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cultural awareness

I just returned home from a trip to the US, visiting my brother in Seattle and extended family in New York.

Upon seeing New York City for the time, one thing I wasn’t expecting was the sheer diversity of cultures that makes up New York City.

Apparently, across the five boroughs of New York, (an overall area about of 790sq km – which can fit into the Brisbane area 20 times), there are over 800 languages spoken and people from over 200 countries of origin, practising all of the world’s top 10 religions.

Go exploring a little and you’ll come across Chinatowns in both Queens and Brooklyn; large Italian-American neighborhoods in Morris Park in the Bronx, and enclaves of Hasidic- American Jews in New Brighton.

Explore a little more and you’ll find Ghanaian Americans who have settled in Concourse Village in the Bronx, a large community of West African Americans in “Le Petit Senegal” in Harlem, and a Bangladeshi enclave in Queens.

It works. In fact I think it’s what gives New York is uniqueness and its energy.

I made me think that, as a multi-cultural society, we also enjoy the same rich cultural diversity in Australia. I felt slightly naïve, thinking I knew a lot about other cultures, and realising I really didn’t know as much as I should about cultural rituals and practises that make up Australia, including, about the original owners of our vast land.

From a family lawyer perspective, I would hate to think that I have miscommunicated with, or worse, offended a client because of my own lack of knowledge about certain social arrangements, religious rites, familial relationship differences or in his or her concept of morality.

I consider it fairly fundamental when acting for a family law client that you not only have an understanding of their personality, personal story and at what stage of the grieving process they are at, but it is just as important to understand their cultural background and rituals.

I think the Family Court has done a lot to improve access to justice for people from cultural, religious and linguistically diverse communities. Justice Neil Buckley chaired the Court’s National Cultural Diversity Committee, which conducted a National Cultural Diversity Plan aimed at improving service delivery to Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse population. The implementation of that Plan saw:

  1. Cultural diversity training for judges and staff;
  2. introduction of a language skills register of bilingual staff; and
  3. the revision of forms to collect more comprehensive data from clients about their cultural and linguistic background.

Some family lawyers speak second languages. However, so far as I am aware there is no cultural diversity training offered to practitioners or actively sought by them. Given that 40% of Australian couples that divorce involve at least one spouse who was born overseas, it is probably about time the profession took steps to catch up to the Court.

Over the next six blogs, John Patterson and I intend to focus on a particular cultural or ethnic background each time.

From a privileged western background, we are aware of our enormous limitations in truly reflecting what it means to come from a non-western cultural background. Our intention is about improving our and the firm’s awareness of cultural diversity, to try to better understand, communicate with, and represent those of our clients who come from cultural backgrounds different to ours.

It really is about truly embracing and recognising modern Australian society’s wonderful multicultural, multi-religious and multilingual diversity – just like New York City has.