Cultural awareness

If we are to truly engage with groups and communities, it means working with people from diverse cultural groups that have values, needs, traditions and histories that differ from mainstream cultural norms. This likely means cultural norms that are different from your own. This should change how you show-up and how you engage people in your work. 

‘Cultural competency’ has different meanings depending on the groups that are involved – it can include people from different language groups, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Pacific Islander people and people who do not identify as gender binary (e.g. people who identify as LGBTIQA+). We acknowledge that each culture has its own history and legacy, and requires different considerations. Sometimes we may have people from many groups working together, and that requires different considerations again. Noting how vital it is to engage many cultures, in this post we focus on furthering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination as this is vital to regional innovation in Australia.

The ideas and stories captured here were shared by members of the Regional Innovator’s Network (RIN) during a peer learning session on 16 October 2018.

Quick Summary

What does it mean

  • Understanding, respecting and acting
  • Furthering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice and self-determination

What helps

  • Cultural awareness training
  • Identifying cultural awareness needs at the start of an initiative
  • Building community ownership into projects
  • Building culturally inclusive organisations and initiatives
  • Creating culturally safe spaces
  • Using principles to guide culturally appropriate work

What hinders

  • Lack of sensitivity to the many different forms of culture
  • Lack of awareness of community dynamics

What does it mean?

Understanding, respecting and acting

You will see a number of terms used to describe what it means to engage with different cultures, and the distinction between these terms emphasises that cultural awareness is a beginning. To effectively engage people from different cultures takes awareness, integrity and responsiveness:

  • Cultural awareness is having understanding and knowledge of your own culture and privilege, as well as that of other cultures. Understanding peoples’ experiences of marginalisation (past and present) is a particularly important aspect of cultural awareness. 
  • Cultural integrity (also written as cultural respect or cultural competency) is putting cultural awareness and knowledge into action; it is acting in a way that demonstrates understanding and respect for other cultures
  • Cultural responsiveness is working with people in ways that are culturally appropriate for them and developing practices that include the practices of other cultures

“Just seeing that judge and other people in the courtroom who are not me or look like me getting treated differently. And that happens every day of my life: being watched when I go into a shop because I might steal something, not getting served straight away. There’s these biases that happen which I’m sure are totally unintentional that non-Aboriginal people sit in this privilege and they don’t realise…even though they might have a wide understanding about awareness and being aware of what’s happening”. –  Aunty Vickey Charles

Furthering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice and self-determination 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to experience the negative impacts of colonisation, racism, Western laws and culture. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not ‘just one of many diverse groups’; they are the traditional custodians of the land, they have been forcefully displaced, and they continue to live in that reality every day. Recently, place-based initiatives in Australia have put a particular focus on elevating the voice, leadership and ownership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. You can read more on this topic through this link. In this way, regional and place-based initiatives have a unique opportunity to further Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination.


What helps?

Cultural awareness training

Cultural awareness training equips people with knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the different cultural groups that exist within a culture as well as helping them understand their own culture and privilege. Cultural awareness training can help contribute to awareness about the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people including discussions of culture, customs, and traditions, and the impact of colonisation on the culture and peoples. Cultural respect training can help people develop the behaviours and practices that put awareness into action.

Many organisations have developed a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), which is a process and a framework to support Reconciliation in Australia. A RAP is a strategic document that is designed to support an organisation’s business plan and it documents actions that the organisation will take to facilitate reconciliation internally and externally to an organisation.

“Lots of people say ‘Get over what’s happened; it was 250 years ago.’ I was born in 1965 and for the first 2 years of my life I was still under the flora and fauna act so I was still classified as an animal. I’m 54 now and I [say to them] it wasn’t hundreds of years ago, this happened in my lifetime”. – Aunty Vickey Charles

Identifying cultural needs at the start of an initiative

How can you start a conversation about culture in the projects you work on? One way is to use a ‘cultural canvas’, which is a tool that promotes awareness for the different cultures an initiative may come in contact with. This can include identifying who the project team are, any advisory roles, and the context of the project both politically and culturally. The cultural canvas also asks that you are aware of the geographic area you are working on and the traditional custodians of the land so you can Acknowledge the Country appropriately.

“I think it’s a key thing especially in location of work. It makes it very complex in resettlement communities. For example, the Nyampa people were removed from their country and put at Murrin Bridge on a reserve. It sits in Wiradjuri country so when you start to work in that community you’ve got to understand and respect how that works”. – Annette Ohlsen, Condobolin Community Connector

Building community ownership into projects

In co-design it’s important for ownership of a project or initiative to sit as much as possible with people in the appropriate community so they can take on and progress initiatives themselves. 

There’s the opportunity for community ownership, leadership and engagement at every stage of a project:

  • Scoping: How could community shape the starting point for an initiative and be involved in its governance? How can community, across different cultural groups, shape the agenda? 
  • Discovery: How can community expertise shape your understanding of the current situation? How can they contribute to research, make sense of research or even do the research? 
  • Designing: How can community shape solutions, tell the story of solutions, evaluate options and prioritise resources?
  • Testing: How can community evaluate and refine solutions? 
  • Spreading: What role can community play in spreading solutions, through entrepreneurship, employment and/or community mobilsation?

Building culturally inclusive organisations and initiatives 

Many social impact organisations have been thinking about how to increase staff diversity (at all levels), but also how to increase the diversity of decision makers e.g. through board membership or advisory panels. Organisations and initiatives can be stronger if staff and decision-makers reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.



Creating culturally safe spaces 

There are a number of ways to create culturally safe spaces for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including:

  • Creating a physical environment that says ‘Welcome’: for instance, displaying the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags and hanging artwork and imagery that resonates with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • Acknowledgement of Country displayed and spoken as appropriate, or a Welcome to Country spoken by the appropriate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person
  • Having Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership, presence and participation in the initiative and the organisation 
  • Providing cultural training which covers the impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture since colonisation
  • Indicating that there is appropriate cultural support, coaching and mentoring available from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person or non-Aboriginal where appropriate
  • Developing a formal Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) that is structured and has leadership involved in actioning the plan
  • Creating a space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, e.g. a dedicated facility or room. This may include providing time and space to debrief with other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people before, during or after meetings.
  • Holding cultural debriefs after activities and events to discuss any concerns or share progress


“With another Aboriginal person I can sit and have an open and honest conversation and they understand. Whereas sitting with a non-Aboriginal person and doing supervision there may be some things I won’t say”. – Aunty Vickey Charles


“Just talking to someone in my own area in what we call Aboriginal English, to be able to talk differently and not having to talk like a non-Aboriginal person all the time and feeling like you’re having to perform”. – Aunty Vickey Charles



Using principles to guide culturally appropriate work

Being culturally aware and responsive is complicated. A set of principles to guide decisions can help provide guidance. Here are five principles that TACSI have developed to guide our work supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led innovation:

  • Furthering self determination: Look for ways that the project or actions within the project can be driven, governed and owned by community
  • Relationships first: Taking time to build trust and be flexible with timelines and pace; not trying to force activities to happen on our timeline or the timeline of our funders
  • Seeing the connection: Looking at what’s happening now, planning for the future, understanding the past and what needs to be taken into account in order for the now to make sense
  • Building on community knowledge: Understanding diversity as well as deep sources of knowledge and experience that sit within community; building on evidence that is already exists; giving back to community. 
  • Tell great stories: It’s useful to have visual, tactile and storytelling ways of sharing and learning as opposed to long reports. This can include sharing the information visually or creating an experience to support the mutual learning process of everyone.




Aboriginal communities have often experienced being researched without seeing benefits flow to community, or worse still to support marginalisation. For example, historically ethnographic studies of Aboriginal communities have been used to reinforce the agenda of colonisation and resettlement. In initiatives it is recommended to consider ways to share what has been learned and to give back to communities. As an example, in Dubbo the CAPP organised a walkthrough of an Education Discovery project to share insights and ask the community, including Aboriginal elders and community members, to add to the process. In this way we can ensure that whatever we learn, the community learns as well.


What hinders?

Lack of sensitivity to the many different forms of culture

In the past, Australia had hardline assimilation policies which did not recognise the value of cultural sensitivity to our organisations, communities or our nation. Currently Australia has a multicultural policy that celebrates the diversity of people that call this land home. Cultural sensitivity is multiculturalism in action and is crucial to creating respectful and accepting environments in our communities, organisations and initiatives. Cultural sensitivity is built by seeking knowledge of the different cultures around you and practicing engaging them in ways that are sensitive to the different approaches in communication and engagement that may be necessary. When we are not culturally sensitive, we put our communities, initiatives and the outcomes we seek at risk.

Reverse mentoring is a useful practice to create understanding between cultures. This means people from different cultures are invited to help others to understand and appreciate them by sharing customs, food, and other cultural traditions. Organisations can use reverse mentoring to create a practice of sharing, creating empathy, and continue to build the basis of knowledge and understanding.


“In Condobolin, we have a multicultural women’s group and we do a lot of talking to schools. The ladies wear their own traditional costumes and dresses and we go into schools and give a talk. We take the [cultural] food and they talk about what life was like where they went to school and how they came to be out here in Australia. And that’s a really good way to get to the younger people in our community” – Heather Blackley, WPRD Condobolin



Lack of awareness of community dynamics

Every community, no matter how big or small, comes with its unique dynamics, histories and personalities. This can be hard to navigate especially if a community or person feels disenfranchised or disrespected. Useful solutions to address these sticky situations are:

  • Building relationships with community leaders over time
  • Sharing information across the community in a way that is accessible
  • Creating coalitions or working relationships in the community so that it is a shared initiative and people have more of a voice to influence upward
  • Finding was to move beyond engaging ‘just the usual suspects’ and to help those who have been marginalised to share their voice  and have input
  • When facilitating sessions, finding ways to hold space and ensure that all voices are heard and respected
  • Working across diverse groups to create a shared agenda and/or common vision for the future
  • Acknowledging the history of services and consultancies that drop in and out of rural and remote communities without sharing back with the community
  • Acknowledging and understanding the underlying frustrations and tensions in a community around certain initiatives and programs
  • Working with professionals to set up processes and environments for healing past wounds, repairing relationships and addressing issues between people, e.g. mediators, respected leaders and elders, and/or healers



“Understanding the politics of a community it a really crucial thing and we can sometimes find it very challenging. There are people that will really challenge you during that process. We have so many lots come into our community to do pilots and they wonder why some [local] people get their back up about it”. – Annette Ohlsen, Condobolin Community Connector


“We hosted conversations to find out what really mattered to people and ‘culture’ was a standout; it wasn’t a standalone priority, it was a standout wraparound priority. What I found was because we started the conversation in that space, the communities flagged that they wanted to celebrate [NAIDOC events] as one community. Everyone at the table said that would never happen. We’re 3 years down and there’s been 2 years of shared events. The people in the room who were motivated by the conversations led that process as a community” – Shane Phillips, Lake Cargelligo Community Connector


Frameworks and Resources:

  • Cultural Awareness presentation
  • Cultural Canvas – Project Kickoff Worksheet – use this when beginning a project to identify what you need to be aware of culturally 
  • Unwrapping the wrap – an activity we do at TACSI to unpack the layers of history harm done through colonisation. Each card is printed separately and then wrapped in successive layers. We sit in an induction and unwrap the package, one layer at a time. Each person unwraps one layer, reads the card, and passes the package to the next person.


Information on Protocols and Data Sovereignty:

Working with Aboriginal organisations

Related Capabilities:

  • Staying grounded in and connected to community and place: Community and place is tied deeply to culture
  • Self awareness: Part of being culturally aware is understanding how your own culture is shaped and how it has shaped your thoughts and behaviours
  • Continuous learning and curiosity: Having a beginner’s mindset can help you from making assumptions about cultures different from your own and keep you open to learning about them
  • Communicating effectively: Understanding the ways different people communicate is important to effectively getting ideas across
  • Developing insights and connection: Before starting any innovation work, it is important to understand the context and build the trust of local people – a very important capability and step in the innovation process when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.