Critical points for a practice approach when supporting Aboriginal people: be respectful, spend time, listen, yarn, consult Elders, learn about the local community, value Aboriginal knowledge
This page has three sections:
Background Material that provides the context for the topic
A suggested Practice Approach
A list of Supporting Material / References
The Uluru Statement From the Heart
We, gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, coming from all points of the southern sky, make this statement from the heart:
Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands and possessed it under our own laws and customs. This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial’, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago.
This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.
How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?
With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.
Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.
These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.
In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.
A Practice Framework for Social Work with Aboriginal People and Communities (Bindi, et al., 2011)
The practice framework presented in the diagram below is grounded in research findings and embedded in both the realities of social work practice and evidence from consultations with Aboriginal people. It encompasses the principles and values that are essential to culturally respectful social work practice with Aboriginal people and communities. The four circles represent the core areas of knowledge, values, skills, and self that inform Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal social workers in their work with Aboriginal people and communities. The two central elements of practice that are informed by all of these core areas are relationships and cultural courage.
It is through the development and maintenance of culturally respectful relationships that social workers are able to undertake meaningful work with Aboriginal people. Deep, humble listening creates an opening for information sharing, collaborative knowledge development, and honest communication. Social workers need to earn trust and respect with the community, which takes time due to the history and ongoing practices of colonisation. Cultural courage is the process whereby the worker recognises that the destination is the being with, not the doing to. For non-Aboriginal workers this means having an ability to understand how their own cultural background, privilege, values, and assumptions impact on how they relate to people. It also encompasses the need to acknowledge and confront fears, uncertainties, and anxieties that can arise in practice and to resist the temptation of becoming immobilised. For Indigenous workers, developing cultural courage involves the need to reflect on their own experiences of racism and history of colonisation and how this impacts on their work. In particular, these workers need support from colleagues and managers, so that they have the capacity to work with complex identities, roles, and boundary issues that influence and impact on their practice.
Be Aware of the Following
Non-indigenous people are not experts in this area. Social workers need to be aware of specific cultural knowledge, the local area and the mob with whom they are working. A professional and personal commitment to learning and building relationships is the most important and fundamental step in engaging and working respectfully and effectively with Aboriginal children, families and communities. Therefore, listen more than you speak, be genuine about taking time to hear the story, and learn about the community you are working with.
Develop your learning carefully and respectfully; be guided by Aboriginal people.
Give something of yourself—relationship building is a two-way process. Attend numerous community events.
Recognise you may feel uncomfortable from time to time because interactions with Aboriginal people can come with a high level of anger and distrust. Listen and think about how you can build trust.
First impressions are important for Aboriginal families. Slow down the first engagement; take time and listen. Go at the family’s pace. Invest something of yourself in the initial engagement. Don’t rush your agenda.
Engage in yarning with Aboriginal people prior to getting into health issues. This shows respect for the people you are working with and serving; it builds the relationship, that builds the trust, that builds the healthcare outcomes.
Listening to the stories of Aboriginal people can help practitioners understand historical hurts, in order to provide better practice and service responses.
Yarning circles are a perfect way to bring difficult conversations into a safe space where we can support each other to find the next step or a solution. It enables us to look at families in a strength-based way.
Aboriginal world views are not based on an individual’s wellbeing, but the wellbeing of the whole community. The role of extended family networks is important.
Always looking for the strengths, hopes and wonders Aboriginal people have to offer as both individuals and communities, especially when dealing with difficult social and emotional issues. A useful starting point is to remember that these cultures have survived and flourished on these lands for at least 60,000 years.
Working with the community—genuine listening and collaboration--enables the local community to identify the issues or gaps that need to be addressed, as well as contributing to strategies for overcoming issues. This helps identify workable solutions for non-Aboriginal practitioners and services.
Aboriginal communities maintain special connection to and responsibility for Country throughout Australia. Being on country helps them think and cope. They may go away from their country, but the flame is always burning to go back and reconnect. Country enables Aboriginal people to find their strength, to revitalise.
You will at times be required to make a choice about what you will stand for and when you will advocate for change. Ultimately, it is important to continue to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals.
Some other practical points:
Contact parenting groups or the local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group or the local Aboriginal Land Council to gain some basic knowledge of the community including dominant family groups, preferred names, original custodians and language groups.
Involve Elders, the immediate and extended family and kinship groups.
Respect the use of silence and don’t mistake it for misunderstanding a topic or issue.
Always wait your turn to speak.
Use clear, uncomplicated language. Don’t use jargon.
Don’t continually ask a person to repeat themselves if it is difficult to understand them, especially in front of a large group.
Always be open, honest and respectful.
Keep your word.
Speaking with Aboriginal people takes time—be patient and don’t rush. Aboriginal people may not work to deadlines about community business in the same way you do. They may also have other important demands on their time that you may not be aware of.
Attend community open days, fair days and other events.
Consider transport needs when organising meetings. If the meeting will go for over one hour, provide light refreshments.
Keeping Aboriginal Kids Safe
As a result of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse the Commonwealth Government (Commonwealth of Australia, 2021) produced a resource to support organisations engaging with Aboriginal children to ensure organisations offer support in a culturally safe way. For each of the 10 principles, the resources outlines suggestions for executive, middle management and operational staff. The following is a synthesis of the suggestions for operational staff. They reinforce much of the above approach that social workers should adopt when supporting Aboriginal communities, families, adults and young people.
How can social workers implement the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations?
A Synthesis of Suggestions for Operational Staff
At the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Level
Engage with the community (Elders, family, other significant people in the child’s life) to understand and respond to their needs around culturally safe physical and online environments. Respectful engagement with families and the community is the key to success in this endeavour. It takes time to build trusting relationships, mutual respect and cultural competence. Attending community events is an important means of engaging with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.
At the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Family Level
Behave in a welcoming and culturally safe manner as you listen to what families are saying in formal and informal conversations.
Understand how to appropriately respond to the concerns and complaints of families. Keep in mind that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families may find it difficult to complain and may require support to do so.
Where investigations happen, provide culturally appropriate support to families as the process unfolds.
At the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people’s Level
Create an environment that is welcoming and embraces all children regardless of their abilities, sex, gender, or social, economic, or cultural background. Each child should feel safe to have a voice and participate in programs and activities. Use culturally appropriate ways to asking to check children feel safe.
Help children identify trusted adults or friends they can talk to.
Listen to what children say and reflect on their views to improve activities and processes.
Understand how to appropriately respond to the concerns and complaints of children. Keep in mind that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children may find it difficult to complain and may require support to do so.
Where investigations happen, provide culturally appropriate support to children as the process unfolds.
At the organisational level
Uphold and promote the human and cultural rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Advocate for these rights, including the right to cultural safety.
Participate in cultural safety and competency training to create culturally safe, welcoming, and accessible environments. Implement culturally safe and appropriate services.
Urban Aboriginal Children Health and Wellbeing
Miller et al. (2020) identified 13 factors that contribute to the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal children in Australian urban areas. The factors most commonly reported by carers as being necessary for their Aboriginal children to be healthy and well were:
1. Secure and loving family relationships
2. Access and availability of culturally competent healthcare
3. Adequate nutrition and food security
4. Engagement with community and community services
5. Active living
The following factors were also commonly reported:
6. Education for children and families
7. Social and emotional connectedness
8. Physical, emotional and cultural safety
9. Breaking the cycle of disadvantage
10. Availability and affordability of quality housing
11. Strong culture
12. Positive Aboriginal role models
13. Carer health and wellbeing
The authors concluded that non-Aboriginal models of child developmental and health do not address the social and emotional needs of Aboriginal children, nor do they sufficiently address the unique structural influences on health including intergenerational trauma, socioeconomic disadvantage and racism. Services that support family health, provide health education, enhance access to early childhood and youth services, improve food security and support emerging role models in communities are sorely needed. So is systemic change. Without it, structural determinants including racism and socioeconomic disadvantage will continue to contribute to food insecurity, child removals, limited access to culturally appropriate and affordable healthcare, and inadequate housing.
Aboriginal families strongly impacted by food insecurity (2022)
First Nations people in Wagga Wagga and Campbelltown, Sydney felt strongly that food insecurity was a major issue facing many First Nations’ families. There were five key drivers of food insecurity:
Being trapped in financial disadvantage as a result of poverty and unemployment making healthy food unaffordable
Gaps in the local food system, i.e. inequities in the availability and accessibility of affordable, healthy food
Limitations of non-Aboriginal food relief services, e.g. stigma and racism experienced by First Nations peoples when accessing organisations for food relief
Ongoing impacts of colonisation leading to generational loss of healthy food knowledge; this had led to First Nations peoples consuming an energy-dense ‘Western’ diet high in fat, salt and sugar
The need to maintain family, cultural and community commitments and responsibilities; sharing of food and resources was used to deal with food insecurity with this sharing viewed as a positive cultural factor.
Solutions suggested included:
Introducing school breakfast programs
Conducting cooking and budgeting programs
Community vegetable gardens
Providing transport options to enable families to access larger supermarkets with cheaper food prices
Impact of Domestic and Family Violence on Young Aboriginal People
(from Morgan, 2022)
Domestic and family violence (DFV) is one of the most significant contributors to the high rates of involvement of young Aboriginal people with child protection and youth justice systems. As a result young people can:
Suffer significant and lifelong negative consequences, e.g. alcohol misuse and drug dependency
Be exposed to child removal and intergenerational trauma, further embedding disadvantage in their lives
Be at high risk of further violence in institutions
Be more likely to perpetrate and/or experience violence in their own future intimate relationships
Enter the youth justice system early in life
Unfortunately current responses to DFV mainly utilise child protection processes that remove support by separating young people from family and culture. The threat of child removal also deters Aboriginal women from reporting violence or seeking assistance.
The solution is to:
Consult with young people on the impact of DFV
Recognise the inadequacy of child protection services in addressing DFV
Have an approach led, developed and implemented by Aboriginal people with Aboriginal services and culturally aware mainstream services providing:
Family centred approaches including aunties, uncles, grandparents, to ensure young people are safe
Cultural knowledge to reinforce strong values and principles around addressing violence, including building a strong cultural identity and connection
A focus on creating safe people places, families and communities for young people
Spaces for young people’s views to be heard and incorporated into program development
This should all occur while ensuring perpetrators are held accountable for their violence. The (child protection) approach of holding women solely responsible for the safety of their children should cease.
Willams-Tchen (2020) and Conway (2020) suggest the following when interacting with Aboriginal people:
Do as many different cultural awareness trainings as you can do in order to get different understandings of Australia’s black history.
Get to know your local Indigenous community.
Watch as many movies, TV shows and read books about Aboriginal culture.
Talk with any Aboriginal staff or colleagues to hear their story if they wish to share and feel culturally safe to be able to.
Learn what your biases are. If you don’t think you have any, then have another think.
Be prepared to participate in challenging conversations around topics such as ‘racism’, ‘cultural safety’, ‘black lives matter’ and ‘white fragility’.
Acknowledge that as a profession we need to do better.
Don’t feel guilty of past practices but take responsibility to ensure that these practices don’t continue to occur in the work that you do today.
Continue to identify barriers that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face in your practices, organisations and work structures, and find ways to alleviate these, and
Be an ally to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community , not a hindrance or remain part of the problem.
Value Indigenous knowledge and knowledge systems. Different does not mean ‘lesser than’.
Be open to learning about my culture and what is important to me.
Hear me. And ask if I feel heard. I want to know I am truly heard, and not just in a tokenistic way.
Ask me ‘What does cultural safety look like to you? Do you feel culturally safe at work? Is there anything that I could be doing differently that would help you feel culturally safe at work?’ Cultural safety is an integral part of my social and emotional wellbeing.
Take action when you see something in the workplace that places my cultural safety in jeopardy. I see your inaction as being complicit to the behaviour.
Use the usual counselling approaches and an appropriate practice model(s) (e.g. problem-solving, task-centred, solution-focused, crisis-intervention, and motivational interviewing) keeping in mind the background information above. Incorporate appropriate practice approaches depending on the specific issues, e.g. depression, grief and loss, parenting, stress management, etc.
Emerging Minds (https://emergingminds.com.au/ and search for “Aboriginal people”) has a number of resources relevant to a practice approach for Aboriginal people.
First Nations Peoples Wellbeing
A recent Emerging Minds (2022) article (see references below) deals with wellbeing.
The article points out the centrality of Land in wellbeing, and the holistic nature of wellbeing, incorporating mental, physical, cultural and spiritual health. Practitioners working with Aboriginal people should appreciate the richness of First Nations cultures and be willing to hear and understand First Nations peoples’ stories.
The article stresses that relationships and connections are central and the most important and fundamental step in engaging with First Nations people. Relationship building starts with listening. After establishing respectful relationships and hearing First Nations peoples’ stories around intergenerational trauma, it is important for social workers to bring a strengths-based and hope-inspiring approach to their work with Aboriginal people. This is possible even in conditions that appear adverse for children and adults. Explore with the community how Aboriginal people have overcome problems in the past and how this can guide them in the future.
Creating the opportunity for parents to tell their stories is the most important step in helping them to understand the impacts of historical and complex trauma on their relationships with their children.
In 2020 Emerging Minds published a free course to assist practitioners to better understand First Nations peoples and support their social and emotional wellbeing (A Framework for Understanding—see references below). This course covers the importance of listening, engaging in two-way learning and walking alongside First Nations peoples when supporting them. It examines in detail nine principles that form the basis of the Framework for Understanding:
The health of First Nations people should be viewed holistically, encompassing mental, physical, cultural, and spiritual health, with Land as central.
Self-determination should be central.
Culturally valid understandings must shape the provision of services and must guide assessment, care and management of health problems, especially of mental health problems.
Trauma and loss must be recognised as a direct outcome of the disruption of cultural wellbeing.
Human rights must be recognised and respected with human rights relevant to mental illness specifically addressed.
Racism, stigma, environmental adversity and social disadvantage constitute ongoing stressors and have negative impacts on mental health and wellbeing.
The centrality of family and kinship must be recognised, as well as the broader concepts of family and the bonds of reciprocal affection, responsibility and sharing.
The numerous groupings, languages, kinships, tribes and ways of living should be recognised. First Nations people may live in urban, rural or remote settings in traditional or other lifestyles and move between these ways of living.
It is important to recognise the great strengths, creativity, and endurance of First Nations people. Their deep understanding of the relationships between human being and their environment should be acknowledged.
(available on request)
The Uluru Statement From The Heart https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement
The Uluru Statement – Our Story (provides history from Aboriginal people perspective)https://ulurustatement.org/our-story
Bindi, B., Zubrzycki, J., & Bacon, V. (2011). What do we know? The experiences of social workers working alongside Aboriginal people. Australian Social Work, 64(1), 20-37. doi: 10.1080/0312407X.2010.511677
Stewart, (B) J., & Allan, J. (2013). Building relationships with Aboriginal people: A cultural mapping toolbox. Australian Social Work, 66(1), 118-129. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0312407X.2012.708937
This paper describes a cultural mapping tool developed specifically for working with Aboriginal people experiencing mental health problems. The tool has broad scope, drawing from ecological and systems approaches. It will assist social workers to understand cultural and family obligations and build relationships with Aboriginal service users. There are three components in the cultural mapping toolbox: a social and emotional wellbeing cluster map, a community and cultural diversity map, and a migration map. This paper provides examples of the way the tools can be used. The cultural mapping toolbox provides a practical way to be culturally competent by highlighting the importance of family and community relationships and the ways they operate.
Shen, D., Schellen, R., & Moss, D. (2021). Honouring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices in healing family violence. Retrieved from https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/honouring-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-voices-in-healing-family-violence/
Commonwealth of Australia, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.(2021). Keeping our kids safe: Cultural safety and the National Principles for Child Safe Organisations.Retrieved from https://childsafety.pmc.gov.au/sites/default/files/2021-06/final-keeping-our-kids-safe.pdf
Thyrber, K. A. et al. (2021). Tobacco smoking and mortality among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults in Australia. Int J Epidemiol, 2021 Jul 9;50(3):942-954. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyaa274
Millar, H. M. et al. (2020). Parents’ and carers’ views on factors contributing to the health and wellbeing of urban Aboriginal children. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 44(4), 265-270. doi: 10.1111/1753-6405.12992. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/1753-6405.12992
Morgan, G., Butler, C., French, R., Creamer, T., Hillan, L., Ruggiero, E., Parsons, J., Prior, G., Idagi, L., Bruce, R., Gray, T., Jia, T., Hostalek, M., Gibson, J., Mitchell, B., Lea, T., Clancy, K., Barber, U., Higgins, D., ... Trew, S. (2022). New Ways for Our Families: Designing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural practice framework and system responses to address the impacts of domestic and family violence on children and young people. (Research report, 06/2022). ANROWS.
Aboriginal families strongly impacted by food insecurity, study finds (2022, June 2). Sax Institute.https://www.saxinstitute.org.au/category/news/media/
Emerging Minds. (2022). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Wellbeing. https://emergingminds.com.au/resources/in-focus-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-wellbeing/
Emerging Minds.(2020).Working with First Nations families and children: a framework for understanding.https://emergingminds.com.au/online-course/working-with-first-nations-families-and-children-a-framework-for-understanding/