The right to be different

16 May 2013

Are you capable of interacting positively with people who do not look like, talk like, move like, think like, believe like, act like, live like or love like you?

If so, you are on the right journey to being culturally competent. What about the University of Sydney? Are we, as an institution, on the right path towards cultural competency?

It's a question Professor Tawara Goode, Director of the National Centre for Cultural Competence from Georgetown University helped to answer during her visit to the University last week as the first visitor of the Wingara Mura Visiting Thinkers series.

This program brings international experts to the University with the objective of deepening our critical thinking and self-reflection on complex issues related to the implementation of Wingara Mura - Bunga Barrabugu, the University-wide strategy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education, research, participation and engagement.

"Having someone outside the University visit offers us a structured opportunity in a busy environment to stop and think about what we are doing," says Professor Shane Houston, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Strategy and Services.

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have believed for a long time that citizens and services should be respectful and responsive to the various cultures that make up Australian society."

Tawara spent eight days at the University meeting with faculty deans and directors of professional service units to find out what the University is doing well and identify areas in which we can improve.

"I wanted to come here because of the sheer excitement of being able to contribute to a university-wide effort to implement cultural competency," Tawara said.

"There is no other university that I know of that is undertaking such a systematic and innovative approach to change policies and practices. The University's plans will mean that students who graduate from here will be culturally competent when they go out into the workforce."

Tawara started to realise the impact culturally biased practices were having, particularly on children, when she worked in the US health system during the 1990s.

She noticed that cultural biases in tests to assess the development of children were skewing the results.

"African American children were having difficulty responding to standardised tests because their world view was different," Tawara explains.

"For example, one of the tests asked the children to identify a chandelier. However, because of their background many African American children had never seen a chandelier before; instead they called it a light.

"They weren't wrong, but because of their own experiences they knew things by different names."

For Tawara, cultural competency is an important skill for all disciplines.

"Take engineering for example: many students undertake international internships and to be successful they need to understand the culture of the country they are working in. Another good example is veterinary science, where many students go into rural communities for their placement. These students need crosscultural communication skills to understand the community."

Shane Houston says Tawara's visit is an early step in the University's plan to embed cultural competency into its core business.

"We will invite three Wingara Mura Visiting Thinkers a year to spend time with us to help us reflect on our progress as a university on our integrated strategy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education.

"Hopefully this will get people talking across the University, in faculties, in professional service units and in coffee shops and lecture rooms. We want to encourage the university community to think about the issues, challenges and opportunities that are available.

In five years from now, he hopes that students and staff right across the University will be firmly on the cultural competency journey, understanding and living an important concept from the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:

"Affirming that indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples, while recognising the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such."