Reframing community consultation

Many cultural institutions undertake community consultation when working on exhibitions, services, collections or research projects that relate to First Nations people or culture.   However, there have been discussions around the use of the terms “community consultation” or “community engagement”  and the processes they entail.

An issue that I have with the use of community consultation is that in many cases it is not a collaborative process and for the most part it is about seeking approval rather than receiving input. Usually, an organisation or person has an idea than does consultation, but the trajectory of the project rarely changes based on community feedback. Aspects of the project may change, but not significant aspects, especially in regards to outcomes. This type of consultation could be considered what Poka Laenui refers to as “surface accommodation”  where  the incorporation of cultural protocols or First Nations Knowledge in the project is at a very shallow level to give the appearance of Indigenous ownership.

That being said, there are many occasions where First Nations cultural knowledge is needed and integral part of a cultural institutions’ project. For example, you might want to add videos of Elders’ stories to your gallery or collection to form a stronger narrative. However, you got to ask if this is a reciprocal relationship or just taking. Does this have a community benefit?

Many times organisations think their projects’ outcomes have self evident benefits such as if you are recording Elders’ stories, means your organisation can preserve the story for future generations.  However, that is something you think the community wants and not something they asked for. There is a big difference between the two.  The former is a continuation of the paternalistic thinking that does not recognise First Nations peoples’ agency.

Engagement needs to mutual benefits. 

Another issue I have with the way consultation is conducted is that relationship aspects of it are rarely maintained. Organisations or individuals seek First Nations communities or community members for a certain project but after the project, the organisation or individual seldom contact that community group again until the next time they need their approval or knowledge. Rarely do Elders get invited to the organisation for a cup of tea without an agenda.

Lastly, cultural practitioners and knowledge holders need to fairly compensated when being consulted for projects. No other consultants are asked to give advice or input for free. Payment for consultation helps demonstrate that your organisation values First Nations cultural knowledge.

In summary, most First Nations community engagement is better than none. Nevertheless, when engaging and consulting with community, reciprocity and empowerment need to be at the forefront. Ways of thinking may be challenged, but that is important. Projects need to have flexibility and fluidity to allow First Nations knowledge and ideas to be properly incorporated which leads to the project being more collaborative.

by Nathan Sentance

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