in the belief that none of us will be able to achieve cultural competence in another’s culture and subsequently the goal should be to achieve cultural humility. And what that means in practice is achievable.
Cultural humility requires us to participate in an on-going process of self-reflection and critique in which we regularly examine our own bias. It also requires us to be humble, respectful, open, willing to listen and learn.
Examples: When entering a relationship with a community seek early guidance and mentorship from community leaders. In my case I sought Kaumatua guidance. Their early mentorship was critical not only in making sure the research was culturally appropriate but their mana (prestige) in the wider Maori community safeguarded me at cultural events and meetings where I was unknown to attendees.
Be patient and be straight. As I built a wider community network I quickly recognised that being transparent went a long way in gaining trust. This required being open about what I did not know, always being willing to learn, and as important being able to admit when I made mistakes. Be willing to be a student as well as an “expert.”
Constantly reflecting on the relationship development process helps you not to take slights personally. Not everyone will be enthusiastic about your work. Some people will be sceptical of both your work and your intentions. For example, my conversations early in the process with some health workers confirmed a concern found in many indigenous communities that they are subject to the whims of “helicopter researchers” who drop in to communities take what they want and leave. Be cognisant of those who have come before you. I can guarantee many community groups have stories of people who promised much and delivered little of tangible benefit to the community.
This leads to probably one of the most obvious but also important lessons learned in the reflective process. Gaining trust cannot be rushed. It takes time.
When I first began my research I would get frustrated at what I perceived to be the length of time it took to achieve tasks that I thought would not or should not take long (for example, getting my calls or emails returned). I gradually realised that my research timetable was not going to be the priority for many over committed community members who already had a hard time juggling numerous work, family and community commitments. This was further exacerbated by the Christchurch earthquakes, which saw considerable disruption and personal stress to people’s homes and workplaces. Many people, myself included, left Christchurch, workplaces were destroyed, jobs lost and families displaced. When I returned to the research after a five-month pause I was humbled that all of the community board members were willing to re-engage with the research. From that point on I made sure I built in plenty of time for each stage of the research.
It’s a difficult lesson to learn in an era of pressing deadlines and faster and faster turnarounds. But be prepared to readjust time frames because to rush this stage is to compromise both relationships and results.