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The myth of the quiet country life – engaging with our busy rural and regional communities.

Collinsville - car with people in background

with Renée Madsen, Principal Consultant at Create & Evaluate, North Queensland.

Rolling green hills, or a wide open paddock. The breeze gently gusting through the silence. Maybe a Hills Hoist clothesline spinning slowly in a well-tended back yard, or an empty main street, with a couple of people meandering along and a few cars parked here and there. A big shady verandah, with a nice inviting chair for sitting down and surveying the quiet country all around, while you sip a hot tea or cold beer. How’s the serenity?

If this is your idea of what it’s like living in a rural or regional community, you’d be right some of the time, but not always! For many residents in these areas, the ‘quiet country life’ is a myth. Many people – IAP2 members among them – live in regional towns because we love the peace and quiet mentioned above. But to approach our engagement work with the idea that “people out there have all the time in the world” would be doing them – and our engagement practice – a big disservice.

Myth: “People in country towns have nothing to do”

Many people in country towns are incredibly busy, with multiple roles in the community that take up a huge amount of time and energy beyond everyday work, family and friends. The corner shop owner may also be a local government councillor, an accredited horseriding instructor, and a volunteer with the Country Women’s Association, while helping to run her family’s farm. The local community centre coordinator may have a second job as a police liaison officer, while volunteering his time to coach footy after work and on weekends, mentoring young people, and running an outdoor cinema on Friday nights.

Adding to this everyday busyness, at certain times of the year the social calendar is full of popular events that people plan to attend well in advance. For example, winter in western Queensland is the prime time for rodeos and other shindigs. People are also busy in the lead up to winter, either working extra hard on their property or business to ensure they can have a few days off for upcoming events, or putting in long hours as part of the event organising committees.

Factor in long distances – “it’s only a 4 hour drive!” – and you have an intriguing challenge for engagement professionals – how do we attract these community members to our engagement events, or get them to commit to interviews or other information gathering exercises when they’re so darn busy?

A few things to try

Some suggestions if you’re concerned about the availability of your regional community:

Piggyback off existing events. It sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how many unrelated workshops, information sessions and other ‘engagement events’ roll through town without being aware of each other’s existence. A good place to start is the local council’s community development or recreation officer (if they have one), who will know if any other organisations are planning to visit around the same time you are. TAFE colleges, health services and state/regional sporting bodies are just some of the regular visitors to the regions, and it’s worth seeing if you can join your events together to take advantage of people’s interest and the fact that they’ve come into town (or ‘up the street’, in my local parlance!)

Have workshops at different times of the day – and think about offering childcare. If people are busy, they’re going to find it hard to get to your workshop no matter what time it’s on, but consider offering a choice of daytime and evening sessions to maximise the opportunities for people to attend. If logistics and legalities allow, consider on-site childcare for the duration of your workshop, so parents who have partners working away and no other family support can attend and be fully involved in the discussions.

Go where people are, and don’t dismiss technology. Pub, paddock, Wednesday night sports training – all legitimate places to gather thoughts from people, without the need to make them come to a central venue with Powerpoint slides. Having said that, don’t dismiss the use of technology just because you’re in a remote area, or because the majority of your attendees are older people. Most rural towns have good phone reception, with the occasional black spot on the highways in between, and most people enjoy using interactive tools on their phone or reading the local WhatsApp and Facebook groups. If you’re looking into online engagement, Skype can be a good choice for older people in remote areas as they are already used to talking to their grandchildren with it.

Build long term relationships. Approach your engagement with the intent to build a long-term relationship with the community and your key contacts there, beyond just the immediate project. Wherever possible, don’t drive/fly in/out the same day. Stay overnight, get a feel for the place, talk to the locals. Yes, it will add time and dollars to your engagement budget, but the time and space to tell stories is key to building relationships, especially in First Nations communities. Keep relationships going after you leave, and consider your contacts in the community a part of your network now. If you see resources or information they’d be interested in, pass it along. Follow their social media pages. Look for ways to support or assist the community as a thank you.

Building these long-term relationships is ultimately what will narrow the metaphorical distance between metropolitan and regional areas, and help our engagement work to create positive change, regardless of where people live.

Renée Madsen is a freelance facilitator and engagement specialist based in Townsville, North Queensland. Born and raised in Townsville, with the added experience of living and working in capital cities across Australia, Renée believes in the power of collaboration to create positive change no matter where people live. Connect with Renée on LinkedIn.