Jocelyn E. Williams

Framing participation in collaborative community media: The living community documentary series

This paper positions the concepts of participation and collaboration for media content creation in the context of a complex, commercialised media landscape that is difficult for community and not-for-profit groups to break into, and focuses on the case of a 2014-2015 community media project funded by Unitec Institute of Technology in New Zealand. The project set out to produce a series of half-hour documentaries, The living community, for broadcast on Face TV, a pay TV channel with a public service/community commitment. Each of the seven programmes was intended to offer insights into a community group or organisation in the Auckland region. The paper explores potential issues in co-creating community stories for media visibility, with few resources. The paper proposes an inclusive co-creation model based on the experience of creating the final filmed piece in 2015, influenced by 'a subset of planned, intentional participatory media engagements that rely upon professional facilitators to lead collaborative projects with explicit purposes and aims' (Spurgeon et al. 2009)

Keywords: participation, collaboration, community media, public service broadcasting


In this paper, the challenges and outcomes of collaboration during 2014-2015 between an educational institute and several community groups to create a low-budget series for broadcast TV called The living community are presented. Seven community-based filmed stories were produced, six of them screening as a series on Face TV in May 2015 and a further one being shown in a public screening at the Auckland Museum, in October 2015. The project had multiple aims in terms of product and process while also bringing together multiple stakeholders. These included the seven Auckland region communities who had a story to tell, each with leaders or key members representing a wider constituency; Unitec research colleagues; media production facilitators at my workplace who acted under my direction as mentors and guides in the project; a public service television station called Face TV, owned by a not-for-profit trust; and student volunteers.

The primary motivation for the project was enabling community voice.[1] Although stories are everywhere in multiple media forms and genres including transmedia storytelling (Edwards 2012), so many remain untold or struggle to rise above the noise. In leading the project team, I aimed to explore the potential for complementary talents and energies to enable community storytelling, convinced that worthwhile outcomes can be achieved if the necessary resources (commitment, time, stories, skills, media platforms) can be coordinated around a shared mobilising vision. Our impetus to mobilise came in part from the context of media content proliferation in which reaching an audience is hugely challenging, especially for meagrely resourced community groups. Despite dramatic growth in the volume and diversity of video content being shared on social media, infotainment, reality TV and commercial agendas dominate mainstream platforms and undercut public access to alternative, or sufficiently diverse, points of view. Thus content genuinely serving the public interest is now almost non-existent in New Zealand (Hope 2015: 2).

Creativity and determination are required to create community stories, find a space for them and get them shared. All involved in The living community were motivated to challenge that issue of reaching an audience, out of a conviction that community content deserves to be seen. After all it often invites audiences to share in inspiring and constructive stories or examples; it facilitates awareness of opportunities for civic engagement and it can encourage development and social change. This project explored the value of complex collaboration as one means of facilitating community visibility in the story landscape.

Collaborative content creation approaches

Before discussing the detail of the filmed stories and the outcomes, The living community series will be situated within a range of collaborative approaches to developing community media content. In this way the choices we had to make to ensure, within the constraints of budget, project objectives and deliverables, that the stories spoke compellingly from the community itself will then become clear.

The broad genre of a documentary-style news show chosen as the format for the series was driven by three main considerations. First, an opportunity arose through my personal contacts for Unitec Institute of Technology, where I work, to avail itself of access to TV facilities and broadcast air-time for student content on Sky via Face TV, a channel that retains a strong commitment to public service broadcasting values. Face TV is ‘your channel, your voice, your community … your voice can be heard, your message understood … [TV] made for you and by you’ (Face: Access TV for NZ, Sky Channel 083 2015). This opportunity led me to initial consultations with Face and Unitec colleagues about how objectives of community engagement, student learning, and impactful research relating to co-creative media and community storytelling could be brought together in a single venture. At the same time, community research colleagues at Unitec were keen to use the opportunity to help their community groups tell their stories.

Second, preparing graduates for evolving workplace practices, especially collaboration in diverse teams working on real projects, is held to be an institutional imperative at Unitec. Therefore, I sought to knit together the disciplinary skills and perspectives of staff and students from both Communication Studies (my discipline) and Screen Arts[2] (also a specialist discipline at Unitec). This meant that the direction and production expertise of Screen colleagues, especially in documentary, would inform the project, as well as providing opportunities for students in both disciplines to gain experience in content production.

Third, the availability of a Screen expert in the project team, as well as the fact that an important project objective was to maximise learning value for students, had specific effects on the creation and production process and the form that The living community takes. In the early stages, I consulted closely with the Head of Performing and Screen Arts at Unitec and very experienced documentary expert Alexander Lee[3] who took the role of Executive Producer for the series. We considered how best to involve students in as many ways as we could to give them experience, such as in researching for stories, developing scripts, being studio presenters, auditioning and rehearsing for studio work, and much more. We planned a standard half-hour format for each show (effectively about 23 minutes of content to fit Face TV scheduling) to achieve a series look and feel that would be relatively straightforward to edit and produce. This format consisted of an intro with graphics designed by students, an opening studio segment featuring student presenters, a community location piece of some length, and a final studio wrap-up and ‘outro’. A Unitec Screen Arts colleague took the role of Production Manager, and worked with students filming on location. Post-production editing was done under the supervision of an editing teacher. This close collaboration with Screen colleagues also enabled the project to borrow equipment and post-production facilities. Thus the screen industry/documentary perspective shaped the operational detail of getting the series completed.

At another level, determining how to work with community groups, students, researcher colleagues and screen experts to facilitate the creation of stories that would honour community voice in seven unique contexts was a complex task that sits within an ethical framework for a collaborative content creation process. This accountability rested with me as the project lead. As both I and the project prioritised authenticity for all the stories, a pragmatic strategy was to customise an approach that would ensure integrity of process for each community and its story.

One tactic for getting stories filmed would have been for my team and me to come in as outsiders and take a story, interpreting as best we could what it was the community wanted to say. This could be described as an ‘exogenous’ initiative’ (Gaved and Anderson 2006: 6) in which ‘ …control and ownership may be exerted by … an external body: for example government and/or university’ (ibid). This has the advantage of efficiency but would severely constrain authenticity. The exogenous approach simply would not have any place in a project that has community empowerment objectives. My preferred methodology is to engage with people one-to-one in order that their knowledge and points of view, processed in dialogue, inform their purposes as a group (Williams 2009: 92-94; Williams 2013: 146). In this way the process can make some claim to integrity and the outcomes to have credibility. At the other end of the scale, we could have chosen the Participatory Video (PV) approach to content creation, which prioritises horizontal dialogue and local ownership. The participatory ideal is argued to be ‘highly complementary to new digital communication environments, as it promotes horizontal and participatory models of development rather than vertical, one-way, top down, or trickle down models’ (Tacchi 2012). In PV, ‘a collective storytelling process that uses film-making as a means to positive and transformative social change’ (Plush 2015: 15), the community’s involvement is required in the entire message-making process from the choice of topics and issues, to the planning and production of media content (Williams and Saifoloi 2016). The community makes the content, with 100 per cent control.

In the context of The living community project, PV would have required much more time than was feasible. Also a case can be made for the proposition that putting cameras in participants’ hands does not necessarily make for a participatory process:

Visual research methods do not become participatory in and of themselves; the role of the facilitator and the intention behind the use and implementation of visual research methods is of key importance (Reeves 2015: 3341).

From this perspective our ‘intention behind the use and implementation of visual research methods’ (ibid) is a key consideration, rather than what the method is called. The project goal determined that the lens for all decisions was collaboration, and that the communities were key partners in co-creation. Production methodologies were developed in each situation that would be as fully collaborative as possible, falling short of being fully ‘participatory’ but delivering – especially in the case of The Pacifica Mamas – a film that comes very close to being that community’s voice. Using Gaved and Anderson’s terminology again, ‘Control and ownership [were] exerted by the host community (and this can be contested and also evolve over time) – what we term endogenous or “grassroots” initiatives’ (2006: 6). At least in the context of community ICT, endogenous initiatives ‘may be more sustainable, as they are supported from within the community…’ (ibid: 27).


Early in 2014, I brought together a team of Unitec staff already connected with community groups in the region through research or student projects and who were keen to be involved in developing filmed stories for their communities. Screen colleagues were also integral to the team as explained previously. Together we brainstormed and planned the co-creation of a series of half-hour TV programmes that would prioritise communities having some control in creating their stories, as well as facilitate student learning about aspects of media production in a practical setting. The first six pieces were produced over the best part of a year from April 2014, a much longer period than was anticipated due to the complexity of involving so many stakeholders and objectives. These screened weekly as a series on Face TV during April-May 2015. The seventh piece required a different approach as will be explained later in the article. As a result, a professionally crafted 13-minute piece was produced,[4] yet it had a high level of participant involvement. This seventh piece forms a methodological contrast to the other six, while suggesting a further model of co-creation.

Initial decisions were that each Unitec staff member in the project, with research connections to a community group, was to decide with their community on a story for videoing by student crews. These ideas were written up and submitted for feedback from the Executive Producer, Production Manager and me. Once research, meetings and location scouting were done, the Production Manager with small student film crews would arrange location shoots. Editing students would assemble raw material under expert supervision in ways that would convey the desired story. On completion and after screening of the series on Face TV, a microsite was created on the Unitec website to host the programmes (Unitec Institute of Technology 2015b) enabling easy sharing via social media by the communities as they wished. A project blog documenting the process was also used as a space to tell the story of the stories (Williams 2014).

The wish for creative input and control varied among the different community groups and depended very much on each group’s leadership or collective structures and modes of practice. It was, therefore, challenging to strike the right balance consistently across this operating model. As The living community series Production Manager put it:

One of the things we were really clear on is that we weren’t here to tell their stories for them, but to provide a creative service to enable them to tell their own stories. Which can be tricky, because the moment you bring the camera out, people say: ‘Was that okay, is that alright?’ And we say: ‘Yes, if that’s the way you want to take it’ (Unitec Institute of Technology 2015a: 19).

Managing the dynamic complexity of multiple objectives, constraints and people and delivering on the project’s commitment to authentic community voice was enormously challenging. We needed to consider how the stories would be best told within the limits of our resources, and how each group wanted to – or was equipped to – collaborate. Each of the seven contexts and motivations was unique (see Table 1 below) as well as diverse in form, membership and ways of working to achieve their objectives. All, however, shared a commitment to building community connections or resilience through their efforts.

The community groups/organisations

The living community team worked with the following community groups:

1 Violence Free WaitakereBully Banishing Together: BBT is a community resilience programme designed to take ‘a whole of community approach to bullying’ (Violence Free Waitakere, 2015) at family level, coordinating a number of initiatives and collaborators around anti-bullying and community capacity building.‘Our aim is social change. To actually create communities that are participatory and resilient. And engaging and honouring the people who are in them’ (Elaine Dyer, VFW CE, personal communication, 21 August 2014).
Comment: The BBT documentary was initially intended to follow the story of a young man at the heart of an anti-bullying drama workshop series. This proved too complex: the final piece (Clarke 2015b) was structured around an interview with the CE of VFW, Elaine Dyer, and Geoff Bridgman, chair of the VFW Board, with location material filmed during BBT community events.
2 CUE Haven is a 59-acre former dairy farm being converted to native forest through extensive planting undertaken by volunteer groups including students. All types of volunteer effort, recorded in the CUE Haven blog (CUE Haven 2015), helps this project continue to meet its objectives.‘…we have over two thousand volunteers. And that to me is the story, to say that people can come together and work … if you all put aside your ego or whatever it is for a day and your daily concerns … to be able to come to a space … and then say “let’s work together and do something which is going to outlast us”. To me, that is a story, to say that people can achieve things [together]’ (Thomas Stazyk, personal communication, 27 August 2014).
Comment: A Unitec media class filmed interviews for The living community with Design students showing their installed ‘way-finding’ work in situ (Clark 2015), as well as interviewing the owners.
3 The Rosebank Art Walk was an Auckland Arts Festival installation at Rosebank Road, an industrial precinct in suburban Avondale. The temporary ‘art walk’ event was a platform for a design and art collective, members of which had researched and made artwork on location here. Artists collaborated with community groups to respond to what they found in this place, known more for its industry and commerce and yet of significant ecological worth as well as geological and historical interest.‘This project … has a presence. It was temporary but it has a continued presence in articles and websites and in people’s consciousness … a small contribution to a big shift that’s never going to happen in any other way except a whole multitude of small contributions’ (Marcus Williams, Art Walk Curator, personal communication, 9 September 2014).
Comment: For the documentary, the art walk event was recreated as a lighthearted pilgrimage along the Rosebank Road route, narrated by the art walk curator who stopped along the way to interview other key participants.
4 High Tech Youth Network is a digital media learning centre for local youth in a low-income neighbourhood in suburban Henderson. Part of the global Computer Clubhouse network (Computer Clubhouse 2013; Resnick, Rusk and Cooke 1998) with a Pacific regional and Auckland city focus, HTYN gives 10 to 18-year-old youth after-school access to a wide range of digital technologies to work on activities such as short film production and computer game construction.‘In [our] community there is a lot of transience … [it’s] a place where they can explore creativity and feel safe doing that. And also really learn and engage in positive relationships in a supportive community … learning as they do it’ (Jonathan Hickman, Studio MPHS Supervisor, personal communication, 22 August 2014).
Comment: Filmed location and interview content was insufficient for a full half-hour piece so in post-production it was combined with the story below.
5 Avondale Community Action (ACA) is a suburban ‘place building’ arts collective funded by Auckland Council, committed to improvement of the local area so that it is more vibrant and inclusive of residents. Initiatives such as art installations and a creative hub in the main shopping street have emerged from a detailed ACA-run community research/consultation process.‘…we needed to instigate some urban interventions that will actually let people go: “Oh, some things are actually changing up in the town centre” ... We thought the best way to do that is through creativity. … So we obtained funding from the council … and had inexpensive public artwork [and] some installations. … What that did is that it created visible change’ (Michelle Ardern, ACA Collective, personal communication, 15 September 2014).
Comment: Helping ACA tell their story on film was a challenge because they are a tight collective with no one individual identifying as leader or spokesperson.
6 More Than A War, an oral history project involving Auckland Libraries, generated a series of oral narratives recording experiences, reflections and remembrances of World War One for a digital archive of stories and accompanying memorabilia; and searchable, interactive online content.‘It was really to surface narratives and stories that were particularly more on the margin … we weren’t that interested in the stories of the campaigns or the soldiers … we’re really interested in the home front. … What were the women doing? What was a child’s perspective of the time? The stories that lie behind. An opportunity for young people to engage with the subject. It’s a contemporary picture of how, in 2014, people are remembering’ (Sue Berman, Auckland Libraries, Sara Donaghey, Unitec, personal communication, 21 August 2014).
Comment: The project was not so much a community story in the way the others were, but its objective of building community between young and old through the fabric of storytelling in a range of creative genres was seen as a fit for The living community series. However, its multiple goals and broad sweep of content were challenging to capture.
7 The Pacifica Mamas, ‘matriarchs of the Pacific’ (Waitakere Pacific Arts Cultural Centre, 2014), is a collective of Pacific women aged between 60 and 80 based in West Auckland. They make arts and crafts, run workshops for Auckland schools, work with inmates at Springfield Correctional Facility, and provide Pacific event management services. Their activities aim to circulate their knowledge, stories and a feeling of Pacific community more widely, preserving heritage and cultural practices.The Mamas are ‘well respected artists, mentors and cultural leaders’. Mary Ama, who first brought the group together and who remains a driving force, and the Arts Centre Director Jarcinda Stowers-Ama aspire to use digital media to capture and disseminate the Mamas’ story so that the group’s Pacific cultures and values can reach a much wider audience.

Table 1: Context for each community group and their core motivations

Methods of working closely with these diverse groups in ways that honoured their visions and voices were a high priority. The most successful pieces in The living community, where stories came across coherently and in an impactful way, tended to happen when relevant expertise was taken on board if it was needed. The less successful pieces came out of situations where community stakeholders were not clear on the story they wanted to convey, but at the same time wanted to exert control.

Ethics and outsiders

The involvement of an academic student/staff team as ‘digital storytelling researcher-facilitators’ (Spurgeon et al. 2009: 277) seeking the best collaborative solution for community causes, is one way to facilitate ‘the propagation of participatory culture’ (ibid). The central challenge of The living community was finding a workable balance ‘between the demands of institutional contexts of production and the interests of storyteller participants’ (ibid: 278) in each instance. The institutional contexts of production included the requirement for student learning, the time frame of the academic semesters, and funding from institute research resources.

These factors present potentially significant limitations on ‘the interests of storyteller participants’ and raise ethical tensions around the co-creation process. Examples could include potential pressure on community participants to agree to conditions that may be uncomfortable because the group does not want to waste the opportunity; or a possible feeling of obligation to allow ideas, angles, arrangements or interpretations of participants’ life-worlds that may not be entirely authentic or exact enough, from a wish to help student learning, or a wish to avoid appearing ungrateful. These considerations point strongly toward core ethical questions in research relationships such as ‘is it necessary to be an insider to understand another’s lived-experiences?’ (Chatman 1996: 194). This is a question descended from ideas in the sociology of knowledge such as those explored by Robert K. Merton, observing ‘according to the doctrine of the Insider, the Outsider, no matter how careful and talented, is excluded in principle from gaining access to the social and cultural truth’ (Merton 1972: 15).

Aware of and cautious about the critique of community-based research in the context of indigenous peoples that ‘community-based projects are often conceptualised, funded and directed by researchers who have been trained within a discipline or paradigm, and are often employed by a research organization’ (Smith 2012: 215) and thus perpetuate unhelpful outside-in control and representation of community interests, my modus operandi was to give the creative reins to each group and its intermediaries. These personal convictions about the need for an explicitly shared co-creation relationship based on experience in previous community research collided somewhat with, first, the discipline paradigm and practices of Screen colleagues and, second, with severe budget (time) limitations that inevitably led to compromises that may account for the varied effectiveness of each filmed piece.

The emergence of what we call ‘disciplines’ within Western systems of knowledge as a product, or project, of the Enlightenment (ibid: 117-118) continues to impose ways of knowing and doing especially in professional spheres, even if we refer, instead, to fields of study or professional practice. There are rules to be followed in different cultures of knowledge, and woe betide anyone who thinks things should be done differently. The disciplines’ different ways of knowing, being and doing arising from varied understandings and lenses on what a cultural product is, is for, and who benefits from it, can be seen in The living community project. Specifically, ethical tensions existed in relation to filmed content being a form of knowledge, or cultural property, that belongs to a person or group.

Film production staff in the screen industry are trained to use ‘talent release forms’ for participants to sign, authorising ownership and use of the material. On the other hand in research practice, an ethical approach to informed consent is founded on the rights of the individual to privacy and ownership of personal disclosures, and on their agreeing to participate on the basis of strict conditions governing their use. In addition, where a group is formed around belonging to a particular culture, then a ‘decolonising’ critique of knowledge paradigms may apply (ibid). For example it might be argued that this project uses a content production framework defined and operationalised by mainstream culture, even if we call it public service broadcasting and make claims about the need for diversity in the media. This mainstream approach and worldview could – even subtly if not explicitly – frame a story in a particular way.

In the series we produced, a specific cultural context where the risk existed for indigenous ways of knowing and being to be thus subsumed applied to only one of the seven stories, The Pacifica Mamas. Yet the careful process (explained in the next section) with its emphasis on dialogue at every step led the way to a knowledge-sharing approach to collaboration, a partnership, between a documentary director and the Mamas, and a film that is explicitly and directly the Mamas speaking. It is my view that we were sufficiently aware of, and placed a high priority on, the need to let each community group steer what they wanted to say via a process that was inherently dialogic.

Power relations potentially inherent in other story contexts (the Bully Banishing Together/BBT initiative, and High Tech Youth Network/HTYN, both based in a low-income suburb with high proportions of Maori and Pacific families) could be argued to impose an Outsider (Merton 1972) perspective, represented by the educational/research, content production and – potentially – commodification agendas, prevailing over the objective of facilitating Insider (ibid) voice. This lens may account for the challenges experienced in crafting a ‘story’ in each of those cases: whose voice, whose story? I had to rely on the researcher contact in each case to manage these matters of voice and power, and entrust them to work appropriately to define the need and find an ethical approach within the boundaries of the research projects they had already been working on in each case. In one example of the larger project’s responsiveness to potential issues of power, the BBT filming initially involved teenagers (minors) taking part in a performing arts workshop that exposed them emotionally. Ultimately this footage was not used, but in the course of considering how to film minors for a media piece about bullying and the potential for sensitive subject matter to be shared, the researcher who had close relationships to this neighbourhood formed over decades of work in community development created a detailed Information Sheet for parents so they could exercise choice, while the sheet also covered matters of ‘talent release’. An ethical process was carefully, respectfully and responsibly negotiated, and the filmed product tells this community’s story with integrity.

The community groups’ ideas about their purpose and their strategies for achieving it, as well as their sense of urgency for gaining greater visibility for their cause, varied. Naturally this imposed complexity on a project also committed to collaboration and student learning. While community voice is best facilitated by giving the resources and ownership entirely over to the groups in a fully participatory way (as in the PV approach), this project was limited to finding ‘workarounds’ that could meet key outcomes for all stakeholders. In seeking ways to resolve this tension I considered approaches that view negotiation as a rational option:

The idea of co-creative media ... seeks to differentiate from the ‘spontaneous’ model of participatory media a subset of planned, intentional participatory media engagements that rely upon professional facilitators to lead collaborative projects with explicit purposes and aims (Spurgeon et al. 2009: 276).

This concept of ‘planned … engagements’ still allows the room for horizontal dialogue and local ownership, and can generate a range of co-creative responses. Those groups in The living community who showed an urgent need to collaborate to achieve their ends were the least concerned about creative control, and the most flexible about the process of partnership. For example, in some cases (CUE Haven, High Tech Youth Network) the creative partnership meant facilitating the contribution of any number of willing participants – including students – who could each do their part. For others (Avondale Community Action, More Than A War, and to an extent BBT) it was much more important to them to have control of their story and to use their own voice to represent it. Under pressure of commitment to student learning and to Face TV programme scheduling, as well as to delivering for each of the community groups, we produced a series that broadly met stakeholder and project objectives. However, it became clear that one of the groups needed to be treated separately: The Pacifica Mamas. The following section explains why, and how we responded, so that highly collaborative processes and outcomes could be assured.

Co-creation: Unpacking what worked best

The Pacifica Mamas (‘the Mamas’), a group of older women, meet frequently at the Pacifica Arts Centre in Henderson to work on art and crafts from different Pacific Islands, to socialise, share meals and engage with visitors, and to put on workshops and other cultural events. It was intended that their story would be filmed as part of the production work involved in 2014’s The living community series. The Mamas’ piece was begun in 2014 but not completed, because a range of pressures associated with student assignments, class commitments, timetable schedules and a resulting sense of urgency to get filming done proved to be uncomfortable. For example, a production team needs to be respectful and sensitive in asking the Mamas to change the day or time of filming. They also prefer to have a direct and specific say in who should be filmed, how many should be in a particular shot, and so on. This is, at least in part, because a Unitec research team had engaged with the Mamas previously, teaching the skills of Participatory Video (Saifoloi et al. 2014) and they quickly picked up the PV method. They were keen on using cameras themselves and had clear ideas about the film we agreed to make with them. It became clear that a closer form of collaboration that would allow the Mamas to have a real say in how their story would be told was needed.

Therefore, I met with Arts Centre and Mamas Director Jarcinda Stowers-Ama in June 2015 to work out a process that would best meet their objectives. This time, they wanted a specific piece for a Creative NZ Heritage Arts Fono (symposium) to be held at the Auckland War Memorial Museum in October 2015, and for this they were highly motivated. The Mamas were to feature in the programme, and they wanted the spotlight on them and their artistic work (Jarcinda Stowers-Ama, personal communication, 22 June 2015), on film.

Rather than trying to achieve a participatory process in which the Mamas would script the story and use PV methods, I approached this piece as a fully collaborative partnership. The practicalities of time (an October deadline, and the Mamas’ travel commitments) and budget, while more flexible than in the 2014 phase, would have made that impossible. On the other hand I wanted to avoid the mistakes of that first attempt by putting time into establishing trust as a foundation, and letting the Mamas lead the way, working first to establish a clear brief with Mamas’ Director Stowers-Ama who, in turn, brokered agreement with the Mamas. In consultation with The living community Executive Producer Alexander Lee, I met with and subsequently engaged the services of a documentary director, Skye Clark, after she had met with Jarcinda and the Mamas and they gave their approval. They had seen a documentary she had made, Luisa’s Baby,[5] about a young Pacifica woman, as well as meeting her in person. They clearly decided Skye Clark would fit the bill. Her process was to spend a great deal of time with the Mamas, talking, establishing what they would like, and using a camera when the time seemed right.

In accounting for the positive outcomes of this approach for The Pacifica Mamas, I reflect on methodologies honed in my longitudinal research (Williams 2009). Teacher training led me to a preference for a social constructivist understanding of knowledge. My research experiences evolved from that basis so that I intuitively selected methods that probe and uncover meaning in context and in shared social settings. My community-based research is informed by social constructivism that

… assumes …knower and respondent co-create understandings – as well as the appropriateness of a naturalistic set of methodological procedures aimed at bringing together diverse perspectives. In this sense, my approach is interpretive, so that ‘research subjects … collaborate in displaying key features of their world’ (Alvesson and Deetz 2000: 34 cited in Williams 2009: 79).

My true north is credible and trustworthy representations of social worlds; getting there implies multiple realities need to be brought together via appropriate dialogic methods, selected to suit each case. Working to create a trusting, respectful and transparent engagement between researcher/practitioner and participants is central to my research practice. When people are also engaged in creating an artefact together, we can describe this as social constructionism, which differentiates a role for the co-creation of shared outcomes and artefacts, actively constructed by groups of people (Shaw 1996: 177). All the groups involved in The living community were already deeply engaged in constructing artefacts and shared outcomes specific to their community priorities (such as a reforestation project at CUE Haven, a creative hub in Avondale, an arts installation, a digital drop-in centre, an anti-bullying performing arts piece, an exhibition, and so on) as well as the digital artefact representing their story for the Face TV broadcast series. In social constructionist theory, collaboration is recognised as central:

Community members act as collaborators, coaches, audience, and co-constructors of knowledge. In current educational research literature, new attention is given to communities of practice, knowledge-building communities, and [ICT] support for collaborative learning (Kafai and Resnick 1996: 6).

Theories such as these are helpful in accounting for the outcomes of the work with the Mamas in relation to the ideal of a participatory approach. While full PV was not feasible, the high priority placed on collaborative process and the shoulder-to-shoulder teamwork, enabled co-construction of an artefact (the film) as well as community building through the Mamas’ engagement in the process of creating and celebrating the film. The Mamas were very present throughout its creation. Also, in the co-creative process, the Mamas drew the director in as a community member and facilitator, collaborator, co-constructor, coach, and audience member, no more nor less than each Mama, or camera operator, or academic colleague, or me or member of the wider Mamas community or audience engaging in the outcomes of the community’s work. Most importantly, the documentary director responsible for researching, planning, consulting and liaising, eliciting beautifully judged story moments, editing the final piece and engaging the Mamas deeply in the entire filming process, talked about it afterwards in constructionist terms:

I did work quite closely and talking to them about what we could do, how we could do it, how we could shape it a little bit more … I just had to be flexible really, and I didn’t worry about my perfect film, I just tried to make sure that I told each person’s story and the story of the Mamas (Skye Clark, personal communication, 29 October 2015).

She commented that she ‘tried to get everybody at home … so that I could see behind the doors and see who they really are’. This was the collaborator and co-constructor, finding the right story for this piece:

I did put time in as well, I went and had lunch with them one day and really talked about myself … who I was and where I grew up, and talked about my grandparents, you know talked about a lot of stuff so that they could also appreciate who I was and that I was entrusting myself to them as much as they would entrust me and then I would also have research meetings with them all, and that was all at the [Pacifica Arts] Centre, and then I went home for their first time, to film with them at home (ibid).

The director felt that ‘through the creation as they got to know me more and that, well – “it’s just a little camera!” and … they also came to me with ideas like “Can we film Mata at church?” In this way, co-construction became the practice’. And the fact that she is European seemed immaterial. I suggested to her that there was a connection between her and the Mamas on the basis of arts practice: she shared with their Tivaevae (quilting) and embroidery arts, a ‘piecing’ approach to her film art. She responded:

That’s how I introduced myself to them – ‘You’re artists, so am I, so this is all art’ … so there was a common thing, we’re women we’re art. They could teach me to make a flower and I could teach them a little bit about a camera but it was fluid, it was never just ‘sit down’, it was, Oh, after I’ve finished filming: ‘How do you make that flower, can I have a go?’ and that was sort of how it went (ibid).

It may be that this binding together as women and as artists was more important than the fact that she is ‘Palagi’ (European).

Based on the Mamas’s previous experience with PV and their enthusiastic readiness to be a part of the co-creative process, they were in effect at some point on a learning curve, and very motivated. The process that occurred here, shaped through effective collaboration built on trust, produced a shared representation of a community’s story, a digital artefact presenting cultural knowledge in such a way that all were satisfied with it. A ‘learning theory for the digital age’ (Siemens 2005: 3) called ‘connectivism’ (ibid) may shed a little more light on why it worked:

Connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and, therefore, that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. It shares with some other theories a core proposition, that knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing. … Connectivism is ‘connectionist’. Knowledge is, on this theory, literally the set of connections formed by actions and experience (Downes 2007).

Proponents of connectivism suggest learning occurs between people rather than inside them, that ‘learning and knowledge rest in diversity of opinions’ (Siemens 2005: 7), that acquiring knowledge is about connecting nodes or information sources that include ‘non-human appliances’ (ibid) and that we ‘derive our competence from forming connections’ (ibid: 5) in social and cultural contexts. The Mamas’ collaborative response that emerged from an active engagement in learning in order to shape a meaningful statement about their identity is not dissimilar to this view of learning and knowledge creation.


The outcomes of The living community project suggest co-creation may involve a participation spectrum from significant creative control by community participants to construction by an external professional:

Table 2: A spectrum of creative control and outcomes
Table 2: A spectrum of creative control and outcomes

Customised approaches that are legitimate and ethical and also meet the objectives of all stakeholders to a high level of satisfaction can be developed with a highly negotiated process emphasising relationship work and carefully integrated continuous review. The piece made with The Pacifica Mamas indicates there is a place for collaborative methodology lying somewhere between the extremes of full participation and outsider professionals that does not have to sacrifice authenticity or ownership. In this case, the documentary director found ways of being among the Mamas as an artist in trusting connection with them: ‘I was entrusting myself to them as much as they would entrust me.’ At a celebratory showing of the film a few weeks after its completion, the delight of all concerned was very visible, in speeches, comments, laughter and clapping, and avid viewing.

Returning to my introductory positioning of the series in a sea of story forms and a domination of the media ecosystem by mainstream commercial interests, it seems to me there is plenty of room for communication researchers, students and community interests to bring untold stories effectively to light. These are exciting times for such collaborations. However, critical reflection is required on what communication practitioners can realistically achieve, and what it is their responsibility to achieve, in a complex media ecosystem (Cooren 2015b). In a 2015 conference address entitled ‘In media res’ (In the middle of everything), Francois Cooren asked his audience to consider, in their uses of media, what value am I adding? His answer was that we are ‘passers’, or intermediaries. We are intermediating so that others can ‘acquire more existence’. Any being can be an actor and a passer – what they say, act or do can make a difference in a situation or scene. Cooren (ibid) argued that it is a ‘serious business’ and ‘how the world, in the variety of its incarnations, embodiments and materializations, comes to express itself in interaction – what is passing through or coming across what we say’ is something we have a responsibility for.

Reflecting on The living community in these terms, as project lead I have had the ethically weighty role of ‘passer’, intermediating in story worlds. My actions and facilitations interact with stories that already exist, and bring them to a place where they acquire more existence, where other people, and passers, then interact with them. A series of community stories acquiring more existence by my intervention or intermediation is no insignificant thing: ‘A world where things more or less exist or are more or less material is a world where communication always matters’ (Cooren 2015a). My team and I have responsibility for what that existence says in its mediatised form as a digital media artefact. The ways in which we think about our part in co-construction as multiple co-authors, actors, participants and passers is fundamentally important for the process and products. Our involvement, the parts we play and how deeply we think about these, both determines the value of the products of this process, and interacts with the outcomes via multiple audience reception and engagement with the product. The product of the co-creative effort gives the story new form as it makes its way in the media ecosystem. Thus, in facilitating community media content creation, a deeply ethical commitment is implied.


[1] At proposal stage, the research goal was to assess how the community communication environment can be mobilised to better serve community needs through engaging residents, local businesses and community organisations in storytelling networks. A number of subsidiary objectives related to production of media content about community development projects for broadcast and other dissemination, interdisciplinary collaboration, and the development of partnership opportunities

[2] Colleagues from Social Practice, Design and Management also had some involvement, arising from their existing research relationships with the seven communities identified as potential subjects for The living community. They were go-betweens, working with their community contacts to develop story ideas, and liaise through me with the series production manager, students and others


[4] It was not included in the Face TV broadcast series but is available online (Clarke 2015a)



  1. Alvesson, Mats and Deetz, Stanley (2000) Doing critical management research, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
  2. Chatman, Elfreda (1996) The impoverished life-world of outsiders, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, Vol. 47, No. 3 pp 193-206
  3. Clark, Skye (writer) and Ingram, M. and Clarke, S. (directors) (2015). CUE Haven [Television], Lee, A. and Williams, J. E. (producer) The living community, Unitec Institute of Technology: Face TV, Sky Channel 83. Available online at
  4. Clarke, Skye (writer) (2015a) The Pacifica Mamas. Available online at
  5. Clarke, Skye (writer) and Clarke, S. and Ingram, M. (directors) (2015b) Violence free Waitakere: Banishing bullying, The living community, Unitec Institute of Technology: Face TV, Sky Channel 83. Available online at
  6. Computer Clubhouse (2013) Computer Clubhouse Network. Available online at, accessed on 21 February 2013
  7. Cooren, Francois (2015a) In media res: Communicaiton, existence, and materiality, Communication Research and Practice, Vol. 1, No. 4 pp 307-321
  8. Cooren, Francois (2015b) In media res: Rethinking communication, materiality and existence from a relational approach. Keynote paper presented at the ANZCA 2015: Rethinking communication, space and identity conference, Queenstown, New Zealand
  9. CUE Haven (2015) The spaces between: The living community - Unitec Media Students. Available online at
  10. Downes, Stephen (2007) What connectivism is. Available online at
  11. Edwards, Leigh H. (2012) Transmedia storytelling, corporate synergy, and audience expression, Global Media Journal, Vol. 12, No. 20 pp 1-12
  12. Face: Access TV for NZ, Sky Channel 083 (2015) Available online at, accessed on 3 December 2015
  13. Gaved, Mark and Anderson, Ben (2006) The impact of local ICT initiatives on social capital and quality of life, Chimera Working Paper 2006-6, Colchester, University of Essex pp 4 -35
  14. Hope, Wayne (2015) Impoverishing the mediated public sphere in Aotearoa New Zealand, PERC Papers Series: Economic Imaginaries and Public Knowledge, Goldsmiths, University of London
  15. Kafai, Yasmin B. and Resnick, Mitchel (1996) Constructionism in practice: Designing, thinking, and learning in a digital world, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
  16. Merton, Robert K. (1972) Insiders and outsiders: A chapter in the sociology of knowledge, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 1 pp 9-47
  17. Plush, Tamara (2015) Participatory video for citizen mobilisation in South Africa, Media Development, Vol. 3 pp 15-19
  18. Reeves, Laura Simpson (2015) Visualizing participatory development communication in social change processes: Challenging the notion that visual research methods are inherently participatory, International Journal of Communication, Vol. 9 pp 3327-3346
  19. Resnick, Mitchel, Rusk, Natalie and Cooke, Stina (1998) The computer clubhouse: Technological fluency in the inner city, Schon, D., Sanyal, B. and Mitchell, W. (eds) High technology and low-income communities, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press
  20. Saifoloi, Malama, Stowers-Ama, Jarcinda, Papoutsaki, Evangelia, Williams, Marcus, Davis, Catherine, Kailahi, Sandra and Naqvi, Munawwar (2014) Participatory video and the Pacifica Mamas: Exploring visual dialogue as an enabler for social and economic change. Paper presented at the OUR Media conference, Diverse communities, diverse media, University of Goroka, Papua New Guinea. Available online at
  21. Shaw, Alan (1996) Social constructionism and the inner city: Designing environments for social development and urban renewal, Kafai, Y. B. and Resnick, M. (eds) Constructionism in practice: Designing, thinking, and learning in a digital world, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
  22. Siemens, George (2005) Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age, International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Vol. 2, No. 1 pp 3-10
  23. Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (2012) Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples, London: Zed Books, second edition
  24. Spurgeon, Christina, Burgess, Jean, Klaebe, Helen, McWilliam, Kelly, Tacchi, Jo and Tsai, Mimi (2009) Co-creative media: Theorising digital storytelling as a platform for researching and developing participatory culture. Paper presented at the Australian and New Zealand Communication Association Conference 2009: Communication, Creativity and Global Citizenship, Brisbane. Available online at
  25. Tacchi, Jo (2012) Digital engagement: Voice and participation in development, Horst, H. and Miller, D. (eds) Digital anthropology, Oxford, Berg
  26. Unitec Institute of Technology. (2015a) Telling stories, Advance, Winter pp 16-19
  27. Unitec Institute of Technology (2015b) Telling stories through The living community. Available online at, accessed on 18 December 2015
  28. Violence Free Waitakere (2015) Banishing bullying together. Available online at, accessed on on 10 October 2015
  29. Waitakere Paciifc Arts Cultural Centre (2014) The Pacifica Arts Centre. Available online at, accessed on 15 March 2014
  30. Williams, Jocelyn E. (2009) Connecting people: Investigating a relationship between internet access and social cohesion in local community settings. PhD thesis, Massey University, Palmerston North. Available online at
  31. Williams, Jocelyn E. (2013) Social cohesion and free home internet in New Zealand., Abdelaal, A. (ed.) Social and economic effects of community wireless networks and infrastructures, Hershey, PA, IGI Global
  32. Williams, Jocelyn E. (2014) The spaces between: The Living Community. Available online at, accessed on 18 December 2015
  33. Williams, Jocelyn E., and Saifoloi, Malama (2016) Promoting the Pacifica Mamas: Piecing together their work and their story on film. Paper presented at the Australian Association of Pacific Studies 'Tides of transformation: Pacific pasts, Pacific futures' 6th Biennial Conference, The Cairns Institute, James Cook University, Cairns, Australia

Note on the contributor

Jocelyn Williams ( has 17 years' experience working in community research projects from the digital divide to digital and community media. She completed her PhD in Community Informatics in 2009, and works in the Department of Communication Studies at Unitec Institute of Technology teaching communication, supervising research and leading community engagement and communication planning projects that straddle research and practice.