Showing up for culturally safe engagement

Banner with the title "Showing up for culturally safe engagement". The left third of the banner is a drawing with an Aboriginal flag and a Torres Strait Islander flag, 2 raised fists and 3 speech bubbles saying "Get Up", "Stand Up" and "Show Up". Words around the edges say "White Australia has a blak history! No pride in genocide! Close the gap! Stop stealing our kids! Blak lives matter! Justice! Health care! Land rights! Stop the lies! Stolen wages!". A logo in the top right corner of the banner says "Celebrating NAIDOC Week" and has a figure of a person over red, yellow, green and blue dots.

This year’s NAIDOC Week theme is Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!. It is not just a conversation starter – it’s a call to action.

For The Social Deck, we see it as a reminder of our responsibility to stand with our First Nations communities and to approach all of our work in a way that is inclusive and helps to improve opportunities for First Nations people to have their say in all issues that matter to, and affect, them.

During one of our recent consultations, we discussed the phrase ‘culturally safe and appropriate’. One of our First Nations participants was concerned that these terms are overused and may have lost meaning or become tokenistic. He said he prefers talking about being culturally authentic and about validation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

These comments are a good reminder for us to reflect on what we really mean when we talk about cultural safety, and how we can make sure engagement and other aspects of our work is done in an authentic way that allows for real conversation with First Nations people.

Importantly, we want to make sure the things we do or say or create don’t make people from different cultural backgrounds feel uncomfortable or left out. We want to make sure what we’re talking about is relevant to them.

This might include things like:

  • seeing representation of people from your community
  • having ideas explained in ways that fit with your experiences
  • being able to interact with people in ways that follow cultural practices
  • being strength-based, while acknowledging past wrongs and trauma that have impacted our First Nations peoples
  • listening and allowing room for people to share their own stories, in their own ways.

And we need to acknowledge that there are many other factors that might make some of the other ways we engage, consult or communicate with people not safe for First Nations people. This is because there are extra factors to consider such as:

  • intergenerational and personal trauma
  • a learned distrust of government or institutions
  • language barriers
  • cultural practices.

There’s not one right way to make things culturally safe for First Nations people – different First Nations communities and individuals have different histories, different ways of doing things and different needs. Rule 1 of cultural safety is to listen to people– they know best what makes them feel comfortable and supported. Ask questions and avoid making assumptions.

We do have some tips to send you on the right path. Here’s a few lessons we picked up from Reconciliation Australia's 'Share our Pride' website, which is full of helpful information.

  • Confirm the preferred local name for First Nations people – “The appropriate local term may be a regional name (Koori, Nyoongar, Murri, etc), or it may be‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Islander’ or ‘Indigenous’. In smaller communities, the particular language group (‘Kija’, ‘Walpari’ ‘Yolngu’) may be preferred.”
  • Take an approach of ‘relationship before business’ – prioritising relationship-building and trust before outcomes allows for a better interaction.
  • Check local cultural protocols – these can include, for example, limiting eye contact, shaking hands softly, and separating discussions along gender lines.

Making sure people feel respected and safe is also about the words you use. This guide on appropriate words and terminology for talking about First Nations topics gives a great practical overview.

Want to learn more? Here's a list of great resources we often refer to about First Nations cultural awareness:

Authors