My Cultural Competency Journey / An Italian perspective of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections and services in GLAM

An image of an artwok composed of images of hands of different colors on the ground.

My cultural competency journey started in 2010, when I moved from Italy to Australia to study and work in the field of First Nations physical and digital archives[1].

At that time, I had just completed my studies in Arts and Humanities and Cultural Anthropology and I was confident in engaging with archival collections. I had some involvement of working with archival material related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and experiences in Europe and had an understanding of Australian history. Professionally and personally, my drive has always been the advancement of social justice and human rights and I was especially interested in how the archival profession contributes to this area.

Even if I had a general perception of concepts such as ‘cultural competence’ and ‘cultural safety’, I had never been in the position of seeing how they truly touched and impacted the lives of people around me. When I was able to experience the ways that Aboriginal people were deeply impacted by information and data held in collecting institutions and Government about them and their communities, I understood that my level of cultural competence and understanding about the entangled layers of these records needed to improve. This increased self-awareness was an important milestone in the journey to improve my level of cultural competence and to be able to be effective and transparent in my work within cultural organisations.

When I arrived in Australia, as someone coming from a completely different background, I quickly realised how racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was visible and showed itself in different shapes and forms. A racism which looked to me to be so embedded in the Australian society, yet it was somewhat invisible from overseas, where colonisation of Australia seems like an old and buried past.

In my everyday life, I started observing and analysing the reactions of people when I was talking proudly of the work I was doing – and I quickly realised it wasn’t always safe for me to engage in conversation about it. I started recognising that the Australian education system lacked an acknowledgment of its colonial past and that in doing so, it perpetuated stereotypes and biases about Aboriginal peoples, cultures and histories.

Meanwhile, I started to see examples of lack of cultural awareness and sensitivity for First Nations peoples in their professional roles, as well as for Aboriginal people who wished to access cultural collections. For example, I didn’t understand how the few Aboriginal people working in institutions could be asked to speak on behalf of and/or represent the entire First Nations population of the Country. Likewise, archival collections which contain information about Aboriginal communities were often considered testimonies of a distant past, yet Aboriginal peoples have continued to thrive culturally and their communities are diverse, vibrant and strong. I was also challenged by the lack of acknowledgment of the complexities around Indigenous collections and the intergenerational trauma which can be embedded in these records. The information contained in these records represents just one part of the story and can report facts and knowledge which – without community input and responses – could be incomplete, wrong or misconceiving.

All these issues were invisible to me when I was living overseas.

I still remember my confusion when I saw for the first time used interchangeably the categories ‘Diverse Communities’ and ‘Multicultural’ for library services dedicated to anyone who wasn’t considered part of the dominant Australian society. A category that included Aboriginal peoples. Diversity is not all the same and, to promote equity, it needs to be considered and approached differently and fairly. “If you treat everyone the same you are actually guaranteeing inequality, as not everyone will have equal access or opportunity” (Phillips 2018)[2].

The experiences of migrant communities such as mine are important but are radically different from the traditional owners of the land where I live which have been here for over 60,000 years – and so should be services dedicated to them. ‘Multicultural’ services are not equitable.

Video source: Celebrate Australia with a Lamb BBQ, Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) campaign launched to celebrate the diversity of Australia. 11 January 2017.

It has been nine years since I arrived in Australia and in this time I have committed myself to deeper learning, including reflecting on my role as a supporter and an ally. As part of this I have undertaken a cultural competence course, continued  further readings in the area and had many conversations with First Nations peoples and communities. I have seen this as a continuing learning journey where I have asked a lot of questions about my role and contribution.

I am very grateful to the many Aboriginal colleagues who have taken the time to share their knowledge and feedback with me. If I have learned something about cultural safety, it is that Aboriginal people working in cultural institutions often carry the responsibility and the burden of ‘educating’ other non First Nation people like myself. This role, as time passes, becomes an often underestimated source of cultural labour and stress, which doesn’t leave much time for other work and development.

I continue to think deeply about my contribution and how I can continue to support Aboriginal aspirations within  the sector. What I have learnt from this journey is that cultural competence is fundamental not only in understanding diversity and recognising embedded bias but it is also about a direct call for action, both from an organisational and personal point of view. As a non First Nations woman, I often think about my own positionality asking myself questions such as: “Do I have the right to speak in this context?”; “How could I support Aboriginal cultural safety in the profession?”, “What is my call for action in support of cultural competency?” and “How do I stand up to racism when I witness it?”. These have been vital reflections to consider how I am promoting respect and transparency in my work in both Australia and in Italy.

One key area where I try to promote cultural competency in libraries and archives is in relation to considering  the power of language. Translation is linked very clearly to cultural competence, as ‘translators mediates not only between languages, but between cultures’ (Fenyö 2005: 61). As Sarolta Simigné Fenyö explains, ‘Translators have to render into another language what the language with the original message means in their culture’.[3] As English is not my first language, I think deeply about translation and the ways I use language to promote respect and reconciliation. Therefore, I find it important to understand why one word is currently used in comparison to another one so that I can translate more respectfully.

In my work within cultural institutions, the way I translate meanings and concepts takes into account how people want to be represented. For example, a simple word like ‘Aboriginal Australians’ (which, in Italian, is translated in just one way: ‘Aborigeni Australiani’) can be translated in English in many ways – and every way carries with it so many layers of meaning and underlying assumptions. Hence, what is important to me is to facilitate conversations with Aboriginal people about they do want to be represented. For example, some people in Australia prefer the term ‘Aboriginal’, some other ‘First Nations’, and in other settings the term ‘Indigenous Australians’ is used. These questions are important because of the historical meanings that the translations carries with it. In my work in New South Wales I clearly understand that the use of the word ‘Aborigine’ is perceived as insensitive, because it has racist connotations from Australia’s colonial past, and it categorises people with diverse backgrounds into a single group. In the same way, I understood how it’s not acceptable to use the term ‘Tribes’ in NSW, and that peoples usually prefers to be represented referring to their different geographical territories and/or language groups.[4]

As a result of my own journey, I now strongly believe that building cultural competency among staff should be a main priority for all cultural and collecting institutions. By building cultural competence and proficiency across all staff – and so recognising embedded bias and power imbalances – organisations can gradually improve cultural safety for Indigenous people working with and accessing records of a traumatic history.

A single cultural competence training course is a good start but is just the first step of a longer journey. Building cultural competence requires personal commitments to ongoing learning and self-exploration, as well as sincere institutional commitments to eradicate discrimination in policies and practices. Australian Universities and organisations such as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), the National and State Libraries Australia (NSLA) and the Australian Society of Archivists (ASA) have been taking action to support organisations and cultural institutions in developing cultural competence, cultural proficiency and cultural safety among staff.

Without ensuring cultural safety to First Nations peoples there’s no respect, there’s no welcome, there’s no access, there’s no equality. And – without these things – there’s no reconciliation.

And, as an ally coming from another country, is also my responsibility to promote Reconciliation in the Australian society because I can’t change what’s happened in the past but I can work toward changing the power structures embedded in collecting cultural institutions. What I have learned is that working in a transparent and respectful way and in partnership with communities, promoting a culturally safe environment, can be part of my contribution to this process.

Author – Monica Galassi

This post is part of a longer talk titled Indigenous Cultural Competence and Cultural Safety in Australian Libraries and Archives, presented at the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Conference in Washington DC (USA) on 16 August 2018.

 

Notes

[1] In Australia, every community and family have different terms or ways to self-represent, using terms such as Aboriginal or First Nations, Koori, Goori (for NSW) people. In this blog post I have used the words ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘First Nations’ interchangeably to talk about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities (and capitalised the words as a sign of respect).

[2] “Currently, most Australians believe equality is about treating everyone the same: that an equality of inputs will automatically translate into an equality of outputs; that if you don’t work as hard as everyone else’, it’s your own fault for landing on the streets or in jail. Yet if equality is about ‘sameness’, it only works if everyone starts from the same level. If equality is about is about ‘fairness’ it means adjustments need to be made. If you treat everyone the same you are actually guaranteeing inequality, as not everyone will have equal access or opportunity. This is how political power works in ‘modern’ Western democracies.” (Gregory Phillips, 2018, No Republic without a Soul in ‘First Things First’, Edition 60, eBook. Available online at https://griffithreview.com/editions/first-things-first/).

[3] Fenyö, Sarolta Simigné, The Translator’s Cultural Competence in European Integration Studies, Miskolc, Volume 4. Number 2. (2005), pp. 61-72. For a wider introduction on the importance of cultural competence in Translation Studies see An experimental study into the acquisition of cultural competence in translator training: Research design and methodological issues by Christian Olalla-Soler.

[4] For more information on this area see, as an example, the works Aborigine, indigenous, or first nations? By Michael A. Peters and Carl T. Mika and What We Want to Be Called: Indigenous Peoples’ Perspectives on Racial and Ethnic Identity Labels by Michael Yellow Bird.

 

References

A. Peters, Michael and Mika Carl T. (2017) Aborigine, indigenous, or first nations? In Educational Philosophy and Theory, Volume 49, Number 13, pp. 1229-1234. Online at DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2017.1279879.

Fenyö, Sarolta Simigné, The Translator’s Cultural Competence in European Integration Studies, Miskolc, Volume 4. Number 2. (2005), pp. 61-72.

Olalla-Soler, Christian (2015), An experimental study into the acquisition of cultural competence in translator training: Research design and methodological issues in The International Journal for Translation & Interpreting Research, Volume 7, Number 1, pp. 86-110.

Yellow, Bird Michael (1999) What We Want to Be Called: Indigenous Peoples’ Perspectives on Racial and Ethnic Identity Labels in American Indian Quarterly, Volume 23, Number 2 (Spring), pp. 1-21. Online at https://www.jstor.org/stable/1185964?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.

Phillips, Gregory (2018), No Republic without a Soul in ‘First Things First’, Edition 60, eBook. Available online at https://griffithreview.com/editions/first-things-first/.

 

Acknowledgments 

Image Source: My photo taken in Sydney, Australia, 3 July 2017. NAIDOC City Event in Hyde Park. Pictured: ANTaR Sea of Hands.

Video source: Celebrate Australia with a Lamb BBQ, Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) campaign launched to celebrate the diversity of Australia. 11 January 2017.