Engaging with multicultural communities to understand and respond to their needs

Content type
Event date

31 March 2021, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (AEST)


Helen Christensen, Deng Lual, Emanuel Braz




This webinar was held on Wednesday, 31 March 2021.

Organisations are increasingly being asked to engage with communities of all backgrounds as a way of ensuring their programs and services are not only effective, but equitable. This webinar summarised the key principles and practices of community engagement, highlighting things to keep in mind when engaging with multicultural communities.

Specifically, it:

  • Explored key strategies, benefits and challenges as described in research evidence

Shared insights and learnings from professionals engaging multicultural communities in designing various projects and services

Provided recommendations for professionals considering or planning engagements with multicultural communities.

This webinar is of interest to professionals working in community development, local government and health and social services.

Audio transcript (edited)

MS EL-MURR: Welcome, everyone, to today's webinar, Engaging with Multicultural Communities to Understand and Respond to their Needs. My name is Alissar El-Murr, and I'm a researcher at AIFS, working with the Family Policy & Practice Research area. I'd like to start by acknowledging the Bunurong and Wurundjeri People, the Traditional Custodians of the land on which I am based today, in beautiful Naarm or Melbourne. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging of the Kulin Nation, and extend that respect to other Elders and First Peoples joining with us today.

Our communities are multicultural in nature, and practice wisdom has adapted to this in different ways, so that services can work with a range of different cultural groups. There are lots of ways to help people feel welcome and willing to engage with support services when they need them. We know this because you tell us in almost every webinar, and we know you want to engage respectfully as workers to support all clients from a range of cultural backgrounds.

So today we've got together three amazing and knowledgeable presenters to share knowledge and experience that will help you to develop your skills and engage with multicultural clients. I'm going to start by introducing our presenters. So we have Helen Christensen, who's an Industry Fellow and a Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney's Institute for Public Policy and Governance. Helen's work is all about building service and practitioner competence to engage with community and encourage their participation. Hey, Helen.

MS CHRISTENSEN: Hi, thank you.

MS EL-MURR: Deng Lual is a Youth and Community Development Worker who brings cultural awareness to public and private environments. He is working at the Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health, on the Multicultural Drug and Alcohol Partnership. This is a program for North Richmond Community Health thats been tailored to support young South Sudanese Victorians who are experiencing harms from using alcohol and other drugs. Hey, Deng.

MR LUAL: Hey, how are you?

MS EL-MURR: And Deng also works with our final presenter, Emanuel Braz, who is the Manager of Communications and Community Engagement at North Richmond Community Health here in Victoria. Emanuel has a longstanding commitment to strategic communication and community engagement in development, and regularly works in Timor-Leste. Hi, Emanuel.

MR BRAZ: Hi, Alissar. Very nice to be here.

MS EL-MURR: So I'm now going to hand over to Helen, to give us a sense of how to build competence working with clients from backgrounds different to your own.

MS CHRISTENSEN: Brilliant. Thanks, Alissar. Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians from my location, the Jagera and Turrbal People in Mianjin or Brisbane. I acknowledge their Elders past and present, and warmly welcome any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People here today. I've been asked to give an overview of the evidence on community engagement, focusing on what it is, what it isn't, and how it should be done. So I'll be talking about the theory and the principles of community engagement in very general terms, and then I'll leave it to my esteemed panel members to bring it to life my relating it to multicultural communities.

So first of all, what is it? Well, there's lots of definitions out there, and it can get a bit confusing, because there's a bit of variation between them. The definition I like the most is one from Rowe and Frewer, who say that community engagement is the practice of involving members of the public in the agenda setting, decision making and policy forming activities of organisations or institutions responsible for policy development. So it's a bit kind of big and a bit academic, so more simply, it's about inviting input, feedback, collaboration from your community on the work that you do, or the decisions that you all make as an organisation.

It's important to note that if we're inviting this input, if we're asking questions, then we need to make sure that we can demonstrate that we're listening, that the organisation, what they do or what they decide, is reflective of what came from the community. Otherwise, it's a little bit of a waste of time. So telling people something isn't technically community engagement. Asking people something but not kind of paying any attention to what they say is not community engagement. Asking people what they think about something when you've already decided what you're going to do, also not community engagement. Incidentally, this is known as DAD, or Decide, Announce, Defend. Regardless, not community engagement.

Selling people something or trying to get them to sign up to something or subscribe to something, also not community engagement. And decision making at that individual or at that client level, very important, but not community engagement. If you're working with a group of clients or users to redesign a service or redesign a policy, that would be community engagement. So it's careful to know what it is. Now, a lot of this sounds pretty obvious, in practice, it can be a little bit trickier. So the context of organisations and institutions, the history, the politics, existing relationships, decision making processes can all be really tricky to navigate.

And of course, the big question sort of hidden in that definition I gave you was, well, how much involvement, and how do we approach the process of decision making, how do we go about doing it? And these are really important questions. I would like to unpack them all with you. But I do want to talk a little bit about the terminology first, and just very lightly touch on the theory and evidence base, so you can kind of see where we're coming from with this stuff. Community engagement does suffer from a terminology issue. It can also get related, get confused with a number of related fields.

So in Australia, as well as New Zealand, we tend to say community engagement as a term. You might have heard community consultation, public participation, public engagement, citizen involvement, so there's a few kind of variations in the theme. There is some debate in the literature, of course, that these slightly different terms mean slightly different things, and generally the conversation is in respect to who the community is, and who the organisation or institution can be. But that's not a rabbit hole that I'm going to spend my kind of 15 minutes on today. I will say, though, that community can generally be understood as the citizenry, or the public, or the users, or the clients. It can be quite context-specific.

The organisation or the institution generally means those groups or organisations that are working on behalf of the community. So whether that's public sector or non-government sector. There are of course some interpretations that open it up to multiple organisations and include other sorts of organisations like private businesses. But as I said, we won't go down that rabbit hole today. In terms of the terminology, I will sort of sum it up by saying community consultation as a term has kind of gone out of fashion. It depends on how long you've been around, if you've heard that one.

Some say that it doesn't promise as much influence to the community, because they get a little bit confused with the IAP2 Spectrum, which I'll talk about later on, but I reckon it's actually an attempt at rebranding. Public participation as a term is really common in the academic literature, and public engagement is becoming kind of more popular as well. Now, community engagement itself is associated with a number of kind of related fields, like community development, communications, facilitation, you know, mediation and conflict resolution. People have their own conceptualisations.

I would sort of argue that it overlaps with all of these areas. But community engagement, it does have its own theory and its own principles, so it is kind of, you know, its own thing, but it does sort of overlap with those different areas. It is also quite regularly confused with public relations or with community relations, and I think some practitioners might see these areas as quite related, but I'm probably not one of them. Now, the theory, very lightly, is typically grounded in that which surrounds democracy and governance, which, if you think back to that definition, makes a lot of sense.

So the theory - kind of really relevant theory - is that which surrounds participatory democracy. So think kind of late 1960s, major social movements, and this idea that participation and involvement should be by the people, by the masses, rather than the chosen few and the elite, right, so participation is an element. The other major area is delivery of democracy, and you might have heard about this one. So it's a theory that kind of emerged in the late 1970s, and it's probably where a lot of the academic interest theory development and research is being conducted these days.

But deliberative democracy puts deliberation at the centre of decision making. So instead of voting or instead of kind of elections - and by deliberation, we're talking about listening, refining, weighing, choosing, seeking common ground, making kind of careful considerations to reach consensus or judgment. It's very different from dialogue, or the kind of back and forth conversation, or from debate, where we're kind of seeking to create arguments, to sort of you know, dominate, or kind of make a winning position.

Now, the evidence base is spread over a number of disciplines. So there's a lot to be found in political science, policy studies, governance, public administration. There's also stuff in behavioural sciences, in sociology, and of course all of the areas that community engagement covers. So it's everything from land use planning and infrastructure, through to social policy areas like gambling and housing and public health and so forth. Now, the evidence base does prove how the inclusion of communities in making decisions generally leads to better outcomes, because more view points have been considered, but also to more sustainable outcomes, because those affected have been involved in the process.

So I'll take my kind of academic hat off now, and I'll move to those two big questions of how much involvement, and how do we approach the decision making. Now, the level of involvement is really important. Involvement, or influence, you might sometimes hear, isn't an all or nothing game. There's a number of frameworks that can help us understand that there are degrees of influence. So you might be familiar with sort of Sherry Arnstein's Ladder of Citizen Participation back from 1969, or another one that's quite commonly used is the IAP2 or International Association for Public Participation Spectrum for Influence.

I'll explain the Spectrum, because it's a useful tool. It's also used in the community engagement policies of a lot of organisations, and it can be a little bit misunderstood. So the Spectrum has five levels, or five levels or influence, and they are inform, consult, involve, collaborate and empower. I'll go one by one through them all. ICICE, if you like your acronyms. It's available on the website, we can put some links up afterwards. But essentially Inform is the first level, a kind of starting point. This is where information is being communicated, but feedback or input isn't being invited.

So using our definition, it isn't really engagement. But it is a precursor for engagement, and it is appropriate in some situations. So if the legislation is limiting what you can do, or there's an emergency, sometimes Inform is the best approach. So Inform, Consult - Consult is where input and feedback is invited from your community and stakeholders, but there isn't a definite promise that the community will influence what the organisation does or doesn't do. Now, consult gets a bad rap, but as with everything, when used correctly, it can work well. For example, if you've done a really robust engagement process, it can work really well as a final check.

All right. Inform, Consult - Involve is next. Now, Involve is where input and feedback is invited, with the promise that the organisation will do everything it can to incorporate as much of the feedback as possible. So when it's not possible to kind of incorporate everything, ideally the organisation will describe and kind of give reasons for why this can't be done, and it's often things like we don't have enough money, or the technology doesn't exist, but there is a genuine commitment to incorporate as much feedback as possible.

Inform, Consult, Involve - Collaborate is the fourth level. Now, this is where we shift gears. So this is where the organisation and the community work together in collaboration or in partnership. It's where the power is shared between both or all parties. The definition of collaboration I've always loved is when both or all parties own the problem together, as well as owning the solution, because I think it helps us kind of remind us that we're all in it together.

So Inform, Consult, Involve, Collaborate, and the fifth and final one is Empower. So this is where the organisation promises to do or not do whatever the community decides. It's a we'll go with what you decide or what you want. There, of course, might be a bit of process in determining what this is, but the promise is there that we'll go with what the community decides. Now, the Spectrum is a great tool for modelling your communications and for selecting your methods or your tools and techniques; but it's important to know that during the engagement the level of influence, it moves around at different times and with different groups.

The trap that a lot of organisations fall into, particularly if they use the Spectrum, is they think that higher levels of influence are always the best, and that's what they should always try to do. That's not generally the case. So higher levels of influence, so our sort of Collaborate and Empower levels of influence, will warrant more time and more resources. It's generally about what's appropriate, and it's also about what you can actually deliver on. So if you offer Collaborate to the community, but if you realistically only deliver on Consult, you're going to raise expectations, you're going to waste resources, and you're going to lose trust with your community, which will make it more difficult to engage in the future.

And even for other agencies as well. Keep in mind that in most cases, bad engagement does more damage than no engagement. So you're better off doing Consult really well than making a mess of Collaborate. Now, as I mentioned, these levels of involvement or influence are useful for selecting methods, which are usually part of our general approach. So let me move to that second question, which is how do we go about doing this; what's the process; how do we make decisions as a group? And it's a bit of a two part answer. The first part of the answer is about principles, and the second part is about process.

Now, principles are normative. They outline what is good, what is right, and then they're applied to practice. If you work inside an organisation, this often looks like the policies and the frameworks that you'll use. Now, there's lots of sets of community engagement principles out there. IAP2 has core values, state and local governments often have their own, many not for profit organisations have their own sets of values that they follow. There's lots of them. They often include things like transparency and provision of accessible and timely information, equity, diversity and representativeness, access and inclusion, the promise of influence, openness and honesty, and I could go on, but somebody would probably mute me at some stage.

What I will say, though, is that the principles are important in practice. And while they all sound like very nice things, they do require careful consideration when balancing them. And this is best illustrated by a quote from Danielle Atkinson that I love. She says, 'Sometimes participation must be inequitable in order for outcomes to be equitable.' So it's a powerful quote, and it forces us to consider whether representativeness or equity is more important. And the answers to these tricky questions is actually a process or a design consideration, which is a lovely segue to the second part of this kind of issue around how do we go about doing this.

So who do we talk to, in what way, in what order, what are the methods and techniques that we use. Now, the current thinking around best practice approaches to community engagement are informed by design science. And when I hear design, I think Apple products, architecture and Danish furniture, but at its essence, design science is about developing and testing, problem-solving, iterating and adapting to context and circumstance. There's an excellent article from John Bryson and his colleagues called Designing Public Participation Processes, which we'll link to after this session, which outlines how good process works.

What it kind of touches on, though, that in community engagement, good design is about getting really clear on the situation you're currently in, right; what is the context with your community, with your organisation, with the relationships between them and so forth. It's also about getting clear on what you want to talk to people about. Sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised how tricky it is in practice. So what's the scope of your policy, of the project, of the decision, what's the conversation that needs to be had. Then it's also about why you want to involve people, or what your purpose for engaging is. And I'll come back to that one because it's important. And, of course, who your community and stakeholders are.

So we cover off on the kind of what and the why and the who and these big questions before we jump to how and when we're going to engage. Because as humans, we've got to fight this urge to start with the method and to try and solve the problem. I'm going to talk very briefly about context and purpose, because they're the most important, and I'm going to draw on Bryson. It's only a couple of minutes, I won't be long. So context is really big, and I'm sure my panellists will bring this to life. Context asks us to fit the design to the problem.

So making sure that it fits the social, the demographic, the political, the technical, the physical, organisational trends, everything else that's going along. That it fits the specific context. So organisational goals, mandates, the resourcing that's available, and that there's a really clear understanding of the challenge or the problem. Is it one that will kind of respond well, work well with public input and deliberation. Purpose, also really important, asks us to identify the purposes, and then create a design to achieve them. So are we trying to clarify and regularly revisit the purpose and the desired outcomes of the participation process. How can public input or deliberation help, and does the organisation know exactly what they want to engage people on.

There are lots of different types of purposes. We might want to ensure that plans and policies that we're working on are of the best quality. We might want to design or redesign a service or a program. And we might want to design a - you know, understand a phenomenon so that we can create a response or an intervention to it. The trick is to get really clear, because the purpose becomes your guide. It helps you make decisions, and it helps make sure that you all arrive at the right outcome. And of course giving people the chance to have their say is not a legitimate purpose. It needs more. We need to know what do we need to know from people, and how might our community want to participate. I'm fairly certain that I'm absolutely bang up on time, so I will finish up, and I will hand over to Deng. Thanks, everybody.

MR LUAL: Thank you so much, Helen. And as you've heard from Helen, community engagement is quite complex, and you would agree with me that services are trying to - or actually do what they can, with limited resources available, and not letting perfect be enemy of good. And in this case I will begin with a case example of the program that I worked for, and I will talk briefly about the community engagement, you know, how does the community engagement look like in service design. So the program I work for is the Multicultural Drug and Alcohol Partnership. It is a program for the Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health (CEH). It works with the young South Sudanese Victorians and their families to address alcohol and other drug-related harms.

This is the first program of its kind, to use a flexible and tailored model approach. It was designed in response to the community self-identified needs, as well as growing evidence that required our urgent attention. The program focuses on four key component areas of individual and family support. This is where clients are engaged towards their goals; towards what they want, and what are the problems, and how do they want them solved.

So another component, the second component of this project, is our community education on harm reduction; how do we empower the community, how do we make them take the lead, to be able to - you know, to be able to go into the community equipped with knowledge and tools so that they can be able to mitigate the challenges imposed to them by substance abuse in the community. So another key component of this project as well is peer to peer education. This is where young people are pretty much involved to take a lead in the project, have a say, and also be able to speak on behalf of their other peers, so they become a voice, and in this sense they feel belong to the program, and take it as their own.

And lastly, another key component is the capacity-building aspect, where we, you know, provide cultural competency training to AOD services providers, and at least to - for them to be able to understand better the communities they work with. So I'll give you an overview of how MDAP, or the Multicultural Drug and Alcohol Partnership was incepted, how it came about, where it is now, and the community involvement. And I will begin with an overview. And you would attest that rarely would you find multicultural communities, most of the CALD communities, say, to talk about alcohol and other drugs used in the community, and more specifically with the South Sudanese community.

I think this is more because either cultural practices, or maybe stigmatisation or shame associated with drugs. So CEH, basically, working with the refugees and migrants, you know, started with a group of South Sudanese women, and brainstormed really on how to find ways to - where to address this issue. Because this group of women were pretty much involving the community, working with young people, trying to do what they can within their limits, and CEH, when they start, clearly, drawn from the conversation they've heard and the stories they've shared, it was evident that this community is struggling, and it needs support.

So this group of women were involved in the planning process, and then one of them was offered an opportunity also to speak to the potential funders and talk about why, you know, she really wants this community to be assisted or be supported. So, you know, despite language barriers, she expressed that herself, unequivocally, and, you know, her message went through. So, so, so now, how are they continuing to be involved even after the processes of planning and the design, or still, you know, even though they are key partners to this program, they still take part in the project implementation as well. And here these is a community reference group that has been established. And this is to identify key gaps and opportunities, to improve service delivery, and also for the community involvement. So this group is composed of number of young people, you know, women groups, community leaders and Elders.

So another aspect, as I talked about before, that is also part of the community involvement, is the peer to peer education. This is where young cohorts are recruited, to become peer educators, they also become ambassadors and become a voice to the young fellows, and through peer education, a number of young people have been recruited, and they are now, you know, reaching out to vulnerable young people and giving health education messages on harm reduction, from alcohol and other drugs.

So what are the reflections and sort of challenges we've learned, as we go through this project, and what has been overcome. And so I'll talk about the challenges here, firstly, and look, system navigation, obviously, as you are aware, most of the CALD communities are still struggling, even right now, to comprehend how the system works and how services also work. And this is why we are finding challenges as to why people rarely seek support. It's because there is a gap in system navigation, whereby, you know, with the community-based organisations, or the community's leadership haven't understood really well how the services and the system work.

And in this sense - take the case of the family daycare we had, which is still having a crack now in the community. Some community organisations were involved, but because they didn't really have that sufficient understanding of our system navigation, I think they had issues. And therefore, in this case, effective engagement is vital when delivering the information. How it is relayed and how it is received as well, and also understood. So another challenge is the language barrier, and we've had this, and clearly from the experiences of COVID-19, there were challenges to do with language, and mostly with older generations, either from the migrants or refugee background, they've got, you know, insufficient understanding of English, as it is not their first language.

So language in this case plays a vital role. I mean in the service delivery. Therefore here, based on the experience from the COVID-19, we came to understand that yes, using cultural or bicultural skills and expertise is very critical. So another recommendation here that I will talk about is the cultural competency that I've talked about before. Services need to be culturally aware of the communities that they work with. They need to be provided training and this training, obviously, there's some organisations that provide that, and CEH, the organisation that I work for, also do. Not only with my project or the project that I work for, but also with the other, you know, rental service that they deliver.

So it's really recommendable services, or rather service providers, working with multicultural communities should take cultural competency training, and get to understand - if they are working with specific communities, it would be great if they can get trained to learn about the people, where they came from, what are their experiences in the country they live in right now. So it's good to take that training so seriously.

Another thing also that service providers - and based on the research you heard before from Helen, community involvement, which she said before, yes, there has been over consultation, and there has been a fatigue in the community about consultation. So in this case, what do you do if people are feeling more relaxed and not willing to engage? Yes, take a lead, and get into the community, get to know who are the community leaders, get to know who are influential leaders in that, or who are people in that community who their people listen to, pretty much, and once you get to know these people, they will connect you with the people on the ground, with the vulnerable communities.

Some of them know, really, what are the key, real issues. And I'm not talking of policy, I'm not talking about people who have already got connections in the system, people who are really understood; I'm talking about the people who haven't had this opportunity to interact. So get involved, get communities involved in the process, and let them also take a lead in whatever you do with those communities. Time management as well. Time management, in this case, you may be aware, you know, CALD communities, you know, have got issue with time management, and this is more to do with the kind of work they do, or their family situations, or some other demands, you know, they may be facing, and therefore when you want to engage with the communities, make sure you allow, you know, enough time to engage with multicultural communities.

So yes, time management, or aware of time, it's critical and we recommend it, as you work with these communities, that, you know, you should always consider when you are delivering services or engaging with multicultural communities. Also get to where they are, you know? And I'll give you a case example, my own work that I do. I find it quite interesting to begin working with young folks by doing what they do. If they play basketball, get to play basketball. If it is a community, if they're eating, feel so well or so comfortable to eat with them, and I can tell you, that will give you more connection with them.

They will feel, you know, you really respect their space, they will feel you really respect and totally understand their communities, and therefore it is highly recommendable you interact with people, do what they - before you actually talk about what you want to do. Because should you begin - and of course we might have seen something that might have been done in the past, reaching to the community and starting straight away, yep, this is what we want to do, and this is what we - I think it's now becoming more of a turn off a little bit, and some communities are getting disengaged, because it seems like your target is just to deliver, but not going through, understanding them, and working alongside them.

So I was giving you practical sort of case studies, and the experience, as you've heard the research part of it, and I use these examples as practical examples of what community engagement has been or what it is based on my experience, and what I've seen, and it works. It is working. And I'm pretty sure a lot of you here are doing the same. And us being on this panel is to emphasise a lot, yes, we are aware of, you know, challenges communities are facing, either with services or, you know, with language barriers, and some of the things that I've talked about, I believe from here, with the experience, and what you've heard, based on evidence, and the experience on the ground, I hope that would help. I turn it over now to Emanuel. Thank you.

MR BRAZ: Thank you, Deng. And thank you, Alissar, as well, today, for the introduction, and to AIFS and the Centre for Culture Ethnicity and Health (CEH) for this great opportunity for me to be able to be here as part of this panel, and to share my reflections on the topics that we're discussing today. But I would like to begin by making two disclaimers. I myself do not consider myself to be an expert. I always feel very fortunate to be able to learn upfront and in community. The second disclaimer is that what works for me may not work for you as practitioners of community engagement, it may not work in your particular context. So I always try to tailor my work in communities to the needs and context of community, which is something that Helen talked about before. Just a little bit on North Richmond Community Health and the HRAR program as you would have seen in my bio. North Richmond Community Health is located in North Richmond, in the City of Yarra in Victoria.

Our area of coverage I guess consists of five public housing towers with an approximate 3,000 strong members of the community that speaks some 20 world languages, maybe more. Our communities also include residents of the low rises, walk-ups and managed facilities. And I started with the high-risk accommodation response HRAR a DOH, Department of Health funded program as its community engagement lead in October 2020 to work basically with a team of community outreach and liaison workers. Tasked with one key objective, which was to keep the community informed and safe from COVID-19. To provide support in the event or during a COVID-19 outbreak. But also including symptomatic testing and all other manner of tasks that we do in community.

By the time I arrived on-site to work here, there had already been many cases of COVID-19 in the community. Many residents were locked inside their flats, isolated from family and friends. Some too afraid to come down from the towers and even engage with community. And this was quite a unique position, to engage with the community, to keep it safe from a deadly virus. And a deadly virus that threatened us all and this I think is the important point to make, because on this particular issue, health issue of COVID-19, this wasn't necessarily a case of us as practitioners coming into the context of the community to support them. Rather COVID-19 is a threat to all of us and, as Helen was saying before as well, we are all learning together. So that frames a bit of context for the community engagement.

So, towards designing a community engagement strategy, arriving on the job in October 2020, after spending seven months in lockdown, like many of you, working within existing from home, during a global health pandemic. Where do you start? And how do you start community engagement? Which I believe is the question that many of you - and that the panel, Helen and Deng, myself are trying our best to shed some light on. So, a little bit on community engagement approach and community engagement especially from the ground up. My friend and mentor Lorraine McBride shared with me a long time ago a most important lesson that has guided much of my work in community and international development until today.

We start where people are at. And what does this mean? To me, this means finding out what I need to know about the community I'm about to engage. And for HRAR, for the High Risk Accommodation Response, that includes the residents of other public housing facilities in this area but specifically in North Richmond and in Cremorne. What do I need to know? 
I need to know, I think health, socioeconomic and cultural determinants, patterns of social behaviour, preferred channels of communication. Informal channels of communication and get to know the rumour mill that exists in community. Identify community leaders but also influencers and supporters. Talk to people about existing concerns and anxieties, particularly on COVID-19. Who the local partners are? Contact details, anything and everything that will allow me to know and to connect to the community.

So, what is this, what I need to know? What is it? I call it formative research. I frame it as what I need to know, but it is part of formative research which plays a very big part in preventing me from becoming a challenge or hindrance or obstacle to the stakeholder engagement process. Which I'll talk a little bit more about later. But much of this core information already exists on government and local council websites. And if you do a simple Google search, you'll easily find a lot of information. But this piece of community research, of finding what I need to know as a community engagement practitioner is very important. And in our case at HRAR in Richmond apart from the desk-based search and speaking to the local partners and community leaders, more importantly it entails walking alongside community and having all manner of conversations. Which is what Deng just spoke about briefly before. And a by-product of this exercise of walking and talking to, and in community, to find out what you need to know about them. Is that you also end up sharing about yourself in the process. And this starts that process of building trust. And it becomes the basis then of a meaningful relationship you can develop with community. And I guess for me people's sense of community engagement starts there, or starts here, in conversation in and with community. Sharing community space and walking in community.

And one of the things, the first thing that community told us when we went into community, as we were walking with community, is that they've been to too many community forums and town hall meetings. Where much is discussed, actions take a long time to eventuate and places where it is usually the same people who talk on behalf of the community. The people who already have a voice. And which is something that Deng also spoke about before. And the community told us very clearly, that what they want - that what they really wanted was to be able to start Tai Chi lessons, or have Zumba classes in community or play Mahjong in community. Just to get out of the flats and be outside in community while at the same time keeping themselves safe from COVID-19.

This has resulted in a community calendar of community engagement activities that was requested by community and co-designed with community. So much so, that our Tai Chi instructor comes from community. The tables and the Mahjong sets that we use were lent to us by community, not because we couldn't afford them but because community wanted to share those resources that they have with us. I guess this is how we conduct our informal community engagement at HRAR. It is doing these community activities that we engage with community on COVID-19 in conversation, while sharing a cup of tea after Zumba. Or doing a game of Mahjong when people are open to talk with us and tell us what they really think and need.

And as I mentioned before earlier the community did not have a preference or an appetite for another community forum or town hall meeting. But I'm not saying that these don't work. They do, we hold them as well regularly. But they're not at the core of our community engagement on COVID-19. So, what does community-led community engagement look like for our program, for the HRAR program? Community led, community engagement is led by the residents themselves many of whom we have been fortunate and able to employ through North Richmond Community Health and the HRAR program. Which I realise doesn't always happen. But we did not go out to community asking just for volunteers. We went out to community with employment opportunities which makes all the difference when many in our community worked in the most affected industries that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic they lost their jobs.

So, our community engagement plan was then built around HARARs amazing community team. So around Maria, Martha, Wayne, Gabriella, Lahn, Lee, Sushana, Wha, Jon, Rose, Handia, all of them living in the estate and wanting to give back to their own community. With amazing skills which sometimes we overlook because the tendency that we sometimes have is that we're going to capacity build rather than to use existing capacity to empower community. And this, the team, the community team are the real experts of the context. But often they don't have a voice. But despite being HRAR staff an RCH staff, this cohort of community experts also became our key stakeholders at the top of our list. And we designed strategies for, to inform, consult, involve, collaborate with and to ultimately empower.

So our role then became and is no longer that of an expert, but we are in the part of community engagement modality. And in a supportive empowerment pathway. This is residents being of the design and deliver community led interventions. And so far, this has been quite successful but I'm a bit biased I guess. But we also include the community leaders as Deng and Helen spoke about before. We segmented and analysed our key stakeholders, used the frameworks for community engagement that Helen already explained about. All very important of course and I'm not discounting here all that work and all that knowledge and best practice. But for me I guess those theories and methodologies are there for a reason. But I use them as a guide as to how I can do community engagement. I guess I could go on and on and on, but I don't think I'll probably have enough time.

COVID-19 is still a real threat to all of us. We don't know when things will go back to normal, whatever that normal might be so that we can talk about recovery. I guess in the last four minutes that I have, maybe I'll talk a little bit about challenges and recommendations. I agree with what Helen said, I agree with everything that Deng has said. I guess working in COVID-19 where there's no detachment, you 
work - I work on COVID-19, 9 to 5, five days a week sometimes more. And then you go home you're still dealing with COVID-19. So this has really become a tremendous challenge to community engagement. And I guess there’s no respite really. But in Australia we're doing much better than the rest of the world, so we should feel very fortunate and let's just hope that it keeps that way. But I'd like to speak to now, a few other challenges and recommendations as just part of my reflection. A challenge I guess and an opportunity for us to have a bit of a re-think, is the community engagement professional service provider. So, us and you who are listening to this webinar, the practitioners, we can become a challenge or even the obstacle. If we don't keep ourselves in check and go - and if we allow ourselves to go into the space or the context unprepared, as Helen was saying. If we aren't willing to really listen to community, if we're not willing or ready to walk with and in the community, if we're not willing to learn from the community. If we're not flexible in our approaches. And if we're not - if we do not allow ourselves to be guided by the community's expertise.

Another challenge that I see that Deng already also spoke about is language, with English first and foremost. If you're dealing with multicultural communities, whose language is not English. The industry jargons the complicated language and CEH does great work in this space of communicating in plain language. But talking plain language is very important. Equally important is the speed, the speed at which some community workers speak sometimes when working with multicultural communities is astonishing. But just imagine or try to put yourselves and imagine being on the receiving end of the blank - reflect on the blank stares, the polite smiles and the awkward silence that sometimes you receive back from community. Which shouldn't be interpreted as lack of capacity, more a failure on our part to consider who we engage with and how we talk to community.

I guess on language as well, we are in Australia, I realise we're in Australia but as a celebration of our rich culture and rich diversity communicating in language and in culture in community goes a long way when you're doing community engagement. Deng also eluded a little bit to this with the KPIs and the expectations. When your community engagement is driven by KPIs and your agencies expectations rather than by the community's needs. So having that conversation earlier on with your employer that, when working in the community and doing community engagement the community is in the driver's seat. So going into the context already with KPIs leading your community engagement interventions or activities will likely not work. And that the KPIs will need to be readjusted.

The final challenge I guess is the labels and the terminology which is something that, and Helen pointed out and I'll just spend two more minutes. The labels and terminologies. So for us as practitioners to question the labels and terminology and we have this conversations in our RCH. So what does it mean when society tells me I'm a recent arrival, I used to be a non-English speaking background person. Nowadays I'm a CALD but what does that say about me? And what does that say about the people are non-CALD? Aren't people just people in our rich cultural and community diverse Australia. I guess on these two community engagements, I think we all know and understand now more than ever before the power of technology and the smart phones that we have, that we all have. And how it has become so important and shaped the way we communicate meaningfully with one another.

We've had to adapt during COVID-19. In our community engagement we use a lot of technology. So WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook in our community engagement to inform, consult, involve, collaborate with and empower community. But by the same token, there is the issue of accessibility. Unfortunately, the Internet access in Australia is still so forbiddingly expensive to many in our community. So, if you're thinking of engaging in community using new technologies, just think of the issue of accessibility. I think I'll finish here I know I went passed my 15 minutes already. I hope I contributed some more to what my colleagues and the panel have already said. And I'll be happy to answer questions later on. Thank you and I will now hand over to Alissar.

MS EL-MURR: Thank you Emmanuel and thank you to all our speakers for those amazing overviews. Helen it was so good to hear about the theoretical side of community engagement and the frameworks used to support engagement on the ground. Deng, you are so knowledgeable about community empowerment and providing effective programs that not only offer incredibly important services but also build capacity on the ground. And lastly Emmanuel, thank you so much, hearing about what's worked for you in your work and your insight into certain strategies that allow for culturally safe engagement with community was really, really good.

So now we're going to answer a few of your questions that have come through from our audience. This is a question really for all of our panellists today.

QUESTION: Can you recommend any good co-design training that you've either used yourselves or that you've been aware of in your practice?

MS CHRISTENSEN: I can mention a practitioner quite briefly. So 
Dr Emma Blomkamp who has associations with the University of Melbourne is somebody that I - she's published quite a lot on this and is a practitioner by background. So, I'm sure she won't protest if I say - if I give you the link to kind of some of her work later. But I know she runs design camps and all sorts of bits and pieces in that space.

MS EL-MURR: Thank you Helen.

MR BRAZ: Sorry, also I would say network with your fellow community engagement practitioners. Look at the industry I guess and who is doing really well in community. If the community is empowered and strong, then link to them and learn from your peers and with your peers. As well as go through the formal, I mean institutes and programs but, yeah network and engage with other professionals.

MS EL-MURR: Great thank you. Deng, we have a question for you if you don't mind. We've actually - you've been quite popular, we have a few questions for you. But just one for now.

QUESTION: What do you think are the biggest enablers for community participation from your perspective? And based on that program that you run in North Richmond?

MR LUAL: I think involving the communities at the onset has been crucial in the program design. And I think it has worked really well prior even to talking about funding. But talking about what are the issues? How, what can we do to address them? Who it's going to involve and who are already involved in the community? So, and how can we take it over from there? I think that is really worked really well for us.

MS EL-MURR: Fantastic. Okay so we have a question from a researcher that's come through. They've said,

QUESTION: As a researcher I'm wondering how I might go about working out who the influential community leaders are in community? And I guess, how do I identify community leaders and work with them in a culturally safe way? Is that the researcher wants to know.

MR LUAL: Thank you for that question I really appreciate and again, look if you are working with a specific community, I think it would be a lot more easier to identify. But if you are working with you know, a range of multicultural communities that may be quite challenging. However community leaders, just like any other leaders, sometimes are visible. Sometimes you know, again with the network that you may have, you may easily get to know people. And reaching out as well, with social media now and let's say, technology as well as you know, Helen has talked about before. Is connecting people and if I am to work with these specific communities and I want to work them really I'll definitely go online and you know look it up. And see, okay who are in this community and who are doing what? Again that may be a bit of time-wasting as such because again that will require you to take of time online. But again if you haven't had any connection before, other than professional connection. Again, get onto social media also and see you know, what type of activities are community-run and who are running that. Definitely will get your connection.

MS EL-MURR: Thank you.

MR BRAZ: Can I just - I'll add a little bit on that question which is, two sides to it and that might help the researcher which is there are the typical community leaders that everyone goes to. And there are databases and lists of community leaders that people reach out to. But go one step beyond those usual community leaders and engage with community directly, walk-in community, speak to community. And ask community who represents you? And who usually don't you hear from? And are you a community leader actually who would like to have a voice to be able to participate? So there's those two lines of community leaders. People who already have a strong voice and who are always listened to. But also the community leaders who may not have a voice but have opinions that they would like to share. And they would like to contribute. So enabling that space for those people to feel empowered to participate.

MS EL-MURR: So I guess a question for the whole panel has come through here.

QUESTION: Do you ever come across resistance to your work? And if yes, how have you navigated resistance?

MS CHRISTENSEN: I can go first.

MS EL-MURR: Go ahead.

MS CHRISTENSEN: I've got a bit of background as a practitioner in local government, so often the resistance comes in the form of, we have elected representatives, they've been voted in, they're our decision makers. And you know, why do we have to do this engagement sort of stuff? The response I often have to that is well part of it is one of the, you know, declaration of human rights, we have the right to participate as well as the right to be represented. So part of it is, you know the norms and the principles that we operate within as a sort of larger argument. One of the more practical ways I often deal about it is, you know, tell me a story about how your engagement's going so far? Or tell me about a recent decision that hasn't landed very well? And that can often be the way in of, well what would you have done differently? And in a lot of the cases, it's often well, we would've spoken to more people and we would've been a bit clearer in what we were trying to do. And people kind of wind up coming into the conversations sideways, for want of a better phrase. But, yeah it does, it does kind of face resistance which is, you know, we could talk about this sort of stuff all day. But it's generally important work that's difficult to do well in my experience. I'll let our other panel members add in.

MR LUAL: Yeah, I think for me and even with my work as well the major resistance has been, working with a program that has got different cultural expectations. And I think that has been quite challenging. And we've been trying to manage and ensure that people understand what they used to think isn't appropriate right now or, it was appropriate culturally and it may not be appropriate in Australia. We're trying to bridge that gap to make people understand that look, this is how it was. And this is how it is right now. Let us accept the fact that where we are as got different cultural setting, it's a new place, we're gonna be here for quite a while. And it's home. It's - we belong here. So rather than discouraging, it's good also to have the better understanding for which good way forward of understanding these cultural differences. And accepting that the realities on the ground.

MR BRAZ: And I'll just add a little bit more to it, that for me the biggest resistors are ignorance, misunderstanding and frustration in community. And so when you're doing community engagement, make sure your supported by good communication. Having a good team that supports you how to frame your community engagement with very good communication and open channels of communication. And also expect resistance. I guess, never going to the context in thinking that everything is going to be rosy and everyone will be in agreement. That more likely than not, there will be resistance. So I guess for me in the work that I do, I've always tried to find the common ground. I'm sure we all disagree and I'm sure we all have our different opinions. But are we able through conversation in community, come to the common ground of those areas that at least we all agree on. And upon which you can build and engage conversation and go from there.

MS EL-MURR: Yeah, thank you for that. Okay, so I guess this next question is something that people would really like to know about, is outcomes. And how you know if an intervention is working with a multicultural community? So I'm wondering for the whole panel, you can respond to this.

QUESTION: Do you have any formal or informal ways of measuring community engagement outcomes?

MR BRAZ: I would say that there are, I mean, this is a well-practiced industry, there are those mechanisms to evaluate outcomes. But I guess for me the biggest indicator is, the community. A really good indicator is if the community is quiet, or just smiling at you politely or just nodding they probably blank, it's likely that they're not agreeing with what you're doing. But if the community is happy to come and share with you their ideas. If they see you in community and they stop you because they want because they want to do something with you, great outcomes. And that's a really good indicator that you are doing a great job because you have the community's trust. And people are feeling empowered to be able to stop you in your tracks and tell you what they think.

MR LUAL: Yep, I totally agree with what Emmanuel said and I think, yes more of getting to the ground and sitting with the communities I think the stories we've heard, or even if it means someone telling you, like look I've heard about your program and I feel like you know what, that is a great program and you guys should continue with it. Such, such stories are quite motivating and quite encouraging. And I think it's an outcome that the community is listening. And your connection is also in touch with the community. And it's like feedback, even also in the meetings that they attend, if they were specifically for the program, the feedback is also so great. So yes.

MS EL-MURR: Fantastic. Okay.

QUESTION: So how important do you think interpreters are when working with CALD communities?

MS CHRISTENSEN: I can add a little bit based on a book that I've just read actually which is from Nicole Duer's work around political translation. So, it's some research that come out of the States. It's really fascinating saying that, what was happening at large forums in the States was there were kind of language translators that were taking on an additional role. And this is kind of talking about what Deng was talking about before in terms of system navigation. So not only you know, did the director say this, what you need to understand is, that the way the organisation works, so it's really important that you understand this and that you argue for this. So, it's kind of a growing area of understanding in terms of, it's not just about what is being said word for word. But being understanding of the context that that happens within. But some interesting kind of research, I think we'll start to see more in Australia as well.

MS EL-MURR: Yep, Deng, Emmanuel, do you have any insight into working with interpreters? Or how that's helped you with community engagement?

MR BRAZ: I mean I'll just that it is very important, especially when language is a barrier. I mean those services are easily available in Australia so why not make very good use of them. Especially if it helps you in communicating with your stakeholders, yeah.

MS EL-MURR: Okay we have got this interesting question here.

QUESTION: About communities having negative experiences of community engagement sessions with either government or 
non-government agencies. So being consulted but then there being no follow-up or sort of no communication post engagement. So, in your work, how do you avoid this from occurring?

MS CHRISTENSEN: It's a big one. Well you do this and this then everything will be fine. Oh it's issues around - - -

MS EL-MURR: I guess, what's worked for you?

MS CHRISTENSEN: Yeah it's issues I think in a lot of cases around organisational kind of capacity and understanding. As well as practitioner skills and abilities. It's one of those things where I would love to see the practice be excellent. But I think for the practice to be excellent across the board it's about you know, people learning, people talking, people discussing in their networks, organisations putting systems and processes into place. Championing really good processes and you know, seeing what went well with that and how it can kind of be duplicated. I think in a lot of cases we're dealing in low trust environments. And we need to re-build trust. We need to go, oh look that's really unfortunate you went to a really terrible session four years ago. We're hoping that you'll find this one better. But of course you know, generally to re-build trust you need to do what you say you're gonna do on a consistent basis. So it is in a lot of cases a very long sort of journey back to being able to do really meaningful engagement on a regular basis.

MR LUAL: Absolutely, absolutely and I think, just to add on that and you know, as the saying goes, that talk does not have a price, it maybe - it may not be appropriate to use. But I think yes with communities and with the feedback we've had, the over consultation, the fatigue around you know engaging with the communities. I think services are doing what they can but I think they should be extra, more into action rather than ticking boxes. I've heard a lot - this one quite a lot, that services are just only ticking boxes and having the paperwork done. And you know, and produce a very good report, submit it and the government just act on it, or the government also in initiate you know projects that are you know maybe doesn't reach quite widely. And maybe a few when it was intended I don't know for many. So I think yes we need to be more, rather than worrying a lot of you know the report, good report, we're going to make. Let us worry, I mean or maybe mindful of the results.

MR BRAZ: To add a little bit to what Deng just said. I mean, community knows, especially because community has been researched enough and community knows when community engagement is genuine. So I think that's a big thing to highlight there. It has to be genuine or the community will not trust you. And in genuine community engagements has to also be differentiated from the good and noble intentions that programs and practitioners have of trying to do what they think is best for community. So I mean, as long as its genuine, and as long as it's there to make a difference and work and walk and talk in community and with community. Community will - that's the start I guess of building those broken relationships and community will re-engage with you.

MS EL-MURR: Yeah for sure. Okay I think we just have one last question for you all.

QUESTION: How do you avoid getting the same voices or faces when you're consulting, especially with multicultural communities?

MS EL-MURR: We touched on this a little bit when we were talking about leaders in community and over consulting. Anything else you'd like to add?

MS CHRISTENSEN: I can give a quick tip. Which is, do something different you know, if you're using those social media channels, if you're using those staff, if you're using - just do something different and hope you get a different result because I think we - we get busy. We get a little bit lazy when we're busy and we kind of just kind of just keep grabbing for the same things. And if they're giving us the same outcome it's usually a sign that it's time to mix it up. Experiment, be innovative, try something new.

MR LUAL: Absolutely, absolutely I would also add to say, look out for programs that are being granted in the community. There are some programs that are not basically funded. Either you know, through government or other key you know, organisations that are working with the community. So I'd get those programs and definitely you will get your connection and you'll be able to identify who are really doing a brilliant job on the ground regardless of the funding or whether the organisation is known. So there are so many, many programs that are being run by many volunteers which are not easily identifiable because they may not be out there, either on social media, they are not there. Or even they do not have website you know. But you know, as you get into the community you will get to learn that there are a lot of activities that are running or being run. But you know, their presence may not be known.

MR BRAZ: I guess, a tip would be to create engaging posts on social media. Really utilise the power of social media to allow a space where people can provide their comments, the feedback that is unfiltered. So, yeah using the power of social media to create those channels that people can communicate with you directly. And not just through someone else or through someone who already has a voice. So that could be a very powerful tip there.

MS EL-MURR: All right thanks everyone, that's all we have time for today. But on behalf of AIFS and everyone who's listening, you've been so helpful. And we've really appreciated your sharing your insights and your time with us today. Thank you.


MR BRAZ: Thank you Alissar, thank you.

MR LUAL: Thank you.



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Related resources

Related resources

Webinar questions and answers

Questions answered during presenter Q&A

To view the presenter Q&A, go to 51:01 in the recording

  • Where can I go to learn more about co-design ?
  • What are the biggest enablers for community participation?
  • How can you identify influential community leaders and work with them in a culturally safe way?
  • What can you do when there is resistance to your engagement with multicultural communities?
  • Are there formal or informal ways of measuring community engagement outcomes?
  • How important are interpreters when working with multicultural communities?
  • How can you avoid communities from having negative experiences of community engagement?
  • How do you avoid getting the same voices or faces when you are consulting with multicultural communities?


Helen is a community engagement specialist with skills and experience in training, research, process design and facilitation. She is an Industry Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Public Policy and Governance, where she has recently completed a PhD exploring the practice and professionalisation of community engagement. Helen is also the Principal of The Public Engagement Practice, where she works with public organisations to design and deliver participatory processes and to build people’s capability to design and deliver engagement themselves. In addition to these roles, Helen regularly delivers training for the International Association of Public Participation.

Deng Lual is a passionate Youth and Community Development Worker with more than 10 years’ experience in both the public and private sectors. Deng is currently a Community Engagement & Project Officer for the Multicultural Drug and Alcohol Partnership (MDAP) at the Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health (CEH) — a program for North Richmond Community Health specifically tailored to supporting young South Sudanese Victorians in the City of Yarra who are experiencing harms from alcohol and other drugs use. Throughout his career, Deng has interacted with people of all age groups, from diverse backgrounds and in situations where cultural awareness and appreciation are integral. Deng is a believer in multiculturalism and now sits on the Regional Advisory Council of the Victorian Multicultural Commission as well as on the Local Reference Group for the South Sudanese Community Support Groups in the city of Wyndham.

Emanuel is the Manager of Communications and Community Engagement at North Richmond Community Health. He has a longstanding commitment to strategic communication and community engagement in the development context. Emanuel has lived and worked in community in Melbourne since 1993. He has also, on and off over the past 20 years, worked internationally, including in Timor-Leste and in India, in strategic communication, media and international development. He completed his PhD in 2015, at Victoria University, with his research focus on communication and the emergence of national identity in post-colonial and post-conflict nations, looking at the experience of Timor-Leste.

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