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Creating a culturally safe space

Cultural safety is defined as: an environment that is spiritually, socially and emotionally safe, as well as physically safe for people; where there is no assault challenge or denial of their identity, of who they are and what they need. 

Source: Williams, R (cited in The Journal of the Public Health Association of Australia Inc. 2008).

The concept of cultural safety is a concept that emerged in the late 1980s as a framework for the delivery of more appropriate health services for the Maori people in New Zealand.  

In practice, cultural safety promotes more effective and meaningful pathways to achieving cultural understanding and promoting self-determination for aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Characteristics of a culturally safe place

A culturally safe place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and families is characterised by the following factors.

A culturally safe place:

  • welcomes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and partners in the physical environment
  • acknowledges the richness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures
  • acknowledges the differences between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures
  • encourages ally behaviours
  • does not stay silent in the face of inappropriate behaviour (even minor).  Staying silent can be seen as condoning.
  • recruits Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff
  • models an expectation of behaviour—we talk about children, families, partners and others as though they were sitting in the room with us
  • expects growth to be uncomfortable
  • has Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on recruitment panels
  • considers using storytelling questions in interviews
  • understands the concept of humility. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will often sell themselves short rather than talk themselves up. We need to be curious and ask them more
  • knows that maintaining ‘cultural capital’ is essential. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff need contact with their mob and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff to build capital and maintain a sense of self
  • encourages collectivist responsibility
  • ensures staff have genuine engagement in cultural learning
  • has staff who accept their responsibility to educate themselves about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history
  • understands that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history is Australia’s shared history.

Safe and culturally responsive practice

Safe and culturally responsive practice:

  • acknowledges, respects and accommodates difference
  • includes cultural training, strategies and other transforming workplace tools.

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Worker Association (NATSIWA) believes leadership needs to be at the forefront of embedding cultural safety within the work environment—to ensure that staff acquire the skills and knowledge essential for the successful and systematic implementation of cultural safety principles in practice.

Workforce attributes necessary for achieving cultural safety in the workplace

Executive Managers/supervisors Operational staff General staff
People employed at this level are expected to have a high and demonstrable level of understanding and knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait contact history. Managers should have a functional understanding of cultural safety principles and their application to workplace environments. Frontline staff will have attended cultural safety training and development and will possess the knowledge and skill to work effectively with colleagues from culturally diverse backgrounds. Staff members who work at this level are expected to have at least a base level understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and philosophies.
  Managers and supervisors should possess the skills and knowledge to conciliate workplace grievances. Staff should be aware of and demonstrate a commitment to the practice of cultural safety in the way they deal with their colleagues as well as clients. Staff members need to be aware of cultural safety principles and should have attended cultural safety training and development.
  Managers should be able to plan necessary cultural safety professional development and training for their staff on an ongoing basis. Staff need to practise self-reflective practices. Staff members need to be aware of and attentive to the self-reflective practices they are required to participate in.
  Managers need to have superior communication and conflict resolution skills to ensure culturally safe practices are followed in the workplace. Staff should be aware of and use processes to resolve grievances and provide feedback to management about cultural tension issues that may arise in the workplace.  
  Managers need to meet regularly with the executive to discuss issues and challenges that may arise from the implementation of cultural safety in the workplace.    
  Managers need to be able to oversee processes to engage members of the community in the practice of cultural safety.    
  Managers need to have the skills to lead a team to help implement and oversee culturally safe practices in the workplace.    

Source: Smith, S (2019), RMT Presentation5419. Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women.

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