Good practice in community-based participatory processes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research

By Jan Chapman, Alyson Wright, Nadine Hunt and Bobby Maher

1. Jan Chapman (biography)
2. Alyson Wright (biography)
3. Nadine Hunt (biography)
4. Bobby Maher (biography)

How can participatory process in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities be made adaptable and flexible? How can theoretical frameworks take into account the cultural and geographical complexities of communities and their contexts?

Here we provide five key principles that we have found useful in engaging communities in the Mayi Kuwayu Study ( include: community decision-making; involvement in study governance; community capacity development; effective communications; and, long-term and multi-engagement processes.

Community decision-making

A key principle is to seek community endorsement and decision-making from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance groups on their community’s participation in the study. This community consent process sits over individual consent.

Before we start the research and work with the community, we meet with the relevant Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander governance groups to seek their support. This process enables us to be responsive to community protocols, listening to community research priorities and ways of working.

For example, some communities have requested that researchers don’t approach families in their homes but remain in public areas, whereas other communities have asked that we go door-to-door to enable participation. Other communities have requested that we work closely with agencies and services (eg., aged care, cultural centres and employment agencies) in the community to collect data.

Our community engagement approach is adaptive and flexible because it is important to respect and adhere to community protocols. We aim to allow organisations to decide how they want to work with the research team to develop a reciprocal collaboration designed to meet each other’s needs.

Involvement in study governance

A second principle is to involve key partners in decision-making for the study, including peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations (in health and well-being for this research). These partners were involved early in the study design and continue to be involved in decisions about study implementation and planning for research priorities.

We have also established a data governance committee to develop the process for applying and using study data. The committee is made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have experience across research and research ethics, community services and policy.

Capacity development

We want communities to benefit from the research and to build the capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community researchers and scholars.

Some examples of capacity development include:

  • training local researchers to collect and analyse data
  • obtaining places for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars in formal education programs
  • involving partners in authorship on papers and co-presenting at conferences
  • working with local services to develop data strategies.

Effective communications

We ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are well-informed about the study and for this we employ several platforms, including:

  • Study ambassadors – The Mayi Kuwayu ambassadors include outstanding and high-profile Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are recognised as role models ( Ambassadors help to promote the study through a number of platforms: attending events, administering surveys and leveraging off their own projects, events and social media.
  • Events – As well as holding events that we organise, and attending conferences, we also provided sponsorship for local events, gatherings and supporting community groups. For example, on Thursday Island the research sponsored an afternoon tea to support social connectedness and enable surveys to be completed.
  • Media – The research has a strong presence on social media, with regular posts providing updates, community participation and other supportive events and partnerships. Radio interviews, newspaper articles and other forms of media all help promote the study and are broadening the promotional reach to different regions across the country.
  • Newsletter: A Mayi Kuwayu Study newsletter is produced on a monthly basis and provides updates on the study’s progress. The newsletter is distributed by email to those who have signed up to keep informed on the study, and is uploaded on social media and the main Mayi Kuwayu web page.

Long-term and multi-engagement processes

Finally, we aim to build long-standing, ongoing and committed relationships and to build capacity to use research data for the communities’ needs and priorities.

Multiple ways to engage communities in research helps overcome situations where communities prefer personal approaches, where English is not the primary language spoken, where literacy and numeracy skills prevent participation and in places where research does not have a good reputation.


Do you have experience in working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander or other First Nations communities to share? Are there other principles that you would add?

To find out more:
Mayi Kuwayu Study. (2019). Community engagement: Good engagement practices for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research, Canberra, Australia. (Online): (PDF 1.9MB)

Biography: Jan Chapman is a Tangurang woman from Victoria, Australia, and is study manager of the Mayi Kuwayu Study at the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

Biography: Alyson Wright is a PhD student in the Mayi Kuwayu Study at the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. She is based in Alice Springs, Northern Territory.

Biography: Nadine Hunt is an Iamalaig and Kaanju woman from Queensland, Australia and is a community researcher with the Mayi Kuwayu Study at the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. She is based in Cairns, Queensland.

Biography: Bobby Maher is a Yamatji woman from Western Australia and is a PhD student in the Mayi Kuwayu Study at the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

All four authors are members of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange, which is in the Research School of Population Health at The Australian National University.

8 thoughts on “Good practice in community-based participatory processes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research”

  1. Thanks Jan, Alyson, Nadine, and Bobby for these principles. I think they are very good advice to anyone who is engaging communities generally, and not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

    A further principle that I would add with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities though is that history matters in complex systems. I consider this to be an inadequately considered and under-addressed aspect of complexity.

    As Ramalingam and colleagues alert in concept 5 of the 10 key concepts of complexity science[1], complex systems are sensitive to their initial conditions, so “The interactions that are taking place at any moment in time have evolved from a previous moment in time, that is, all interactions are contingent on an historical process. Put simply, history matters in complex systems.”

    I’ve written a case study illustrating the significant complexities that historical processes have created for Aboriginal communities in the Ipswich area of Queensland, which can be found at

    A further example in an Aboriginal health context can be found in a recent paper by Sherriff and colleagues[2]. They state that: “Historically, research involving Australian Aboriginal people has been problematic and has often been exploitative and invasive, consistently failing to recognise the diversity of Aboriginal cultures, values, kinship and spirituality. Moreover, it has failed to acknowledge the profound trauma of massacres, forced removal of children, dislocation from traditional lands and the ongoing impact of post-colonial experiences … Given this history there is, understandably, an often deep distrust by Aboriginal people towards research purporting to be for the good of their communities.”


    1. Ramalingam, B., Jones, H., Reba, T., & Young, J. (2008). Exploring the science of complexity: Ideas and implications for development and humanitarian efforts (Working paper 285). London: ODI.

    2. Sherriff, S. L., Miller, H., Tong, A., Williamson, A., Muthayya, S., Redman, S., … & Haynes, A. (2019). Building trust and sharing power for co-creation in Aboriginal health research: a stakeholder interview study. Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice, 15(3), 371-392.

    • Thanks Bruce. I agree history matters. The Mayi Kuwayu Study is looking at the relationships between culture, health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – acknowledging all three factors have been shaped by history and the broader contextual situations of contemporary society. We also ask about people’s experience of stolen generations, discrimination/racism and other factors (whether your community you live at was a mission, station or reserve). This is starting point to understanding some of the historical and contextual issues, but I acknowledge that it is extremely complex and intersectional. In the Study, we are keen to show how we operationalise the principles of good engagement, so your additional principle has got me thinking about the practicalities of actions that demonstrate ‘history matters in complex systems’. Thanks for the links and references.

    • For me, I think the time taken to negotiate is no reason not to do so. Better process can lead to better outcome. I would hate to see time or relationship building processes used as excuse by private sector, governments or other.

    • Hi Bethany, back in 2003 I turned my back on my own good advice in regard to the importance of relationship building because I feared that unless strong laws to stop land clearing in the Australian state of Queensland were quickly enacted we would not be able to avert a biodiversity disaster. I joined with other conservationists in a campaign that resulted in the introduction of those laws.

      However, because this approach hadn’t adequately considered the perspectives of rural communities, a significant backlash to the laws grew over time. This has led to the laws being greatly watered down, and land clearing rates have again skyrocketed. As urgent as the situation seemed, not spending the necessary time on relationship building has meant that the past 16 years have largely been wasted. If we’d spent the necessary time on relationship building in 2003 then it’s quite likely that we would have had a much more lasting solution in place by now.

      So I would agree with Alyson.

      For a related discussion see


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