Cultural Safety – An Indigenous methodology: Lilly Brown

For over a decade Dr Lilly Brown has supported individuals and organisations to strengthen their capacity to value, see clearly, engage with, and respond to the diverse needs of First Peoples. Lilly has worked with organisations and institutions across the not-for-profit, government, corporate, arts and culture, and education sectors on the development of practices of racial literacy and cultural safety. With a Master of Philosophy in Education from the University of Cambridge and a doctorate in Youth Studies from the University of Melbourne, Lilly’s research has focused on the social and emotional wellbeing of young First Peoples across Australia, particularly in education contexts. Lilly belongs to the Gumbaynggirr people of mid-north coast NSW, is Magabala Books’ CEO and is the Co-Founder & Director of SHIFTING GROUND.

What are the broad principles of Cultural Safety?

Firstly, I think that cultural safety is a First Nations concept. It’s a concept and a practice, a way of working that was developed by Maori midwives in the ‘90s. So it comes from a really particular Indigenous context. I think that’s also why it holds utility, or is really useful in settler colonial contexts like Australia because it enables us to think through how the spaces that we hold and that we create and that we’re responsible for can be safe for First Nations people.

But to be safe for First Nations people, people that have their responsibility of holding space or creating representations need to really understand the way that colonisation has worked and the role of anti-Indigenous racism in the establishment of this country.

So I would say firstly to understand the importance of cultural safety, you have to understand the importance of colonisation and racism in this country and how those two things are foundational to the way that we engage with each other and how we engage with society.

Secondly, to have an understanding of cultural safety you also have to understand that there’s never an endpoint.  So cultural safety isn’t a set number of steps that you can take to get to an endpoint.  Cultural safety is always something that you need to be aspiring to because it’s extremely contextual. So, depending on whether you’re working in the city, or you’re working in, urban, remote, regional, rainforest, saltwater country, freshwater country. Depending on what context you’re in, even in any given moment on any given day, will also then inform what cultural safety might look like in that context. So, you need to be informed, you need to understand the cultural context that you’re working in and the history of the place, including colonial and racialised history, that you might be in. So all those things are really important, it’s not an endpoint and something you’re working towards, it changes in every context that you go into.

You need to have an understanding of the way that race, racism and colonisation function in this country because you can’t create safe spaces for First Nations people or ensure that your practices are culturally safe if you don’t understand the things that negatively impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and lead to experiences where individuals or communities do not feel safe.

Lately, the term cultural safety is thrown around as a practice or a concept quite a lot. I think it’s also really useful to make explicit that for someone to feel culturally unsafe means that they’ve likely experienced a space which is underpinned by racism. So in the absence of cultural safety, there is a presence of racism. And that’s a really important point.

How do we begin to create culturally safe spaces in the Australian context?

A first step toward creating culturally safe spaces would be to educate yourself.

We live in a time where information is accessible at the click of a button. There is a huge body of work that has been created by First Nations artists and story-tellers, including writers, journalists, and filmmakers that take a critical perspective on the history and current experience of what it means and has meant to exist on this continent as a First Nations person. They have strategically created and disseminated these stories in an accessible way. Find them. Take them seriously. Do not rely on your First Nations colleagues, who already carry an incredibly heavy cultural load, to educate you.

Do your own research and become informed about the power dynamics, including race and whiteness, that inform the spaces and the context that you’re working within. We know our stories, we know our histories and we come into those spaces with a sensibility that already exists. We need our colleagues and the people that we’re working with to meet us halfway and what that means is that they have to educate themselves, become informed, become aware, understand the complexities of the context within which they’re wanting to work.

Can you give an example of a space that you’ve experienced? That’s really culturally safe and what made it?

I’ve worked a lot with mainstream organisations and I think cultural safety occurs when the self-determination of First Nations people is valued and honoured. When we’re empowered and resourced to create our own spaces for each other, for one another, without the expectation that we’re there to perform for non-Indigenous people, or to create spaces for the purpose of anyone else but us.

So I think that really safe spaces are spaces that are held by First Nations people and where First Nations people are leaders in those spaces, where their knowledges, their experiences, their stories and relationships are respected.

Working with a lot of non-Indigenous colleagues who are really successful in this space and I think successful, most of the time, in supporting the cultural safety of First Nations people, they take a back seat. They take a back seat and I think that enables us to step up, in a way, and work alongside them.  It’s not about competing, it’s not about them showing what they know in the space; it’s about enabling First Nations people to hold space for ourselves and for each other, and by extension, to extend an invitation to participate to the allies and accomplices who are committed to and supporting what we say needs to be done.

I have been in spaces which extend the bodies of black and brown and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and that’s really special because it means that the things that we bring into the space are then the things that are valued, they inform the space, and those protocols are honoured and that’s really important.

More resources

Australia must embrace ‘cultural safety’ if we are to close the gap | Gregory Phillips for IndigenousX | The Guardian

Cultural safety | RANZCP

Gari Yala (Speak the Truth): Centring the experiences of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Australians at work


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