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  • The Engaged Dissertation—Conducting Community–Based Participatory Research with Rural Indigenous Communities as a Graduate Student
  • Jana Wilbricht

My research is equal parts academic inquiry, self–discovery, community engagement, and adventure. As a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication Studies at the University of Michigan, I study access to health information in rural, remote communities and implications for health equity, as well as effective health message design. I am particularly interested in the role of what I call ‘emic media’ in this process. ‘Emic media’ and what we commonly refer to as community media are both locally based and community–driven. However, I see a difference in that emic media do not only present the information most interesting or relevant to a particular community, but make a conscious effort to communicate from the perspective of a cultural insider—what anthropologists call an ‘emic’ perspective—assuming a base of shared knowledge, avoiding cultural taboos, and prioritizing local indigenous norms and languages. In this way, emic media do not only serve their communities in offering a familiar voice in addition to the broader mediascape, but can function as a site of resistance to mainstream media narratives.

For my dissertation, I am engaged in community–based participatory research (CBPR) exploring the role of tribal radio stations in providing access to accurate, culturally relevant health and safety information for residents of rural American Indian and Alaska Native communities with very limited media and information infrastructures.

After working for over a year to co–design my dissertation project with my primary community partners, the general managers of two tribal radio stations, I received multiple grants, allowing me to travel to both project sites—an Indian Reservation in Northern Arizona, and a rural, mostly Indigenous community in Western Alaska—to conduct individual in–depth interviews with station employees and focus groups with listeners. I also pre–tested a survey during the focus groups which we intend to use community–wide in a future phase of the project.

There are two primary reasons why I opted to adopt a CBPR approach for my dissertation. First, tribal radio is a truly emic medium, and can only be understood to a meaningful degree with involvement from the local community, particularly those involved in its production. Second, making every effort to create equitable partnerships with the communities I work with is a matter of ethics, especially since I am an outsider to these communities. Indigenous communities in particular have long suffered [End Page 33] the detrimental impacts of Western colonialism in all of its forms, including discrimination and disrespect in educational and research settings. Thus, it is important to me not to engage in predatory research, but to ensure my own accountability to the communities involved in the project, treating them as the active and equal partners they are and not as mere ‘sites’ of research. This also includes respect for tribal sovereignty, which is why I chose to have the project reviewed by two tribal review boards representing each community involved in the project, in addition to my University’s IRB. My community partners and I drafted a community partnership agreement prior to any data collection, in which we outlined each party’s goals, interests, and responsibilities, in order to ensure that we are working towards a mutual goal and to hold each other accountable so that we can achieve an outcome beneficial to the communities involved.

Another aspect that was important to me, and helped me gain support from community members in terms of participation in my research is that the project addresses an urgent need already recognized as such in both communities. American Indians and Alaska Natives are disproportionally affected by health inequities and digital divides, and emic media like the local radio stations are an essential health and safety information resource, particularly in a scarce media environment. Co–designing a project addressing a specific and clearly defined need in the partnering communities furthers applicability of the research and equity of the partnership.

While I am convinced that this project is absolutely worth pursuing and that CBPR is the only suitable approach in this particular instance, I also immediately became aware of the multitude of complications I invited...