What is cultural safety?

Aug 2020

Written by Glenda Kickett

Our own culture is like water to fish.  We live and breathe through it

Our own culture is like water to fish.  We live and breathe through it

Cultural Safety is used by organisations alongside Cultural Competency and Cultural Responsiveness to demonstrate their commitment to work and provide services which are welcoming and respectful of another person’s culture. It is about our practice and how we promote safe services that value our children, young people and families and their cultural identity, lived experiences and wellbeing. It is about how we facilitate culturally safe approaches that empower children and families within decision-making processes.

Cultural Safety is:

an environment that is safe for people: where there is no assault, challenge or denial of their identity, of who they are and what they need.  It is about shared respect, shared meaning, shared knowledge and experience, of learning, living and working together with dignity and truly listening

Williams, 2008, p. 213-2014

For First Nations peoples, cultural safety is more than providing an environment in the workplace that ensures cultural recognition and valuing lived experiences. It is also more than working to empower children and their families.  It is about building cultural connections and relationships based on mutual trust and respect evidenced within Indigenous cultures and social systems, and stories which are inclusive of languages, family kinships, protocols and obligations.


A Cultural Framework to work within

A cultural framework which encompasses cultural safety approaches to work with First Nations peoples is grounded in cultural knowledges of connection and relationships. This framework empowers children, young people and families to make appropriate decisions and set achievable goals for themselves and their families.

In culture and community, cultural safety is about connecting with Elders and drawing upon their cultural knowledge about cultural connection and relationships within families and country – what these mean and how they are enacted to apply cultural protocols and obligations to build and maintain trust and respect.

Cultural safety is about acknowledging the multi-dimensional cultural and spiritual structures of First Nations peoples and communities which comprise of:


  • Cultural Connections including land and country, knowledge, law and practices
  • Spiritual Connections including worldviews, traditional systems of knowledge, lore/law and practices
  • Social Connections including family, kinship and community
Gee, G., Dudgeon, P., Schultz, C., Hart, A., Kelly, K. 2014

Cultural safety as applied from a cultural framework is holistic, considering cultural, spiritual and social connections which will guide culturally secure and culturally responsive practice frameworks applied to work with First Nations young people and families.  From this approach, it is about supporting children and families to have knowledge of their cultural connections and relationships within their own culture and family groups, and places in country so that they maintain their cultural knowledge, identity and sense of belonging.

From a cultural position, Cultural Safety is ensuring respectful relationships when working with First Nations children and families – listening to stories, valuing their lived experiences, knowledges and worldviews; and building connection and trusting relationships, as described by an Aboriginal kinship carer:

They built a good relationship with us. They really understood where our family was coming from… they really understood how things worked within our family. They didn’t judge on us but worked with us. They found out our needs and wants. They asked, ‘How can we help you?’ instead of saying ‘I am coming here to help you.’ They didn’t presume what we wanted

Kinship Carer in the Woon-yah Ngullah Goorlanggass Program – Kickett, G., Chandran, S. & Mitchell, J. 2019

What does cultural safety look like in practice?

Cultural Safety in practice in therapeutic care with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people means making the time to listen from our koort (our heart) to what young people and their families are telling us – in their words, presence and actions.   The following points to consider:

  • Taking time to listen to a child and young person’s story
  • Building cultural connection and relationships through yarning and storytelling with the child and young person, and their families
  • Encouraging the child and young person’s expression of culture, values and beliefs
  • Enabling the child and young person to connect the dots of their family’s culture and history
  • Work in ways that value the child and young person’s lived experiences and story

These points are appropriate when supporting and assisting a young person to make meaning of what has happened for them in the past and for the present, and for them to envision their future – connected to their culture, family and country; and strong in their identity.

Kaadaninny – to sit, listen and learn

In Nyungah language the word kaadaninny is to sit, listen and learn, which means to sit and listen to the stories told, and also how these connect to other words which have meaning for – hearing, thinking and understanding – that provide instructions for how we listen to stories and learn the meanings in them to work appropriately with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Kickett, Chandran and Mitchell, 2019).

This ensures and maintains Cultural Safety as a way of working which is relational and respectful based on sitting, listening and learning; and from Jo-ann Archibald a Metis educator from First Nations in Canada states:

We have three ears to listen with, two on the sides of our head and in our heart

Archibald, 2008

By Glenda Kickett, Manager, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships and Engagement, Australian Childhood Foundation


Gee, G., Dudgeon, P., Schultz, C., Hart, A., Kelly, K. (2014), “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social and Emotional Wellbeing”, in P. Dudgeon, H. Milroy, R. Walker (eds.). Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Principles and Practice (2nd Ed.). pp. 55-65.

Krakouer, J., Wise, S., & Connolly, M. (2018) “We Live and Breathe Through Culture”: Conceptualising Cultural Connection for Indigenous Australian Children in Out-of-home Care, Australian Social Work, 71:3, 265-276.

Jo-Ann Archibald (2008). Indigenous Storywork – Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit. UBC Press.

Kickett, G., Chandran, S. & Mitchell, J. (2019), “Dabakan Kooyliny – Go Slowly, Walk Slowly, Walk Together: Culturally Strong Therapeutic Care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children, Families and Communities” in J. Mitchell, J. Tucci & E. Tronic. The Handbook of Therapeutic Care for Children, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

VAACA. Cultural Strengthening Programs. Accessed 30th July 2020: https://www.vacca.org/page/services/cultural-strengthening-programs

Williams, Robyn (2008). Cultural safety: what does it mean for our work practice? Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 23(2), 213-214.

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