Unlocking rural engagement

The key to meaningful community engagement is capturing a breadth and depth of stakeholder ideas and opinions. This includes those who may be marginalised in traditional engagement approaches. 28% of the Australian population lives in regional and remote areas, making them a group that cannot be overlooked. Yet they so often are. There are a unique set of barriers that comes with engaging with our rural communities, and it’s vital that we, as engagement specialists, elevate these voices.  

Adversity experienced by rural communities 

Rural communities face many of the same problems as major cities, as well as their own set of obstacles. Geographical spread, limited infrastructure, low population density and higher costs to deliver goods and services all create barriers that cities do not face.  

There is often more extreme weather events, like fires or floods, and less access to support. Industries are usually more reliant on the weather, such as farming. There is less access to medical care, contributing to a higher burden of disease and hospitalisations, as well as a lower life expectancy.  

All of these factors, and many more, shape the experiences of our regional and remote communities, and in turn, their perspectives.  

Historical factors 

Rural communities cannot be discussed without considering the historical context of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people and communities. While population density, lacking infrastructure and higher costs of living do increase disadvantage, those barriers would not exist without years of policy and practice that has targeted First Nation people.  

The proportion of First Nation people jumps from 1.8% in major cities to 32% in rural and remote areas. It is important to consider how the intersection between these two aspects creates an entirely new type of disadvantage, compounding the barriers to engagement.   

For example, not only must you consider the lack of internet access when creating an engagement strategy for rural communities, you must also consider First Nation community members who speak English as a second language. With limited internet access, you cannot rely on online translators. Therefore, it is critical to collaborate with the community to receive help in removing that barrier.  

Suggestions on how to respectfully engage with rural communities: 

Before you go-  
  1. Be aware of what is going on in the community besides what you are attempting to engage about 
  1. Review guidelines and plan carefully in order to follow government and key organisation protocol 
  1. Partner with local First Nations community leaders to support their involvement in decision making 
  1. Know your city. No two rural communities are the same  
  1. Be accountable by clearly laying out what the engagement is going to achieve  
While you are there-  
  1. Buy local by using local services and experts 
  1. Take time and build relationships with the community. This shows you are being genuine and increases your own understanding 
  1. Be flexible and allow multiple consultation options, as well as giving people lots of notice before the event 
  1. Be confidential by being respectful and using discretion 
Once you’re gone-  
  1. Share your findings and show that you valued the community’s input 
  1. Keep in contact with the community to show respect 
  1. Link people to local services and support  

Empowering the local community while being able to adapt to the local needs can create meaningful community engagement for a group that often gets overlooked. The knowledge of unique barriers that rural communities face should be combined with an understanding of the historical oppression of the First Nations people who live there. Only then can community engagement help support the resilience, strength and voice of rural communities.  

Written by Arden Lunay
Arden has a passion for combining creative communication skills with social justice knowledge to create change. She is bringing a fresh outlook to the industry and excited to share her ideas.