How we developed the Cultural Learning program

Published Aug 10, 2021, 7:59 AM
Written by Rachel Kelly

Find out why connecting with your local Indigenous community group is a good place to start when building a Cultural Learning program and how applying a Human-First approach can lead to more meaningful outcomes.


Initially, we set out to develop a cultural program that focussed on sharing the stories and perspectives of First Nations’ people with a particular focus on broadening our team's perspectives on Australia Day.

Our plan was to invite First Nation’s speakers across a variety of industries to speak to us for 30–45 mins about their lived experiences, how they got to where they are and what Australia Day means to them. We thought we could pair this approach with facilitated conversations internally asking our own indigenous leaders about their own personal experiences.

This approach seemed logical and relatively straightforward to organise and low cost, however, the human-centred designer in me knew that gaining feedback from an expert before proceeding was the best way forward. I sent the program to a good friend Tui Dunlop in Aotearoa, New Zealand who works there to facilitate and uphold Maori values in the workplace, often called Te Tiriti o Waitangi – living the values.

Tui said that while engaging members of the community is a good start, it’s inevitable that hard conversations will arise and you want to be sure that those sharing their stories are well equipped to handle such conversations. She also suggested the best way forward would be to seek out a cultural educator, an elder or an organisation that specialises in this First Nations education. She said to look for someone who understands the tikanga (values) of the local ways and most importantly has authority and the respect of their community to be talking about these issues.

A little research led us to the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation – exactly the people we were looking for.

We realised that not only would our engagement actively support the local community and we would have the opportunity to learn directly from Uncle Bill Nicholson, who over three engagements would cover a broad range of topics across pre-contact and post-contact history up until the present day.

Key takeaways:

- It’s always worth engaging cultural learning experts because they know how to facilitate difficult conversations and they have the knowledge and support of their communities to share what they know

- Allow adequate time and space to this learning, as there’s a lot to digest and the sharing between team members afterwards is immensely valuable.

The outcomes

We wanted to measure success in our own unique way that reflected the sensitive nature of the learning environment we were in and respected everyone’s personal journey. We applied a human-centred approach and asked everyone in the first session to write down on a piece of paper ‘What Australia Day means to you?.’ Five minutes was given to the task and then everyone was asked to store the note in a safe place.

In the final program session we asked the participants the same question to answer ‘What Australia Day means to you?’ - we then asked them to pull out their previous response and asked if anyone would like to share.

The answers were profound - not one perspective in the building had remained the same, as people spoke of having had their ‘eyes opened’ and a great sense of understanding, empathy and awareness.

This personal before-and-after reflection was a subtle yet powerful way to measure success.

About the program

The first Symbiote Cultural Learning Program: A First Nations Perspective was run to coincide with Australia Day in 2021.

Two of our indigenous leaders, Rachel Kelly and Kiel Barber, proposed the Cultural Learning Program to create a safe space for cultural learning within our business. They both recognised the one sided narrative so often promoted with Australia Day that they wanted to ensure everybody at Symbiote had the opportunity to learn about First Nations perspectives as a way to build deeper empathy and understanding of others lived experiences. They also felt the program would not only broaden perspectives but could also help in the development of more user-friendly products in the future.

This first Cultural Learning program provided sessions with Uncle Bill Nicholson Jnr, a Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung Corporations Principal adult cross-cultural educator, as well as a talk by Symbiote staff member and First Nations man, Kiel Barber and team discussions.

This Program applies the ‘Think global, act local mindset’. By creating a safe learning environment for staff to listen and learn, we hope to build a deeper awareness and empathy of each other’s lived experiences, while celebrating the diversity that makes Symbiote a great place to work.

What our staff said about the program

Here’s how one of our developers found his everyday travels and regular motorcycle rides outside Melbourne much more engaging once he knew more about the First Nations' people and history of the area. Read Rob's Insight.

Another piece written by our QA Analyst, Sakina, describes how this program taught her new things about Australian history and also encouraged her to reflect on her own Indian heritage and how quickly cultural links can be lost. Read Sakina's Insight.


Image credit Chris Stenger via Unsplash.