Award for championing cultural awareness in education

An Aboriginal man in a white shirt and a white woman in a blue shirt stand next to a sign for Australian Catholic University. The man is holding an award from Indigenous Allied Health Australia.

Award for championing cultural awareness in education

An Aboriginal man in a white shirt and a white woman in a blue shirt stand next to a sign for Australian Catholic University. The man is holding an award from Indigenous Allied Health Australia.

Wiradjuri physiotherapist and academic Michael Reynolds was recently awarded the Local Champion Award by Indigenous Allied Health Australia. Here, Michael and Elspeth Froude talk about what the award means and how he is driving cultural awareness in physiotherapy education and beyond.

Late last year, Associate Professor Michael Reynolds MACP, former chair of the APA’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Committee, Australian Physiotherapy Council board director and deputy head, School of Allied Health NSW at Australian Catholic University (ACU), was awarded the 2023 Local Champion Award by Indigenous Allied Health Australia in its National Indigenous Allied Health Awards.

Michael says it was very significant to be recognised by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.

‘I’ve been recognised by the APA and within other realms before and I’ve been provided with different positions and opportunities, for which I’m very thankful, but this one in particular—that the First Nations allied health community thought that what I was doing was on the right track—is something special,’ he says.

The award recognises an Indigenous Allied Health Australia member who ‘demonstrates a commitment to improving the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, working with communities in a strengths-based way, championing ways of knowing, being and doing, holistic health and/or community development… a local inspirational cultural and professional role model or mentor’.

Professor Elspeth Froude, national head, School of Allied Health at ACU, who, along with Associate Professor Jane Butler (head of discipline Physiotherapy, ACU) nominated Michael for the award, says Michael is much more than that ‘but I think that does capture a lot of his contribution.’

Elspeth describes Michael as multifaceted.

The APA Sports and Exercise Physiotherapist teaches in the physiotherapy programs at ACU and is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Curriculum and Pedagogy coordinator for the physiotherapy program at ACU, which is taught across three states.

Michael was recently appointed deputy head, School of Allied Health NSW, a significant leadership role in the school.

Michael holds leadership roles at the APA and on the Australian Physiotherapy Council and has recently started a PhD at ACU.

‘This was a great opportunity to recognise those different facets of his contribution, which are many and varied,’ says Elspeth.

‘They all come together to create a powerful voice to advocate for the goals that we share—to elevate and provide opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and to improve health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

‘To know that there are people out there doing that sort of work and to know the impact of their work is very inspiring, not only to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people but to everybody.

‘I think everyone sees Michael’s leadership strengths and the knowledge that he brings—certainly, as a non-Aboriginal academic, I learn so much from the difference in the way he sees the world, which is so enriching and something that we can all benefit from.’

Elspeth says that Michael, along with his Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues, is playing an integral role in making the School of Allied Health at ACU a more culturally safe place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and students.

‘The more I learn about cultural safety, the more I realise that universities aren’t really culturally safe places.

‘It’s an important goal for us to have as a school, across all of our campuses, to make sure that we have that safety and a welcoming environment for our students and staff,’ she says.

‘If we can create that within our school—so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people feel that sense of strength and power and don’t feel that they have to shrink or not be able to show up in the way they want to— then that is something we need to strive for.’

Michael agrees.

He notes that while many schools and organisations are committed to being more culturally responsive, it doesn’t always happen.

‘There’s a lot of goodwill out there but in terms of centring an understanding of First Nations perspectives and providing space—giving up a little bit of power, a little bit of themselves, understanding bias and reflecting—well, that doesn’t happen everywhere,’ he says.

‘How can we create an environment where non-Indigenous staff and other people can feel braver and more empowered to do that? What are the benefits of including people in that space?’

The inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural competence in physiotherapy and other allied health courses has meant that universities are starting to pay closer attention and to move beyond goodwill towards being more proactive, says Elspeth, who says her own eyes have been opened by working with First Nations people, including Michael, on improving cultural safety and responsiveness at ACU.

‘I feel that I’ve got braver as I’ve learnt more.

‘I’ve lost some of that uncertainty around “What if I say the wrong thing?”’ she says.

‘It troubles me that there is so much ignorance.

‘I have learnt the importance of learning through talking and connecting with First Nations people; this is how barriers can be broken down.

‘Michael talks about the relational side of it, which is so important.

‘You can learn the statistics and you can read books, but I have grown the most from my relationships with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people I know, through wonderful conversation and yarning.’

Elspeth says that the Aboriginal perspective she has learnt from Michael and other First Nations colleagues has even affected the way she contributes to meetings, where she strives to be more present, to listen more carefully and to give space for others to contribute.

‘If you’re rushing, or you’re dominating too much, you lose that effect.

‘I’ve seen it in meetings led by First Nations academics and it’s been a really good thing for me to appreciate and to see the benefit of.

‘In the long run, it doesn’t take more time.

‘I think it’s more effective and more satisfying,’ she says.

Michael says this respect for the process of listening to what others say and making space for everyone to contribute is deeply embedded in First Nations culture, which is something that everyone can learn from and apply to their own workplace and processes.

‘In a world where everything is so fast- paced, we sometimes run the risk of not respecting the process and the voices of different people, not respecting their message.

‘For cultures that have been around for tens of thousands of years, not being open and respectful to that knowledge is sacrilege,’ he says.

‘When we start to take the time to embrace that concept of centring people’s culture and voices in our work, there is a bit of a weight lifted off our chests, particularly when we’re running from meeting to meeting to meeting.

‘We need to actually stop and ask ourselves, “Are we aligned to our purpose? Have our cultures, values and identity been considered and is what we are saying consistent with these?”

‘Sometimes that’s not immediately apparent.

‘It takes time to make sure that we’re consulting appropriately and that we’ve reflected on our own biases.

‘This leadership works.

‘If you stay true to this process, it might take a little longer at the start but then you get a lot more done over time with more people on board.

‘It’s quite liberating if you provide that kind of space for yourself and other people to think and reflect.

‘People respect themselves and each other more and move with a purpose genuinely informed by the values and beliefs of others, resulting in the powerful change that everyone is often looking for.

‘This is the power of culture in decision-making and for decisions that affect First Nations people, it must be strong and centred, involving the right people and community.’

Michael and Elspeth say that this is what they are striving to convey to their students at ACU—that learning to work in a culturally responsive way with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients should actually benefit all clients.

‘At the core of what I understand from cultural knowledge is that it’s person-centred.

‘Not necessarily in an individualistic way, or in quite the same way that we might think about it, but it’s what people want. When you work with people in any health environment, they want to be seen as a person first and they also want to be seen as part of their family and their community and to express what their life is.

‘I don’t see it always happening in practice and I think helping people to understand this will be another way to reinforce the importance of those philosophies and approaches,’ says Elspeth, noting that this applies as much to her own field of occupational therapy as it does to physiotherapy and other allied health practices.

Adds Michael: ‘It’s part of what we see as being a good physiotherapist but people aren’t connecting to it very well.

‘We need to do a better job of communicating that it’s your job to do this.

‘It’s not a nice-to-have; this is part of the way we are supposed to be conducting ourselves in this country.

‘Every health professional needs to be working in a more culturally responsive way.’

While Michael has been the coordinator for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Curriculum and Pedagogy for physiotherapy at ACU for several years, he has recently been appointed deputy head of the School of Allied Health NSW for the North Sydney campus of ACU.

In this role he is helping to drive First Nations initiatives across all six campuses in which ACU has allied health programs.

Through his PhD, also at ACU, he is also looking at enablers of university course completion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

It has meant taking a step back from hands- on physiotherapy, at least for now.

‘I’m serious about this space.

‘I’ve hung up my sports physio boots for the time being.

‘I love sports and exercise physiotherapy but my head at this stage is very much at looking to see how we can transform these spaces and our thinking to make sure that universities are ready for First Peoples students and staff—rather than “How do we get our First Peoples students and staff ready for university?”—because we need to do better at universities.

‘We need to be better as organisations and make sure that our institutions are good places to work, live and play,’ Michael says.

COURSE OF INTEREST: Australian Physiotherapy Council's Cultural Safety Training for Physiotherapists 


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