Culture and heritage

Power up: how cultural awareness helps reconciliation

28 March 2024

Find out how a guided walk along the Birrarung can help us power up the city’s cultural awareness, as we prepare our sixth Reconciliation Action Plan.

When Wiradjuri woman Sharina Ladharam walks into a room, she’s looking for signs.

More specifically, signs that show the space is culturally safe for her and other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“I’m looking for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags on display. An acknowledgement of Traditional Owners. Is there Aboriginal artwork?

“What about the building itself – does it have an Indigenous name? Were Traditional Owners involved in that process?”

Sharina is the Aboriginal Community Engagement and Events Officer at the City of Melbourne.

“Signals of cultural safety like these show that an organisation has taken the time to create a space where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is acknowledged and embraced.”

A woman in a black sleveless jackets smiles next to a rock sculpture featuring engravings
Sharina with carved ancestor stones by Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm

“They demonstrate that an organisation is actively listening to and consulting with Traditional Owners.”

Part of Sharina’s role is to empower others to create culturally safe spaces and increase cultural visibility throughout our municipality.

“When meeting with Aboriginal community, take the time to listen to them. Hear their voices and their stories.”

Consultation in action at narrm ngarrgu

We worked alongside First Nations Elders, artists and community during design, construction and fit-out of the new narrm ngarrgu Library and Family Services building near the Queen Victoria Market.

A wide city footpath and the corner of a brick building with a sign that reads 'narrm ngarrgu' library and family services
narrm ngarrgu Library and Family Services

narrm ngarrgu translates to ‘Melbourne Knowledge’ in Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung language.

The name, the materials, artworks – even the design of the carpet – honours and celebrates our First Nations community, reflecting deep knowledge systems and bringing this warm, welcoming space to life.

Important steps on the way to reconciliation

As we prepare a new Reconciliation Action Plan to guide our work until 2027, we are consulting widely across the municipality.

Anyone in the municipality can take the survey and share their views on our plans for reconciliation.

Sharina plays a key role in engaging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and businesses, and Traditional Owners to discover what these diverse communities want to see in the new plan.

It’s a crucial step on the way to reconciliation, Sharina said.

“We really want to hear the voice of the community, to see what they want us to achieve.”

Everyone can play a part in reconciliation

Do you have ideas to strengthen relationships and respect between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the wider community? Help shape our new Reconciliation Action Plan. Tell us the kind of actions you want to see over the next three years. Take the survey by 10 April 2024.

What is a reconciliation action plan?

A reconciliation action plan is a way to convert good intentions into clear actions that support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to achieve equality in all aspects of life.

That’s good for everyone.

This is City of Melbourne’s sixth Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). Known as a “stretch” RAP, the new plan will focus on showing leadership in reconciliation.

It will reaffirm our respect for First Peoples’ unique heritage and culture, and outline our next steps on the path towards reconciliation.

The new plan will be built around five themes. Four of these themes are set by Reconciliation Australia: relationships, respect, opportunities and governance. Importantly City of Melbourne has added a fifth theme: truth-telling. 

Four metal sculptures of shields on the banks of Birrarung (Yarra River)
Metal shields are part of the Birrarung Wilam installation

Truth-telling in action across the city

Storytelling leads to truth-telling, which guides the way to reconciliation.

Acknowledging, recognising and paying tribute to the Stolen Generations is a vital part of the City of Melbourne’s truth-telling journey.

“Without truth-telling, you can’t have reconciliation. It’s important to hear the voices of Aboriginal people,” Sharina said.

City of Melbourne is two years into the process of creating a Stolen Generations Marker, an action that came out of its last Reconciliation Action Plan.

Essential to the process is close guidance from a working group that includes Stolen Generations survivors, their descendants, key organisations and Wurundjeri Traditional Owners.

We have also consulted more widely with Stolen Generations, their families and the state’s Aboriginal community.

The project has reached an exciting milestone with, Peppercorn Lawn in Alexandra Gardens on Wurundjeri Country selected as the Markers location.

This Marker supports our commitment to reconciliation and to strengthening relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.

Learn about the Marker and Peppercorn Lawn

What is cultural awareness training?

Cultural awareness training can take the shape of a guided walk along the Birrarung or a visit to the First Peoples Exhibition at Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum.

It could be a deep dive with Traditional Owners in a day-long session designed to reflect on life before and after colonisation, family responsibilities, and ways to work respectfully with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues.

City of Melbourne sees building cultural awareness among staff as another foundational step to reconciliation and creating a culturally safe organisation.

Every action helps us deepen our understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and elevate Indigenous voices.

The learning never stops for Tourism Operations Coordinator Tara Djamovska, who has taken five types of cultural awareness training over the past year.

“Being open to trying the training is important. You might not understand it at first, but that’s why you’re doing it. Now I read and watch and get as many different perspectives as I can.”

Tara shares what she learns with our 250 tourism volunteers – stationed at visitor centres across the city – inspiring them to learn more about one of the oldest continuing cultures on Earth.

In turn, our tourism volunteers then inspire visitors to the city to explore Aboriginal Melbourne.

A woman walks near sculptures on the banks of the Yarra River – Birrarung
Tara Djamovska with Birrarung Wilam (Common Ground) artwork

A good place to start is Birrarung Marr, where you’ll find the environmental art project Birrarung Wilam (Common Ground), by artists Vicki Couzens (Kirrae Wurrong / Gunditjmara), Lee Darroch (Yorta Yorta, Mutti Mutti and Trawlwoolway) and Treahna Hamm (Yorta Yorta).

Many elements forged from metal and carved into rock and wood – such as an eel pathway, message sticks, shields and ancestor stones – celebrate the physical and spiritual connections between Aboriginal people and place.

“There’s always a story you can connect with. For me it was the story of family. We’re not singular. Everyone has a role to play in looking after the whole community. We all have a role to play in looking after the city.”

“And the story is evolving, so we always need more training. With this next RAP, we’re looking to the future. What do we want for the future? Respect. Peace. Harmony. It takes time.”

Birrarung Wilam sculpture

How does cultural awareness help with reconciliation?

Sharina Ladharam knows how important it is for people to keep levelling up on cultural awareness.

“Undertaking cultural awareness training is a great place to start,” Sharina said.

“It is important to know the history of the Country and especially the land you are on.”

The next step is to incorporate what you have learnt into your organisation.

“Find ways to embed cultural safety across all of your work,” Sharina said.

Eight ways you can learn about reconciliation

  • Find and take cultural awareness training.
  • Explore Aboriginal history, places of significance and continuing culture with the Mapping Aboriginal Melbourne tool.
  • Take a guided Aboriginal walking tour with the Koorie Heritage Trust.
  • Go on a self-guided walk through the city and find other fun ways to engage through What’s On Melbourne. Or pick up a printed guide from one of our visitor centres.
  • Know whose Country you’re on with this Acknowledgements Map [press ‘enter’ twice if you get an error message].
  • Write a meaningful Acknowledgement of Traditional Owners to share the start of meetings and events.
  • Get to know your Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues and friends. Care for those relationships and be mindful of the cultural load people carry.
  • Take the time to listen, hear new voices and stories when meeting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and colleagues.

Everyone can play a part in reconciliation

Help shape our new Reconciliation Action Plan. Tell us the kind of actions you want to see over the next three years. Take the survey by 10 April 2024.

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