Communicating as Community: Examining Power and Authority in Community-focused Environmental Communication through Participatory Action Research in the Ourimbah Creek Valley

Chloe Killen, Phillip McIntyre, Bernadette Drabsch, Andrea Cassin, Anita Chalmers, Alex Callen, Luke Foster, Lucinda Ransom, Aaron Mulcahy, Barry Williams, Kevin Duncan, Edwina Richards & Kevina-Jo Smith
– University of Newcastle

Platform: Journal of Media and Communication

Volume 9.2, ANZCA Special Issue (2022): pp.6 – 21


In this paper we argue that the making of meaning is a powerful creative act that occurs within social and cultural contexts where there exists a multi-directional flow or interconnected relationships within a system of communication (McIntyre, 2012). This little explored set of ideas echoes Rogers and Kincaid’s earlier systems-based proposition that “the communication process has no beginning and no end, only the mutually defining relationship among the parts which give meaning to the whole” (1981, pp. 55-56). Similarly, Ali et al. have suggested that the “holistic, relational, interactional, and process-nature of Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies resemble the tenets of systems theory” (2022). With this theoretical foundation in place – located in complex and interconnected systems rather than a Western reductionist worldview (Gadgil et al, 1993) – this project uses action research as a methodology, reframing participants from ‘subjects’ to co-researchers. We assert that “people’s right and ability to have a say in decisions which affect them and claim to generate knowledge about them” (Reason and Bradbury, 2011,
p. 9) can empower them on multiple levels to enact change (Freire, 1970; Reason, 2005; Reason and Bradbury, 2011). From this position, “we acknowledge our lives are in connection with multitudes of other beings” (Weir, 2012, p. 4) and that many of the key concepts of this project are rooted in Indigenous knowledges. As such, traditional notions of top-down power are challenged in favour of an even and diffuse power distribution within a communication act (Foucault, 1980).

The specific act of communication under examination is found in the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) and various communications to the public concerning the necessity of preserving threatened species. The DPIE’s perception of a lack of public awareness led to the planning and execution of a pilot programme to engage public understanding and acceptance of the issues faced (PRIA, 2011). The project team, including DPIE and Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council, set out to create a participatory community of inquiry in the Ourimbah Creek Valley, located on the Central Coast of New South Wales. This valley is home to 48 threatened fauna species and at least 12 threatened flora species and is critical to their survival. To engage with this action-research approach, residents were invited to a workshop which included a site visit, a bush-food inspired morning tea, and a collaborative art-making activity to share knowledge and build community awareness of and encourage stewardship of two threatened species. This paper reports on the findings of this action-research process.


Environmental Communication, Threatened Species, Systems Thinking, Diffusion of Innovation, Everett Rogers, Action Research.

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