Meaningful engagement the crux for cultural safety
At ten years of age, Roanna Edwards faced a conundrum far too advanced for her age; how to approach the topic of being Aboriginal with her friends.
There were only seven kids in her year group including Ms Edwards, three of them girls, so if the discussion went poorly, she had no other options for friends.
“We were walking through a garden and I started this verbal diarrhoea to these girls because I knew that if they came to my house the secret was going to be out that I was Aboriginal, which was the worst thing you could be,” Ms Edwards said.
“When I explained it, I kept repeating myself, saying ‘not like them’, ‘not in that way’, and generally trying to pacify them.
“As ten-year-olds, they didn’t care, and apologised for saying things that might have offended me, and they’re still two of my best friends.”
Now Horizon Power’s Aboriginal strategy and engagement manager, Ms Edward’s story set the tone for the Energy Club WA’s May industry dinner about cultural safety in industry.
Guest speaker Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation chief executive officer Peter Jeffries said that the feelings people had about different cultures started at the dinner table.
“It’s about what mum and dads teach their kids, who then take it out to the community and so on, and it’s a systemic thing from when you grow up,” Mr Jeffries said.
When asked about what cultural safety meant to him, he said it was something he was taught at a young age and applied every day. He said Traditional Owners practised cultural safety every time they welcomed people to Country and communicated with their ancestors to look after them. “It’s about sharing culture and giving information that I know about culture to others,” he said. “Cultural safety is something that we, as Traditional Owners, have been doing since the beginning of time.”
For Woodside Indigenous Affairs senior manager Sharon Reynolds, cultural safety is a form of acknowledging and respecting Indigenous identities and beliefs.“There’s a personal and environmental side, understanding the cultural landscape and how we interact with the land and animals in a careful and considered way,” Ms Reynolds said.
“My experiences in my field of work with my cultural background have emphasised the importance of introducing myself properly and engaging with community in the right way; seeking those welcomes and understanding how you should behave when visiting someone else’s place.
“Incorporating cultural interest and safety in work plans makes the work far more sustainable, and if the community is feeling acknowledged and respected, they’re far more likely to support and keep each other safe.”
Ms Edwards said cultural safety was a simplistic concept that was complex to deliver, because for her it was the ability to bring her whole self to work. “It’s so I know who I am and what my values are so when I step into ‘workplace Roanna’, those values are recognised and appreciated,” she said. “While my colleagues may not necessarily understand or agree with them, they can respect them and let me be the person that I need to be.
“In the workplace, our network of Aboriginal employees is important to us, because the values we share are important and we’re at our strongest as a collective when we educate business on some of those things.”
Mr Jeffries said it was a trap for people to think of cultural safety as a way for Traditional Owners to have days off work. “A lot of non-Indigenous people put it down to going walkabout and being ‘missing in action’,” he said.
“It’s about this cultural safety, about family. Being uncomfortable about where you work, whether it’s the workplace or the people on site or place, is a bad feeling.”
Ms Reynolds said practising cultural safety benefitted the company because it allowed the work they did do to be more meaningful. “It improves the relationships that exist between industry and Traditional Owners and leads to an understanding of the cultural landscape which can improve project design,” she said.
“Indigenous knowledge is valuable, for example with the Perth Woodside office design, we engaged early with the Whadjuk people and had them inform us around the history of the site and the issues associated with that. “We could incorporate the issues and the cultural values within the building design, allowing people to come into an environment and atmosphere which helps shape their behaviours.”
Mr Jeffries said it was risky for industry and government to use words like collaboration if they didn’t mean it. “One of the things we’ve been saying for a long time with State Government is for us to have a better opportunity to work with them and industry around cultural heritage.
“We’ve seen recently with the new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act that it didn’t quite go as far as Traditional Owners wanted it to go.
“The word collaboration is used a lot when you talk to industry and what I see is that industry tends to use legislative means to do what they need to do without robust discussion.”
He said Woodside was a great example of collaboration being used effectively to achieve results. “When Woodside designed Pluto, they listened to the local people about what they call relocation zones around the site, which is what a lot of mining companies didn’t do.
“It’s about thinking outside the box, talking to the people, and while sometimes it might annoy them, there is a way that you can work it out.”
The panel agreed that the best ways for both big and small companies to approach cultural safety was to listen to Traditional Owners and educate themselves on cultural awareness.
Ms Reynolds said companies needed to engage early with the community and Traditional Owners, making genuine efforts to incorporate feedback and concerns within work plans. “Helping the community have the capacity and ability to meet and empowering them to engage with us in a meaningful way is important,” she said. “A lot of the information that we have is quite technical, so project leads need to sit with the community and explain the issues through.”
Ms Edwards said that personal connection was fundamental to achieving cultural safety, and was something that small companies had an advantage with.
“The concept of being just a number in the workplace is so much less in a small company, and if you have Aboriginal people within the organisation you can make that personal connection to understand who they are and where they’re from,” she said.
“Reconciliation week is the perfect opportunity to invite people, consult and make a genuine invitation to employees to guide you. “Not only are you building your knowledge and experience, you’re letting that person sit there proudly and say ‘this is my family and story’.”
Ms Edwards suggested that small companies should lean on the bigger players and make connections through LinkedIn, because when approached the right way, people would want to help them out.
Mr Jeffries said the industry needed to make a strong commitment to meaningful engagement. “I see lots of reconciliation action plans which have a gap between what they say and what the company does,” he said. “RAPs aren’t just there to be used as wallpaper or to tick off a box. I suggest you need to be serious. Sit down with the right people and they will give you the right advice.
“You need to go all the way with what you promise you’ll do.”
Thank you to our May Dinner Event Sponsors: Horizon Power, Nihar, Woodside Energy and Wood.