Grassroots participatory communication = an essential component of community education strategy


The common ground between learning within a community education context and the methodology of participatory communications is respect for local knowledge and local ways of doing things. In both education and communications, learners and facilitators are peers in a long process of self development and social awareness. The process mobilizes individuals to analyse and plan for their own future and the future of their communities.

Specifically, we are talking about adult, non-formal, community-based learning. The mandate of the Port au Port Community Education Initiative Inc., involving 27 agencies working since 1991 in a multidimensional effort to connect community needs and educational initiatives, is, of course, much broader than the process described here.

Nevertheless, the education initiative recognizes that traditional definitions of learning do not hold true in community education with its broader philosophy and orientation, as well as its concept of learning as a life long activity. The education initiative relies on all citizens and agencies for support in a process which develops long term strategies for community benefit as well as individual development.

The technology described here is small format video used in an interactive, participant-controlled local television environment. In order to plug participatory communications into community education, it is essential to humanize and demystify the technology.

The Port au Port Community Education Initiative provides support for the Lourdes and Area Communication for Survival committee, continuing a process of participatory communication on the peninsula begun in 1993. However, it is useful to realize that the process of bridging community learning and communications technology has not only been happening in Newfoundland and Labrador for almost 30 years but is perhaps unique to the culture of this province.

In 1967 Memorial University's Extension Service and the National Film Board collaborated on a film project designed to convey the collective voice (in analysis and dialogue) of the people of Fogo Island.

As an early attempt to humanize communications technology, principles were established, such as the need for a sensitive film crew and the "approval screening" - where participants in the films were given the opportunity to judge if the films actually represented what they wanted to say.

Today, "the Fogo Process" is known globally in adult education and participatory communications circles, thanks in great part to the work of the Don Snowden Centre. (In 1995, MUN closed the centre and it has been resurrected by the University of Guelph in Ontario.)

In 1979 the Extension Service (and its media unit) began to experiment with a television transmitter in rural communities. The experiments evolved to become phone-in community forums on local issues and needs. Typically the projects began with discussions between field workers and community representatives, which resulted in the media unit bringing in a producer and technicians to pre-tape programming and produce live television in a community hall. There was delivery of information to the community and an opportunity for residents to dialogue and plan the future. Local people appeared on-camera, operated cameras and provided cultural input.

Between 1983 and 1989, there were 11 transmitter projects focusing on public discussion of particular issues facing rural communities. But by the end of the 80s, there was a shift from media technology to popular education - the people took control of the technology.

The reasons were financial - the media unit had been eliminated and extension could no longer afford professional technicians; technological - the proliferation of local cable systems meant the technology was already in the community and could be tapped, and philosophical - popular education methodology meant "we have no media experts but rather co-participants sharing in a communication/education experience. We don't teach but rather create learning situations and popular education resource materials."

We are all conditioned by our life-long experience as passive recipients of information from media and educational institutions. Therefore it requires a major effort to understand why it is futile to expect communication or education to effect a positive change unless the people themselves perceive the process as meeting community needs and being "from here."

The experience of the local-television community-dialogue process, as facilitated collaboratively by volunteers and extension workers in the early 90s, closely parallels the principles and assumptions of community learning, as currently being realized by the Port au Port Community Education Initiative Inc.

By 1989 MUN extension workers perceived that a danger of using, for example, video in a community is the technology is often wielded by outsiders. Such experiments, however well intentioned the motive, can provide a focus which runs contrary to the needs of the community. Furthermore, they can be "one-shot deals" with no positive sustainable effects.

It is essential that people do their own media. This not only ensures ownership of the process, but in itself develops self-confidence, self-reliance and pride. Using the tools of technology, the communities take control of their own learning process. Then, from a position of self confidence and control, the community can meet with external agencies and facilitators to design programs which meet its needs and coincide with its aspirations.

The philosophy of the Port au Port Community Education Initiative, with its emphasis on lifelong learning and encouraging local people to participate in planning which affects their own future, is compatible with the community forum process. Principles of community education, as realized by the education initiative, include self-determination and self-help; leadership development of citizens; decentralization of decision-making; an integrated delivery of services, and the maximum use of all resources.

In 1993 a representative of Westviking College (a partner in the education initiative) proposed a community forum process on the Port au Port Peninsula.

In September, 1993, the first forums were organized in five communities on the peninsula. Focal roles were played by representatives of the Port au Port Economic Development Association (an education initiative partner) and the college. The project was supported by the Appalachia Roman Catholic School Board (another partner).

The purpose of the project was to inform the people of Port au Port about the work of the education initiative but, more importantly, involve them in the planning process.

A report on the project by Ryakuga Inc., "You Don't Even Have to Phone Long Distance", included comments made the week after the five community forums.

Cecilia Bennett, Piccadilly, said she realized what it is to be a Newfoundlander. "It made me feel as if I had been away from Port au Port for a long time and I just came back." (Local television is an effective way of mirroring the experience of the participants, as well as legitimizing their experience.)

Annette Ryan, Port au Port, said it was important that not someone "from the city" but "our own people" were expressing themselves. "We realized we have similar problems," she said.

Robert Cormier, Cap St-Georges, thought "the technical setup was excellent" and the "people were comfortable" with the medium.

Mark Felix liked the involvement of young people. "Such a resource for the future," he said. (Youth often take control of the technology; this has many benefits for the community.)

Michelle Jesso appreciated "the fact that it was an opportunity for the community to actually have a voice." (All the voices is an important concept globally in participatory communications.)
Since the initial five community project, the education initiative has directly sponsored separate forums in three communities.

In 1995 the Port au Port Community Education Initiative, the Ramea Economic Development Corporation, L'Association Régionale de la Côte Ouest, Human Resources Development Canada, the Rural Newfoundland and Labrador Cultural Survival Project and volunteer committees in Lourdes, Burgeo, Ramea and the francophone communities, joined together to begin a process called the Communiquer Pour Survivre/Communication for Survival initiative.

This process is based on the premise that constructive dialogue and communication are the key to the ability to work together to plan for a better future. The Communiquer Pour Survivre/Communication for Survival initiative is designed to be a collaboration between sponsors, community partners, participants and initiators. It promotes the sharing of experiences and plans within and between communities.

The communication initiative focuses on small format video and community controlled television, as a tool for exploring and promoting the Newfoundland and Labrador way of life and mobilizing communities to solve their own problems.

However, the communities are using a wide variety of grassroots communication tools - such as newsletter; community radio; black and white photography; posters; brochures; videoletters; problem-oriented skits, and community television. Some activities include live phone-in public meetings on community cable television systems; students videotaping interviews, "streeters" and cultural events; community round tables; workshops on group development; students producing videodramas to send to other communities; forming black and white photography groups; volunteers producing posters and brochures to publicize local events and festivals; volunteers transforming a development corporation newsletter into a community newsletter; volunteers assisting a colleague to produce a regional newspaper, and regional steering committee meetings of volunteers to discuss common issues and strategies.

Training, combining formal programs with hands-on activities, involves much more than acquiring new technical skills in video and television production. Also highlighted are skills of communication required by individuals and groups committed to their communities; ways of working in teams planning common goals, and developing skills and strategies for getting community involvement in survival projects.

There are no technicians in this process - it is participatory. Resource people work mostly with youth and women in the communities - participants are students; itinerant farm workers; housewives; teachers; fishermen; unemployed fish plant workers; union officers, small business operators and so on.

Trying to ensure that as many people as possible participate in the community communication process is a priority of Communiquer Pour Survivre/Communication for Survival. All the voices is an essential component of grassroots communication. But it's not easy. Ordinary people are not used to being asked to speak publicly on issues and, when they do, nobody listens.

Similarly, how to involve the community-at-large and organizations within the community is, quite simply, a matter of life and death for the rural communities of western Newfoundland. As elsewhere, the volunteers who are leading the struggle are facing complete burnout as government support is being withdrawn across the board. But, not only that, these people realize that without the support and participation of the community-at-large, current efforts and successes cannot be experienced in depth or be sustainable.

There are no professionals in grassroots participatory communications; ordinary people plan the programming and operate the equipment. It is a common experience that when people take control of the technology that they grow in self esteem and therefore are better able to discuss their situation and plan for the future. The community can and must take ownership over its own communication process.

The practice of respect for local ways of doing things - the common ground between community education and participatory communications technology - is essential for all educators and communicators who want to participate in development processes which meet the needs of our rural communities. In this light, support for Communication for Survival volunteers is both an expression of respect and a tangible step toward genuine development in our region.

Introduction of presentation to the

Long Range Regional Economic Development Board

Ryakuga Inc. urges the Long Range Regional Economic Development Board to recognize the efforts of local grassroots communications volunteers in its communication and public participation strategy.

Specific recommendations for continued support would include legitimizing participatory communications as an essential ingredient of development strategy in the zone; maintaining a database of groups and volunteers engaged in community communications, and implementing a plan which would utilize and assist volunteer efforts.

This presentation identifies the links between community education, as supported by the Port au Port Community Education Initiative, and participatory communications. It describes the collaborative utilization of participatory communications technology in community education projects in western Newfoundland. It shows how the volunteer facilitators of local-television public-forums are inheritors of almost 30 years experience in this province. Specifically, the presentation requests continued support for Communication for Survival volunteers.

Ryakuga is a development support communications company founded in Newfoundland in 1992. Its primary tenet is "all the voices" and it facilitates community participatory communication through the utilization of innovative, micro-technology. Areas of focus include community television/video; community radio; black and white photography; newsletters; posters/brochures, and computer communications. Additional tools used by Ryakuga are needs, skills and resources assessments; four-stage popular training programs, and photocopiable print resources.

In 1995 Ryakuga and the National Youth Council of St. Vincent and the Grenadines facilitated the first youth community radio project in the Caribbean. We currently provide technical, print and human resources for the Communiquer Pour Survivre/Communication for Survival initiative.

Ryakuga has also assisted the Long Range Regional Economic Development board during its public consultation process. We have prepared the resource guide - Talking With: A Guide to Participatory Public Consultation.


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