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By Rob Ranzijn MAPS, Keith McConnochie, Wendy Nolan and Andrew Day MAPS. School of Psychology and David Unaipon College of Indigenous Education and Research, University of South Australia

We’d like to start by recognising that all the work mentioned in this article has been performed on Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander land.

In early 2004 two of us (Keith and Rob) had a brief chat at a program directors’ retreat. We wondered about doing more to educate our University of South Australia (UniSA) psychology undergraduates about the past and present situation of Indigenous Australians, and to teach some basic knowledge and skills for working effectively with Indigenous clients and communities. Soon after, we were joined by Wendy Nolan and Andy Day, and started to design two new courses. From the outset the project was a partnership between the David Unaipon College (the organisational unit devoted to Indigenous knowledge and teaching – Keith and Wendy) and the School of Psychology (Rob and Andy).

Next, we received two small Teaching and Learning Grants from UniSA to expand the scope of the project (Ranzijn, McConnochie, Day, & Nolan, 2006). The aim was to identify benchmarking principles for good practice to inform, firstly, other disciplines at UniSA and, secondly, other schools of psychology in Australia wishing to develop similar courses. We searched psychology websites for details of relevant courses, and convened a reference group of predominantly Indigenous mental health and welfare professionals. We also went on the road and met leading teachers of Indigenous cultural competence (the current term used to describe the ability to work effectively in Indigenous contexts) to psychology students – Chris Sonn at Victoria University, Pat Dudgeon and Darren Garvey at Curtin University, and Tracy Westerman at Indigenous Psychological Services in Perth. We realised we had joined a journey travelled by these pioneers and others over the last 15 years (Dudgeon, 2003; Westerman, 2004).

Throughout 2005, with constant input and feedback from our reference group, we developed two new courses that commenced in 2006: a compulsory first-year course for all psychology students (‘Indigenous Australians: Culture and Colonisation’) and an elective third-year course (‘Psychology and Indigenous Australians’). We include the word ‘Indigenous’ deliberately, since we believe there needs to be an explicit focus on understanding and working effectively with Indigenous Australians, given the continuing statistics illustrating Indigenous disadvantage (Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, 2005). However, we introduce broader concepts relating to cultural competence (Sonn, 2004; Sue, 2003; Weaver, 1999; Wells, 2000) and decolonisation, and make frequent reference to the global context and other cultures as well.

In July 2005 we organised a National Workshop on Psychology and Indigenous Australians. The aim was to obtain input from the wider psychology and Indigenous field, and to test our ideas about curriculum against the needs of those who have experience in the field (and potential employers). This workshop was the first public step in a developing partnership with the APS, which strongly supports our work. The main outcome, apart from a comprehensive report of the proceedings (Ranzijn & Severino, 2006), was the first draft of curriculum guidelines as a resource for other academics. The following September at the APS Conference in Melbourne we participated in a symposium on Teaching Indigenous Psychology at Tertiary level sponsored by the APS Interest Group on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and Psychology. The informal discussion that followed marked the beginning of our collaboration with the Interest Group. Throughout 2005 we developed a growing email list of interested persons, to keep them regularly informed about our progress.

In 2006, our teaching and curriculum development was consolidated and the groundwork was laid for disseminating the fruits of this work nationally. The second National Workshop was attended by 120 people, including academics from 15 psychology departments. The main aim this time was to obtain detailed feedback on the guidelines. The program also featured a history of psychology’s involvement with Indigenous people, by Pat Dudgeon, as well as presentations on teaching, policy, and practice issues. Immediately after this, at the joint APS/NZPsS Conference in Auckland, we participated in a cultural symposium that raised the profile of Indigenous issues in psychology. It was a great collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people doing similar work on both sides of the Tasman.

The scope of the project continues to grow. Student interest in the courses was so high that they formed an ongoing support group to help us, and the Indigenous community, to work towards social justice and equity for Indigenous people. We received a grant from the Carrick Institute to disseminate the curriculum guidelines and teaching practices throughout other schools of psychology in 2007 and 2008, in partnership with Victoria University and the APS. We also received an ARC Indigenous Discovery grant for Wendy, an Indigenous researcher, to undertake an exploratory study into how many psychologists work with Indigenous clients and what issues and barriers exist to working more effectively. We will also be holding the Third National Workshop in 2007. Finally (for now), we are developing a resource website which includes the curriculum guidelines, a bibliography of over 500 references, a discussion page for members, success and ‘failure’ stories, and details of our and other universities’ courses.

It’s been a very rewarding journey so far. Whatever success we have had is due to the continuing leadership, goodwill and encouragement of the many Indigenous people involved at all levels of the project. Of course we have made mistakes along the way, but being prepared to listen and learn is the key to moving forward. There is still a way to go, but we hope we have contributed to the development of a critical mass of committed people who can keep the momentum going. Working in this area can be potentially disheartening and lonely at times, given Australia’s geography and the fact that Indigenous cultural competence has tended to be regarded by institutional decision-makers as a fringe or luxury activity. A major challenge ahead is to demonstrate that Indigenous cultural competence should be regarded as core business for psychology, and that developing graduate skills in this area may be more useful than some other tightly held areas considered sacred to psychology over the last century.

We strongly believe psychology has a crucial role to play in addressing Indigenous disadvantage. The discipline has the potential to understand the workings of racism and how cultural trauma is perpetuated from one generation to the next (Atkinson, 2002; APS, 1997; Dudgeon, 2003; Halloran, 2004). We hope courses such as those we have developed will produce a new generation of psychologists and academics who can work as partners with Indigenous people to bring about long overdue social justice.

For further information about the project or the website or to join the email list, please email Rob Ranzijn rob.ranzijn@unisa.edu.au.