What worked well
A diverse group
A number of the members of the Muslim Community Reference Group had not met each other before the first hui. The first hui included a whakawhanaungatanga (the process of establishing relationships and making connections) session where people could introduce themselves. Many members commented that they appreciated having people with diverse perspectives and backgrounds on the Muslim Community Reference Group, including having youth and female representation. A number of members felt this allowed them to learn about each other and the common and different issues they deal with. Members expressed that the different views presented challenges at times, with a balance needing to be struck between having empathy and listening to others’ opinions and expressing one’s own opinion.
We were told that networks that did not previously exist had been established between members and communities as a result of being on the Muslim Community Reference Group.
Effective facilitation was important to ensure that all members were given an opportunity to voice their views and work through ideas. Many members felt having an independent facilitator was important and that the facilitation of the Muslim Community Reference Group hui was effective in this respect. We were told by some members that if the engagement period had been shorter, for example a one-off meeting, it would have probably been beneficial to have a facilitator who was familiar with Muslim communities. Many members felt the tough situations and disputes that arose from time to time were well managed. Some members considered that the facilitation helped break down barriers to enable members to engage with their peers in the Muslim Community Reference Group.
Changing formats to bring out different voices and perspectives
In addition to effective facilitation, we also sought to find other ways to ensure that everyone felt comfortable and empowered to voice their views. This meant that sometimes different formats were needed during our hui. For example, one format involved breaking into smaller groups supported by a secretariat staff member who engaged in the conversation but also acted as a facilitator and note taker. This allowed secretariat staff to hear Muslim Community Reference Group members’ views directly and record their comments to be used in the report. A number of members expressed positive feedback about this hui format.
Preparation, listening and following up are all important
We prepared extensively for each hui and structured the agenda to ensure that we could provide an update on the inquiry, answer questions that might arise, provide for different discussion formats to allow members to share their views and be flexible. Several members noted in their feedback to us that they considered Muslim Community Reference Group hui to be well organised and prepared.
Following each hui, we provided draft hui notes to members for feedback to ensure that we had accurately recorded and reflected their views, and what had happened at the hui. A number of members appreciated this follow-up and felt that it showed that we were listening and valued what members had to say. This contrasted with some of their previous experiences of engagement, where there was no further follow-up once a meeting had ended. This had left them with no real indication as to where their feedback went and if their effort and time had had impact.
Take care to build a safe environment
We took steps to ensure that we met and supported the cultural and spiritual needs of members and took care to approach the hui process with sensitivity. This included ensuring that a prayer space was available, allocating prayer time within the hui agenda and opening and closing hui with a du’a (prayer). Members acknowledged our commitment to supporting cultural and spiritual norms, as well as our openness to learning about Islamic culture. One member did comment though that having a gender-specific session may have generated more open discussion amongst the women. Feedback was provided from a few members that having psychosocial support available onsite would have been appropriate at times.
Collaborating on the development of the Terms of Reference built trust and understanding
Taking the time to collaborate on developing the Terms of Reference to adequately reflect the process and the intent of both members and the Royal Commission was important. It helped set the foundation for discussions, and for both us and members to discuss and clarify roles and responsibilities. The Terms of Reference recorded that the members of the Muslim Community Reference Group came with good intentions (Niyah) to contribute to the work of the Royal Commission and with the hope that the work would be part of creating a better future for New Zealand. Members noted they appreciated our willingness to build respect and trust with members.
Be empathetic and seek to build long term relationships
Empathy, respect and working to build trust are key principles to approaching any engagement and in the case of the Muslim Community Reference Group these were particularly important. Members noted they appreciated our empathy and respect for members during engagements and hui.
We also sought to build trust by being open and seeking to answer questions from members as well as the questions they passed on from other people in their community. While we could not share everything, we shared what we could and answered questions. We were also upfront when we could not respond and why that was the case.
We gave members advance notice of any publicity such as media releases so they would be prepared if they received any questions from other people in their communities or approaches from the media. Members spoke positively about this approach and what they saw as the Commissioners and secretariat staff making genuine effort to gain the trust of the community.
Getting the fundamentals right can make a big difference for participants
We also took steps to ensure that we supported and facilitated members’ participation. This included booking members’ travel and accommodation and writing letters to employers advocating for members’ attendance at full-day hui. In their feedback to us, several members noted that they appreciated having secretariat staff organise their travel and accommodation for hui attendance.
We also carefully managed any real or perceived conflicts of interest when they arose, ensuring we took a transparent approach with the group.
Understanding and meeting the needs of members
Members’ needs must be carefully considered in the planning, design and implementation of any engagement. What these needs are may depend on the participants and the issues that are the focus of the engagement. For example, the experiences, backgrounds and levels of knowledge of particular participants may mean they need particular support. This includes understanding and considering how to address supportively differing levels of proficiency in English and of knowledge about relevant issues, systems and subject areas. Recognition of trauma and the need for social support is also important.
As part of our engagement process, we delivered information sessions on the key issues and systems we were going to discuss, to ensure that all members had a base level of knowledge to confidently engage with us and our work.
Another aspect that needs to be considered and planned for as part of any engagement process may be psychosocial support. This can be helpful when discussing traumatic or difficult topics, particularly if people involved in the engagement have been victims of crimes or other hurtful incidents. As the Muslim Community Reference Group included affected whānau of the 51 shuhada and survivors of the terrorist attack, as well as members from a traumatised community, participants felt that we could have taken more steps to ensure that members had access to culturally responsive psychosocial support to ensure that the process minimised any potential re-traumatisation.
Muslim Community Reference Group members would be willing to be involved in something similar
The majority of members said that they would be willing to be involved in similar engagement initiatives or groups in future if they were asked to and felt that they could be helpful and make a meaningful contribution. They appreciated that the Muslim Community Reference Group gave them and their communities a platform and a voice.
Some members noted that they would be willing to engage in similar processes provided their voices were taken seriously. Many members were grateful to be part of the Muslim Community Reference Group to contribute to their communities and New Zealand. One member said that they consider the Muslim Community Muslim Community Reference Group process has set the standard for what a good process looks like.
Areas for improvement
Diverse representation and views are necessary but challenging to identify and depends on the context
We sought to ensure diverse representation on the Muslim Community Reference Group, to reflect the diversity of the Muslim communities in New Zealand. This received positive feedback from members. At the same time, a number of members felt that the group could have been more diverse to ensure that even more Muslim communities were represented, for example ensuring that the Muslim Community Reference Group included the views of recent migrants.
We made a concerted effort to balance Christchurch representation with representation from other areas around Aotearoa New Zealand. While Christchurch Muslim communities were directly impacted by the terrorist attack, the issues we traversed affected other Muslim communities around New Zealand. Nonetheless, some members felt that more representation from Christchurch would have been better.
When we set out on the process to establish the Muslim Community Reference Group, it quickly became apparent to us that there was limited guidance for government agencies on engaging with Muslim communities in New Zealand, especially outside the higher profile representative organisations that generally speak for large communities of interest. It was a challenge to identify potential members and ensure diverse representation, especially from more marginalised Muslim communities.
The process of forming can be a challenge
A number of Muslim Community Reference Group members felt that the initial establishment and forming of the reference group was a challenge.
Some individuals took some time to determine whether they wished to be on the reference group and wanted several discussions to understand what was involved. These initial discussions took longer than we had planned for. It also meant that we needed to keep informed of the names of those who had agreed to participate to ensure that our criteria continued to guide the final make-up of the reference group. We reassessed the composition of the reference group membership on at least three occasions in the four weeks prior to the first hui.
Members were not told prior to the first hui who the other members were. We explained why this was so but recognise that it created uncertainty and stress for most members ahead of the first hui. We should have provided more clarity to those who were invited to be part of the reference group about what to expect.
Our first hui was challenging for some members due to the diversity of the group, experiences and viewpoints represented and emotions expressed. However, as the Muslim Community Reference Group process progressed we learned and adapted how we operated. Building relationships takes time and things do not always go smoothly at the beginning. We invested time in building relationships, trust and confidence. Several members commented on the process and the journey of their work in the Muslim Community Reference Group, noting that while there were initial ups and downs, ultimately members built trust in us, and as a group of Muslim individuals developed further networks and relationships and openness to learning from each other.
Not all members joined the Muslim Community Reference Group at the same time, as several new members joined following the first hui. This was not ideal. It added to a perception that we were disorganised and not able to engage appropriately with community members. A few members felt that this meant the first few hui felt a bit slow. As new members came on board, they needed to be welcomed into the group and further introductory conversations needed to take place. A few members felt the further introductory sessions could have been minimised.
Given the diversity of the Muslim communities in New Zealand, Public sector agencies wishing to engage with Muslim communities must strive to ensure they are contacting and seeking representation from all Muslim communities in New Zealand, unless the issue is one that is localised to a particular community or geographic area. In practice, this may mean contacting large representative organisations as an initial step and also reaching out to other groups outside of those organisations.
Communities’ dynamics can have an impact and need to be carefully managed
All communities have internal dynamics. A number of members noted that the different community dynamics that existed within the Muslim Community Reference Group affected how members engaged with each other, particularly in the beginning. Members considered that improvements could have been made to how these dynamics were managed, including the suggestion that members themselves work on these issues outside of the hui to ensure that the focus at meetings remained on the key issues.
Some members reflected that after meeting together for an extended period of time, the group started to join up more and that working together had helped them understand the dynamics of Muslim communities in New Zealand better.
High expectations on members mean more support may need to be provided
Many community leadership roles in New Zealand are unpaid voluntary positions that individuals take up in addition to their other commitments such a full-time work and family commitments. We offered a koha (donation) to members to acknowledge and recognise their contribution and effort, and covered costs of attendance such as accommodation and transport. However, being a member was by no means a paid position and attending hui was not the only way members contributed.
Members themselves played a community engagement role within their own communities by sharing information, answering questions and passing along views and questions from communities to us.
Several members noted the challenge of this work in addition to full-time work, family commitments and, for some, existing community roles, especially considering the limited resources they had. Some members felt that increased media support and providing more communications material (that could be distributed to community members) earlier in the process would have been useful. Some members commented that having some material available in nine languages was helpful and requested more be available.
For any similar process in the future, consideration should be given to the level of expectation on participants of engaging with their communities, and where a high level of expectation exists, what type of resources could be provided to participants to support their engagement.