Approaching community development projects as an educated privileged white person can be awkward, and in some cases, highly insensitive. When you choose to work in communities with a background in systemic poverty, post-colonial trauma and discrimination, you are often the elephant in the room. If you are like me and your aim is to work in Indigenous affairs community, or international development, being an elephant is something you will need to learn to manage. It takes practice, and I recommend getting in as much practice as possible before it becomes the ‘real thing’. I took to becoming an elephant during an internship via the Aurora Internship Program at the Australian Indigenous Leadership Centre (AILC).
Placing yourself in context is a very important first step to approaching community development. When the interviewer for the Aurora Internship asked me straight out how I would respond to possible negativity towards me as a privileged non-Indigenous Australian I was relieved. The Aurora Placements team were aware of the importance of reflexivity and understanding your role within a development setting. This is not an easy thing.
As a Masters students in Social Science (International Development) I am taught to build capacity; but not impose my knowledge onto someone else. I must monitor and evaluate the progress of the project; but be aware of the ‘western or white fella lens’ and how this will affect the way I see things. I must value and include Indigenous Knowledge; but also manage donor requirements to maintain funding, even if it conflicts with local knowledge. I am encouraged to be an agent of change; but I must ensure all change is community led and self-determined. You have to walk a fine line to be an effective community development practitioner, and that’s pretty hard when you are an elephant!
What I am referring to and what the Program aims to achieve is affective cross-cultural development. Preparing new practitioners to be able to apply practical knowledge and skills to help balance this complex field of personal/professional cross-cultural interaction.
Many of you probably would have attended cultural awareness training throughout your professional career. Often cultural awareness comes across as a two-dimensional set of ‘guidelines’ which one should follow in order to be respectful. This is useful for not stepping on toes, but doesn’t capture the rich multifaceted exchange that occurs between individuals from different cultural backgrounds. It doesn’t always extend to the ongoing negotiation of space that needs to occur in a work environment in order to practice true cultural diversity and understanding.
I was very fortunate in my experience at the AILC to be involved in a workplace that recognises the cultural diversity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and builds on the strengths of each culture. The AILC has taken Indigenous understandings of leadership and placed this within a modern western context to create a culturally responsive learning and development.
Cultural responsiveness as apposed to cultural awareness enables people to develop a dynamic understanding of culture as fluid and interchangeable. When I first started at the AILC I was worried my western/white upbringing would create a barrier between my colleagues, but they were quick to show me that culture was far more diverse than ‘black and white’. Black means many things to different people, just as white does. Under each person’s skin is complex layers of values and attitudes that are fused with tradition, family, education, community and self-awareness. How we respond to this determines how relationships will form.
As I said at the beginning, this takes practice. Sometimes you don’t know how to respond. Sometimes the relationship is complex and requires a lot of negotiation. Sometimes what you are asking a person to negotiate is part of their foundation and is non-negotiable. For me my internship has helped me understand what are the’ negotiable and non-negotiables’ within Indigenous cultures. This takes a lot of self-reflection and reflexivity. Where are you (context)? What are you doing (role)? Why (motivation)? Context, role and motivation are important questions to ask yourself, and to ask of the organisation you are working for. They are important questions to ask the people around you. This is how you understand where other people are coming from, what they doing and why. This is what can help you respond to the cultural diversity between you.
I was overwhelmed by the way the staff responded to me at the AILC. As open as I was to understanding Indigenous culture and leadership, they were equally as open to share. I am very fortunate as this is the most ideal situation a development practitioner could ask for. Community development isn’t always that receptive from the get go but my experience has built a strong and positive foundation. I have formed relationships I know will stay with me for life and I am very proud to have been part of the AILC mob.
Applications are open in March and August annually on-line via the Aurora website at http://www.auroraproject.com.au/nativetitleinternshipprogram.