Over the last few years, I’ve worked with several organisations who want to improve engagement with Māori on educational issues. As Pākehā, I’ve been involved in these kinds of projects because of experiences and commitment to building knowledge and practice about how, as non-Māori, to best affirm Māori authority. I’ve been really interested in the impacts of this type of learning, and how this can strengthen our relationships.
My basic assumption has been this: if non-Māori recognise and affirm Māori aspirations by sharing power to make sound decisions, then we can achieve a Tiriti-based present and future. This benefits everybody because we can leverage diverse forms of knowledge and skills — opening up space for co-innovation. These opportunities aren’t new — people have been building and sharing knowledge for ages in order to enhance our lives. The problem is that, when we encounter complicated topics like, how power is shared between cultural identities, that’s when people can get stuck.
My Treaty Partner, tangata whenua, have long said that our education system has a long history of doing harm, and that schools have been unsafe places. Why? Because, they tend to perpetuate and privilege the worldviews and practices of people who look like me: Pākehā/European, male, middle-class, able-bodied, married hetrosexual (and bald)! This mono-cultural approach doesn’t work for Māori, because it erases their own understandings of the world. It does this by hiding its own cultural biases.
Cultural bias creates disparity in health and education. It does this by negating multiple ways of being. Cultural bias doesn’t allow for how different people experience the world, behave, and organise themselves. Cultural bias blames people for “their own educational failure”. It can also impact on teacher judgements about Māori student performance. This does intergenerational harm to individuals, families and communities. Unfortunately, this is part of the colonial reality I/we have inherited in Aotearoa. A reality that benefits some, and does huge amounts of harm to many other individuals, families, and communities.
So, what is to be done?
Cultural safety provides one of many alternatives to cultural bias and mono-culturalism. It offers an educational framework for the analysis of power relationships between professionals, organisations, and those we serve.
Irihapeti Ramsden was a key architect of cultural safety in nursing. She was a game-changer who worked tirelessly with Māori and non-Māori to improve service delivery for Māori, and consequently, for all people. She was an innovator and trailblazer.
So, how has cultural safety changed (if at all), and what are the roles of non-Māori in creating culturally safe organisations and practices? I sat down with Dr Heather Came-Friar and Claire Doole to explore this issue — two Pākehā public health experts. I wanted to see what our cousins in public health can share with us as public educationalists.
Kei ngā ringa tōhaunui, kei te mihi atu ki a kōrua tahi. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about cultural safety. In your work, what does “cultural safety” mean?
Heather: When I think of cultural safety I think of Irihapeti Ramsden and her work in nursing. The idea has changed form over years. It’s different in different places. There’s pockets of excellence, and pockets of horror!
In public health, we don’t talk much about “cultural safety”. We talk more about a Treaty partnership or relationship, and cultural and political competencies. For us, it’s about power — noticing power, and how power is transferred via Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
Basically, nurses need to reflect on their position and power. But it’s impossible to reflect on one’s power and position without humility and curiosity. This is cultural safety. When professionals recognise their own power and culture, it prepares them to work with the subtle cues of diversity. It helps people understand, affirm, and check their assumptions about the cultural context of people who differ from themselves.
Recently, while working with Māori and non-Māori on educational projects, I listened to several Pākehā say that they felt “culturally unsafe” when they’ve been challenged by Māori. What struck me was this paradox: by attempting to create cultural safety, it can be unsafe for some. How would you respond to this type of experience?
Claire: Cultural safety and discussions about the Treaty between health professionals isn’t a time for safety — it’s a time for risk (for Pākehā)! When we, as Pākehā, are challenged we can become defensive — this is a human reaction. When I’ve been seriously challenged, I’ve had to work through my defensiveness.
I would say, Pākehā just have to bear with it — it’ll be ok. Naming things make a difference. If I can’t name a problem, then who is going to? Everyone has to bring their best emotional intelligence to the table, and understand that emotional expression in one culture is not the same in another. If things go off track, go back to basic conversations — stuff that isn’t loaded. This helps build the rapport. The work of Stephen Covey has been helpful for me.
Heather: Some of this work is uncomfortable — this is part of learning. We don’t always set it up to be uncomfortable. Part of the challenge is that sometimes things may have happened in the past, which triggers people. The challenge here is to enter into dialogue and stick with it.
I find going back to basic principles of facilitation — ground rules, timeout, dialogue — useful here. Basically, there needs to be goodwill and trust. If these things are broken or dysfunctional it’s really hard. I believe that, as a group Pākehā, have a dysfunctional relationship with Māori. The challenge is to find common ground and support people to heal on both sides.
So, if the challenge is to support people to build good projects for both Māori and non-Māori, what tips do you have for individuals and organisations to do this?
What non-Māori individuals can do engage positively with Māori: Find out what the goals are; listen, observe… then offer practical help; create reciprocal relationships; stick with it!
Claire: Firstly, I know that I don’t know. So, I decided that if I wanted to build a relationship with Māori I needed to be useful. This meant I followed Māori goals and protocols in that place. It isn’t about me setting the goals and asking them to contribute. If I sat and listened, then I could hear. This was incredibly powerful and humbling. If I was useful I’d stay in the picture longer.
I work closely with a Māori colleague, and I profoundly respect her opinions. We now have a very successful relationship — we model the relationship in public. We value each other’s input. We listen to each other. We don’t second guess one another. I’ve learnt not to act on instinct. I now ask her before I act. Respect is at the bottom of it.
Heather: Take the opportunities to engage — accept invitations. Take the opportunity to listen. I’ve been lucky to have mentors, like Whaea Makere Wano and others. She guided me. I would go with her to wānanga and just park my own stuff, and listen with an open heart. This helps be an effective ally.
It’s about reciprocal relationships generally. We respect, trust, care, and maintain dialogue with each other. The gel is taking the time to trust each other. The ToW preamble – it’s about whanaungatanga – stay in there. Don’t be scared off. We’re all learners, and I’ll be a learner until I’m an old lady.
What non-Māori organisations can do engage positively with Māori: Think about systems change, hierarchies, and where power lies; create shared values & vision; recognise Māori intelligence; make a resourced plan.
Claire: The assumption behind cultural safety was that, if nurses know how to work in culturally safe ways, then things will change; if nurses enact this, then eventually we will have systems change. But this ignores the hierarchy of an organisation. Even if people have the best of intentions, they get overwhelmed. Nurses and teachers don’t hold all the power — despite our relationship with patients — none of that counts as you go further up the hierarchy.
Organisations need to come back to shared values. Until organisations have walked along the path and are clear with each other — you can’t take the next step. If you’re not clear about mutual values, then things won’t work. If you’re clear about the values, things will fall into place.
Heather: Creating culturally safe organisations is a powerful opportunity to recognise Māori intelligence. If people with power and authority don’t embrace Māori intelligence, the other parts of the organisation won’t. In general, Pākehā don’t seem to trust Māori.
So, leaders need to affirm and not marginalise Māori knowledges. This means being sharp and ensuring Māori can develop programmes that work for Māori. Have a shared vision for the kaupapa, and then make a plan and define the steps. It’s about building and maintaining relationships, reflecting on work-plans, sharing power and resources.
Tēnā anō kōrua! Thanks again for your work, determination, and willingness to share what you’ve been learning along the way.