Cultural consciousness essential for change

By Lee Fagan

The following is the second in a series in which we will be exploring cultural consciousness and what it means for our sector.

As a student of the Australian public school system in the 1980s, I was fascinated by the stories of the early Australian explorers and how they braved the outback and the wilds of Australia to forge new routes across the land for the progress of Australia’s economy and eventual national identity.

I was plied with textbook stories in my Australian history and social studies classes of how these explorers and surveyors who were acting in the national interests had to contend with extreme weather and survival conditions whilst combating the ‘savages’ or ‘natives’ of the land along the way.

This was a fantasy that many of us indulged in. Why?

Because we could.

The romanticisation of the First Australians into the ‘other’ resulted in many Australians believing that they were hunter gatherers, nomads in a land where they roamed from coast to coast without check, a paradox who posed a mere hindrance to the advancement of society and progress at the time, despite being portrayed as a tangible threat.

Thankfully, after an extended period of social and national awareness in which significant events punctuated the Australian sense of identity and began bringing First Nations peoples into the Australian psyche (such as the formation of the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (1924), the Australian Aboriginal League (1934), the Aborigines Progressive Association (1937), the Day of Mourning and Protest (1938) and the 1967 Referendum etc.), it became apparent that First Nations peoples were not hunter gathers with wanderlust or a bad case of boredom.

It was realised that they were nationals of their own accord in their own nations, with their own set of government, beliefs and society that managed to exist and thrive in the vast and diverse geography of Australia, with the ability to coalesce their contemporary interests into something more serving, often with impact.

The realisation in my teenage years of this was by increasingly significant social and cultural shifts as well as an increased media exposure on First Nations issues and events.

As an adult I looked back and realised not just how sanitised that era of primary school learning was for me, but it also made me realise how lacking my knowledge was on my other First Nations states throughout not just Queensland but also Australia.


There are many turning points in our society for this change, many of which are modern-day responses to this misconception about Australia’s First Nations.

Some pivot points were the national and international social justice movements, an increase in First Nations advocates and champions who fought for rights and access for First Nations peoples. These campaigns were underpinned by the ever-changing political landscape, which saw conservative and liberal governments march interchangeably through our political junctures.

But I think there was a subtler change occurring amongst this sociopolitical tidal movement.

I think Australians in general wanted to become more invested in a relationship of mutual connection and understanding with the First Nations peoples.


The concept of sharing is intrinsic in many First Nations cultures. The belief and practice that not one person owns something for themselves but shares all things for everyone is a central tenet of such communal societies.

I am not sure when the first formal cultural awareness course was incepted. I have tried to find when and where it happened, but time is too far gone to effectively pinpoint that period where it came into being and was delivered with certainty to a well-intentioned population.

What I can be sure of though is that cultural awareness in its simplest form was always present in our society. As long as there were people willing to understand and learn about First Nations cultures and their history, there were the champions and educators willing to share.

As I highlighted in my first piece, the purpose of cultural awareness is to create a space in which to engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities with an understanding of the differences and issues that have impacted them.

Looking at how far we have come as a society from the fearmongering and exotification of the past, to willingly celebrating the highs of First Australians being represented on the world stage, certainly highlights the enthusiasm shown in learning and understanding about other cultures. It also shows us the road ahead for many of us who wish to engage with respect and humility with those who hold the legacy of past assumptions and misdirection that was imposed upon our First Nations forebears.