Cultural Safety: Building Trust Through Understanding and Collaboration

—By Alrika Rojas

A hand pours water from a copper cup into another cupped hand

We all have a cultural identity, which influences our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and impacts the manner in which we interact with other people and the world around us in our day-to-day lives. This identity develops in relation to the historical, political, and social contexts in which we are raised and includes factors such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status, generation, nationality, gender, sexuality, ability, and religion. Although we are all born with the right to express and maintain our cultural identity, in reality, this freedom is not granted equally to all. Many people face social and political marginalization and discrimination based on one or many factors making up their cultural identity, while privilege and advantage are often invisible to those who have it. What does this have to do with cultural safety, you ask? Practicing cultural safety recognizes and respects the cultural identities of those with a different cultural identity to our own while offering a safe space to reflect on our own cultural identity and beliefs. So, let’s talk about cultural safety.

In 1999, Robyn Williams defined cultural safety as:

An environment that is spiritually, socially, and emotionally safe, as well as physically safe for people, where the 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, learning together with dignity, and truly listening.

—Robin Williams
Several garlands of international flags hanging between buildings

As a concept, cultural safety emerged in the New Zealand healthcare setting of the late 1980s, supporting the development of culturally appropriate services for Indigenous patrons in New Zealand. This relational approach to healthcare draws attention to power imbalances and institutional discrimination within the healthcare setting and teaches healthcare providers to work towards a people-centered approach built on collaboration and trust. In the Canadian healthcare context, when serving Indigenous patrons, the National Aboriginal Health Organization has defined cultural safety as:

[When] the educator/practitioner/professional, whether Indigenous or not, can communicate competently with a patient in that patient’s social, political, linguistic, economic, and spiritual realm.

—National Aboriginal Health Organization

Although cultural safety was developed in the healthcare context, it is an important concept that can and should be adapted to other professional and informal settings. Key strategies assisting in the development of a culturally safe space include:

1.  Recognizing and respecting the cultural identity of people with a different cultural identity than your own.

“It begins with me.” Work towards developing a sense of personal cultural awareness, finding value in culturally diverse views without judgement, and staying away from imposing your own views and beliefs.

2.  Recognizing and reflecting on our own cultural identity and beliefs about people with a different cultural identity than your own.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is culture?
  • What culture do I identify with?
  • What perceptions do I have of cultures other than my own?
  • Where did I get this information?
  • Can I identify any potential biases or stereotypes in the sources of that information?

 3.  Cultivating a safe space in which rights, needs, and expectations are met.

Cultivating a safe space in your workplace or home includes consideration of cultural safety in aspects such as:

  • Building environment and design
  • Governance structures and processes
  • Staff and hiring choices
  • Language
  • Policies, guidelines, and procedures
  • Programs, training, and resources
  • Engagement
  • Monitoring, evaluation, and accountability

In this context, “safety” is defined by those using the space or service.

 4.  Developing relationships built on collaboration, trust, and open communication.

Brush up your interpersonal skills:

  • Be an active listener
  • Learn how to communicate effectively
  • Polish your non-verbal communication skills
  • Listen, think, act, and speak with empathy
  • Actively work to develop your emotional intelligence
  • Take the time to do team building activities and enhance your collaboration skills

 5.  Recognizing, overcoming, and ending the use of stereotypes.

We all have implicit biases that influence the way in which we interact with others. What matters is that we work toward non-judgmentally identifying, overcoming, and not acting on them. Are you curious about your own unconscious biases? Take Project Implicit’s Implicit Association Test.

6.  Recognizing that cultural safety is not cultural competency.

Cultural competence refers to the practice of increasing one’s intercultural and intracultural knowledge and skills. For instance, this may include developing a strong understanding of a culture’s language, traditions, history, and value system. Cultural safety is an action-oriented process that recognizes and acknowledges the benefits and limits of cultural competency while offering opportunities to address and manage power imbalances, institutional biases, and cultural discrimination.

Cultural safety matters.

By incorporating cultural safety into the spaces in which we work, rest, and play, we are reminded of the importance of strong, trust-based relationships and are given the tools to analyze and understand our own cultural identity, how it influences the ways in which we interact with the world around us, and how to adapt these spaces to be safe and welcoming for everyone.

Alrika Rojas, Environmental Planner

Editor’s Note: This blog was edited for clarity.