The Dangerous and Costly Intercultural Grey Zone

It seems strange when you think about it. While well funded and well resourced dominant culture personnel come and go to Aboriginal communities, the not so well resourced AHED/Why Warriors workers stick in there. Why? Is it because of the relationships our team build on the ground as they work with Yolŋu people on what they want to do to improve their lives? Or perhaps it is because this team of people has learnt information and skills that help them be productive and survive in the very difficult grey zone that exist between cultures.

There are certainly others out there who have also built good relationships with Yolŋu people. But more often than not, they are the exception to the rule. I take my hat off to them. They stick to their guns despite receiving little to none of the training needed to work effectively in these settings.

Adventure tourism

From teachers and medical staff, to Government workers, the turnover rate in communities is staggering. One government department I was talking to last week said, “We just cannot keep people. They just come and go”.

How can things change for Yolŋu and other Aboriginal people when so much money is spent on just moving personnel in and out of communities? Programs and positions that are well-meaning, with the intention of fulfilling an important purpose, end up turning into something closer to adventure tourism.

Everyone Pays

Without special training for this grey zone between cultures, psychological conditions like culture shock exact a high price. The result is often personnel who leave broken and defeated with lifelong emotional and psychological scars and conditions.

And the public purse pays for it; along with personnel who leave their experience broken and disillusioned, the Aboriginal people themselves seem to receive very little from the whole exercise other than perhaps them or their children being photographed a bit more by the constant stream of short term dominant culture residents.

It is hard to swallow that the cost of recruiting and moving one government person or position in and out of an Aboriginal community would equal half the annual operating budget for the whole of our organisation. The cost of recruiting and moving for one position like this would be enough to build ‘Learning English’ programs, and an e-Learning school in Yolŋu Matha and English for over 8,000 Yolŋu people. The costs associated with one such position would be enough for us to produce a video that would answer for Yolngu in their own language the often heard question, “What is a Heart Attack”. A DVD like this, with English subtitles could play on National Indigenous Television across the nation.

Working Safely

If we send people into a war, a high radiation zone or any other new and potentially dangerous area, personnel are trained with information and skills that allow them to enter that particular zone, do useful things while they are there and return home safely. Working in an Aboriginal community can be dangerous, especially in the psychological grey zone between cultures. But so many people in positions that service Aboriginal people are not trained with the skills and knowledge they need to work effectively and safely.

Working Effectively 

There is talk of finding the ‘best of the best’ teachers and sending them into Aboriginal schools. But the ‘best of the best’ are hitting the wall just like average teachers. They might be paid a lot more but they are still not trained to work in the grey zone between cultures.

Over the years I have had teachers, medical people, government workers, consultants, trainers and even hardened journalists on the phone in tears, asking me for advice on how to do their jobs, and why it is so hard to get things done in Aboriginal communities.

One teacher said, “I spent two years in central Australia and I failed as a teacher. I had already taught in some very demanding mainstream schools in Sydney. The worst that teenagers could throw at me, I was able to handle. So I thought it would be good to move to an Aboriginal community and work with Aboriginal children. But two years into the job I just gave up. I lost my confidence as a teacher. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I teach these children anything?”

She went on, “I got on OK with the children and members of the community, I just failed at being able to teach them anything”.

The Complex Grey Zone 

Meet any couple that has entered into a cross-cultural marriage relationship and list with them the difficulties and misunderstanding; the near disasters and disasters they have encountered even with the strong bond of love between them. The list would be as long as your arm.

The grey zone between cultures is a very complex and difficult zone. Like any work zone you might enter, you need to know what makes it different, what to look out for, why things happen in different ways while in the zone. Then you need to learn the specialized information and skills that the particular zone requires of you, so you can be effective and efficient while there.

Dominant culture workers need to be equipped with the appropriate skills and tools to work safely in the grey zone.
Dominant culture workers need to be equipped with the appropriate skills and tools to work safely in the grey zone.

Entering the Kitchen Zone

Think of it this way. Entering a kitchen would be a dangerous experience if we had no knowledge of the hot or sharp tools that you find in such an area. Further, if you had no knowledge of the particular resources available in that kitchen and what they could be turned into, you would have no idea of the potential that could come out of that kitchen. Having the knowledge and skills needed to operate in the ‘kitchen zone’ allows us to produce some great and exciting things; safely and effectively.

Many of us learn the knowledge and skills needed to operate effectively in a kitchen as we are growing up. Few of us learn the knowledge and skills needed to be productive and safe in the intercultural grey zone. In fact the intercultural grey zone is barely even recognized by the dominant culture society.

Imagine sending someone who has never even boiled water, or used a knife into a kitchen with the task of cooking a meal. We would not do it without expecting failure. Yet we send untrained unskilled dominant culture people into Aboriginal cultural settings all day and every day. And then we wonder why it does not work.

Why is essential training not happening?

Why are dominant culture personnel not being given the knowledge and skills needed to work productively and safely in their new work environments in Aboriginal communities and positions that provide services to Aboriginal people?

Thirty years ago, this training was seen as essential for all who went to work in Aboriginal communities. Some people did six months training courses before they entered the grey zone. Today, despite the fact the same training can be delivered in a very cost effective and efficient way, such training is no longer seen as necessary.

In the past, most organisations working with Aboriginal people operated on small budgets. These organisations had to get quality outcomes from as many of their dominant culture personnel as possible. Now with government funding available, it seems recruitment budgets have expanded out of all proportion, and professional development budgets have shrunk to the point of virtual non-existence.

Maybe it is done this way so government departments can say they have adequate numbers of personnel when and if they are asked. But few are asking the question, “Are people trained to work in the intercultural grey zone?” Even occupational health and safety are not looking at this issue; maybe because like everyone else they are not conscious of dangers that are inherent in this grey zone.

Really Closing the Gap

If we want to make real progress in ‘Closing the Gap’, we need to first acknowledge this intercultural grey zone, and then implement appropriate training. There would be massive savings in government revenue, less broken dominant culture personnel and more relaxed and functioning Aboriginal communities.

Here at Why Warriors, we know of the danger and potential of the grey zone and use this as the starting point for our Bridging the Gap training. This training is our attempt to share what we have learnt over 40 years of experience in the intercultural grey zone, gaining the information and skills needed to make a difference and build productive relationships.

We see this training as vital to building a worthwhile future for Yolŋu and other Aboriginal people in Australia, and indeed, Indigenous people around the world. Because the dominant culture is such a powerful player, Indigenous people cannot change things on their own. Productive outcomes for all involved can only happen when the dominant culture understands the grey zone between cultures and learns the knowledge and skills necessary to operate effectively in it.

I hope in some way, you can support this quest by helping us get the information about the grey zone out there. Please send the link to this blog onto others or talk to someone you may know who has influence; or start a conversation with work colleagues about this very important subject.

Thanking you; Richard Trudgen

© August 2013

About Richard Trudgen

Richard was born in Orange NSW and trained as a fitter and turner. He moved to Arnhem Land in the NT in 1973 and became a community worker, learning to speak Djambarrpuyŋu. Has now worked with Yolŋu people for over 45 years. He was the CEO of Aboriginal Resource and Development Services (ARDS) for 10 years during which time he developed discovery education methodology with Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM and also established Yolŋu Radio in 2003. He is the author of Why Warriors Lie Down and Die and facilitated ‘Bridging the Gap’ seminars, and delivered corporate training across Australia. He is currently the CEO of Why Warriors Pty Ltd, a community development social enterprise organisation working with Yolngu people. He spends his day writing, producing podcasts and building online learning platforms, producing videos and working face to face with Yolngu. He is also involved in building online cross-cultural training material to build understanding between Indigenous peoples and the Dominant Culture.


Add your comment:

  1. Jenny Black

    I totally agree. I went to Alice Springs 22 years ago, and although had done cross cultural training, nothing prepared me for working with Indigenous people in Central Australia. I let my first client know that I knew nothing really and would like to learn both language and culture so I didn’t offend anyone. This opened the door for me as I was “assigned” a language teacher and culture teacher from within the Western Arrente people. I don’t always get it right and I have come to realise the more you know the more you realise you don’t know. Doing a course such as “Bridging The Gap” should be mandatory for all non Indigenous people who work in Indigenous areas. Being open minded and not holding the view that your own culture is the best and only culture is essential. Richard anything you can teach us is vital and much appreciated. Thankyou.

  2. Danielle Tillman aka Manimumak Gurruwiwi

    I have done the “Bridging the Gap” seminars, (several years ago now) despite being raised in the NT for half of my life. I was adopted into the Yolngu clan approx. 20yrs ago and I am still learning. The important thing to remember is that learning to live in the grey zone is a never ending process. The first step is simply acknowledging that there is one. There are no two communities or clans who will operate the same and there is always so much more to learn than we anticipated. It is possible to thrive in these areas though. By completing such expert training as “Bridging the Gap”, individual community cultural programs, effective self-management and anything else you can get your hands on, will do nothing but assist you. Just try to make sure you are choosing programs with people who are in the know-how and always utilise the community elders / members. Remember; as long as you are mindful and open, you can learn and grow together. It is a remarkable experience and one that will change your life forever. Thanks for all your knowledge sharing Richard – it is always a treat!

    Kind Regards,
    Danielle / Manimunak

  3. Emily

    I completely agree – a year and a half ago I was recruited to work in a remote community with no experience in my chosen position, and no professional or cultural training. We were given an article to read about the culture of the community.
    Everything was learned by experience, and I do treasure those experiences. But a bit of help would have been nice, and a lot of hilarious mistakes could have been avoided.

  4. amy jade

    Iam going to work in remote areas in aged care..I would like to go out there with awareness for indigenous peoples and for myself to be effective in my work. Communication is tough enough without the aded disadvantage of no prior knowledge of
    our indigenous culture diversity..I live in Cairns, is there any where I can learn with on line course or what can you recommend.
    Amy Jade

  5. Sander Klarenbeek

    Would be very interested in receiving this training.
    We work in education in Katherine.
    We are foster carers and have indigenous children boarding with us.

    Have some cultural knowledge but would love to expand it!

    Kind regards,

    Sander Klarenbeek