In Langscape Magazine Articles

No More Invisible People on Secret Committees: An Aboriginal Man’s Fight for Cultural Safety

September 23, 2020

Mark Lock interviewed by Stephen Houston

Stephen Houston: Can you please introduce yourself?

Mark Lock: I am Mark Lock from the Ngiyampaa people, an Australian Aboriginal tribe from rural Australia. You can see that I have “fair” skin and blue eyes because of my mixed heritage (Latvian, Scottish, English, and Scandinavian, in addition to Ngyampaa). Genetics has given me physical looks to survive in white Australia, but my soul and spirit are like the night sky. Navigating the space between “fair” and “night” is the theme of my life and my work.

Mark Lock in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia

Mark Lock in his neighborhood in the city of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. Newcastle is on Awabakal Country. Photo: Stephen Houston, 2020

SH: What is the best way for readers around the world to understand who your people are?

ML: The Ngiyampaa people are a smaller tribal group of the larger Wiradjuri Nation. We are not tribal in the way readers would picture, because of colonization and the absolute destruction of culture. Instead, we are joined together through our shared history of resilience, survival, and ancestry. Whenever Ngiyampaa people meet one another, we always talk about family connections, especially about Elders, and spend time talking about where we live, our families, and our survival stories.

We are joined together through our shared history of resilience, survival, and ancestry.

SH: How did you come to be the founder of Committix Pty Ltd, and what does your company do?

ML: Committix is about governance, a dreadfully dull topic—dull, that is, until I start talking about the Stolen Generations, when Aboriginal children were taken away from their families and placed in institutions and trained to become white Australians. The children were forbidden to practice their traditional cultures and couldn’t talk in their language, practice ceremonial rituals, learn from Elders, or live with Country and families.* Who made decisions to remove children? Invisible people on secret committees. My company, Committix, examines committees and their governance. I review organizational strategic plans, develop frameworks for healthcare governance, assess academic literature, participate in research projects, and provide advice about cultural safety.

My culture is complex, rooted in ancient traditions older than sixty thousand years and damaged by colonial forces.

It’s highly technical work, out of the media spotlight, and certainly not newsworthy. But I see the devil in the details. I remember once being criticized for being too detailed: I read the whole report as well as the abstract and executive summary and references! That’s because my culture is complex, rooted in ancient traditions older than sixty thousand years and damaged by colonial forces. Culture is more than an abstract, more than a one-page summary.

*[Ed.] For Aboriginal Australians, the term “Country” embodies not only people’s relationship to the land, but also their ethical responsibilities towards it. Drawing from the work of Professor Mick Dodson, Mark Lock defines “Country” as “the social, cultural, and spiritual obligations embedded in a totemic area and its features.”

Mark Lock at work

Mark in work mode in his Committix office. Photo: Stephen Houston, 2020

SH: Can you explain the concept of cultural safety? Is there an image you can think of that might help people appreciate its meaning?

ML: Doctors feel safe in a hospital that is designed to their values. Christians feel safe in a church. Teachers feel safe in a school. Politicians feel safe in Parliament. Lawyers feel safe in courts. Families feel safe in their homes. Captains feel safe on their ships. Values and morals inform the sense of safety and safety design. In Australia, every system was designed without the values and norms of First Nations Peoples in mind—culturally unsafe by design. Australia is slowly changing, though, to consider, respect, and empower our cultural values and norms. New buildings include cultural designs, reconciliation action plans are influencing organizational philosophy, and people are being educated from a young age about the history of Australia being about First Nations Peoples. In many points and pathways, I see changes towards cultural safety.

SH: What do you think cultural safety has to do with countering the loss of biocultural diversity?

ML: Australia has hundreds of First Nations whose cultural values and norms appear to be fenced off from influencing Australian society. Society sees art, sport, and dance—performative culture—as what “culture” is. Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu shows that we have an enormous history of caring for the land based on thousands of years of accrued knowledge and wisdom. The ignorance of that knowledge and wisdom—intellectual culture—means a lot of environmental destruction of the land. Cultural safety means designing systems that include intellectual culture, embracing our ways of thinking as being legitimate and a contribution to society.

Most Australians know the story of the nineteenth-century explorers Burke and Wills, whose ill-fated expedition to cross the continent from south to north through territory then still uncharted by non-Aboriginals ended in tragic circumstances. What is not well known is how they had plenty of food around them but chose to scare off and kill First Nations people rather than learn how to prepare the local cereal grain into an edible bread (they would have had to cook the grain first before milling it into flour to release important vitamin B nutrients).

cultural safety

To convey the meaning of cultural safety, Mark commissioned artwork that illustrates various key cultural concepts. Photo: Stephen Houston, 2020

SH: Now tell us about the practical business of Committix: reviewing terms of references, committee charters, strategic plans, governance frameworks. It’s all very technical indeed. Can you think of a way to help people understand these things?

ML: The term “govern” means to think about ships and sailing, or cars and driving, or planes and flying, or society and tradition—a group of people organizing themselves to achieve something that they couldn’t do by themselves. A sports club, a political party, a wedding, just about any activity means people working together. It requires leaders, teams, plans, and activities driven by a common purpose: winning a game, being elected, getting married.

Then upsize that activity to being about care systems, which means organizing multimillion-dollar budgets, hundreds or thousands of people, thousands of organizations with the common purpose of improving health (or education, or welfare, or housing, or the environment). The bigger an activity is, the more you need technical documents that people can read and refer to for guidance. It’s a vast ocean, on which the captains and stewards need to steer a course by using a good map—and the “map” is technical governance documents.

In Australia, our Constitution was formulated without us, and so to this day the governance philosophy of Australia excludes its Indigenous Peoples. It’s culturally unsafe—our cultural voices are not included in how to govern.

But governing is about a philosophy of practice. The history of colonial empires is about conquering for riches, land, and religion, and Indigenous Peoples suffered enormously because of the imperialist philosophy of the English, Spanish, Dutch, and French. In Australia, our Constitution was formulated without us, and so to this day the governance philosophy of Australia excludes its Indigenous Peoples. It’s culturally unsafe—our cultural voices are not included in how to govern. To me, this means I’m actively involved in committees and their decisions and their governing documents. My cultural voice should be heard, and my spirituality ought to influence decisions.

I use my education so that no one can steal my soul and rights to determine my future.

SH: In your 2012 essay “The Bright Side of Assimilation,” you wrote of your Nan (grandmother) Marjorie Woodrow and her experience being stolen from her mother by the government: “The system of control, health checks, tracking money, domestic training, government policy, administration, services, missions . . .” Can you describe your story of being determined to use your education to honor your Nan’s directions when she said, “Learn white-fella ways and help your people”?

ML: Nan’s spirituality is a powerful guiding force for me. I sit at my computer analyzing policy documents and research, smiling and asking her, “What do you want me to do with this?” I open my soul and spirit and then start writing. She is there in my mind and at my fingertips. Working with documents is about working with people: the words on a page come from thoughts and decisions and discussions. Other people decided what to do with Nan when she was a child, to take her away and train her to be white. (Her story is told in her 2001 memoir Long Time Coming Home: As Recalled by Marjorie Woodrow.) I use my education so that no one can steal my soul and rights to determine my future.

Nan Marjorie Woodrow

Nan Marjorie Woodrow signs a copy of her memoir Long Time Coming Home during the book launch in 2001, while co-author Dianne Decker (right) looks on. Photo: Unknown, 2001. Source: Committix website

SH: How does Committix Pty Ltd help you, being Ngiyampaa? And how does it help you determine your own future as an academic researcher working in health governance?

ML: I can embed cultural safety into any project that I work on because the independent company structure allows me to steer my company’s ship on that course. In contrast, as an employee of someone else’s organization, I would have no say in how the ship is governed because I’d be an invisible cog in a ship of someone else’s design.

What I hear from First Nations community members is a basic level of fear that every time we go to a hospital, or school, or to sport, we will be racially attacked.

SH: When you think of Committix, is there anything that comes to your mind that helps you visualize how it works and how it can help people?

ML: Yes, I think about “points and pathways” of a highway of interconnections and navigating the journey over different pathways to different points. We go to many points in our lives—home, school, hospital, work, sport—and at each of these points there are many people. How can they respect my culture if I am invisible at that particular point? We need strategic planning of the pathways to that point—but not physical pathways, rather intellectual pathways that contain years of growth in thinking about First Nations Peoples in a respectful way. Then, if every point and pathway is culturally safe, every First Nations person can feel culturally secure that they will not be diminished, demeaned, or devalued. What I hear from First Nations community members is a basic level of fear that every time we go to a hospital, or school, or to sport, we will be racially attacked.

old brick gates of Parramatta Girls Home

The old brick gates of Parramatta Girls Home, the institution in which Nan was once forced to live to become white. Blurred against the background of the urban skyline, the gates point to ongoing questions of cultural safety for Aboriginal Australians. Photo: Stephen Houston, 2020

SH: Your research work is deeply committed to understanding people’s voices and getting meaningful cultural representation into health services. You have said that “there need to be highly detailed plans developed by Aboriginal people so that non-Aboriginal people can steer a governance course.” Can you tell us something about that?

ML: We have differences in health, income, education, and welfare between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Bridging the differences needs careful planning of courses from “here” to “there” through difficult waters. (I say “courses” because there are hundreds of First Nations in Australia.) How does the captain of the ship know where the shoals and shallows are? I set out marker buoys that captains of organizations can see when they navigate their organizations to provide services for First Nations Australians.

The problem at the moment is that we rely on communication between First Nations and non-First Nations Peoples for navigation, but with just three percent of the population of Australia being First Nations Peoples, it’s impossible to have interpersonal communication between every employee and a First Nations person, especially in the deep and meaningful way for cultural transformation to occur. Therefore, employees in organizations can be influenced by organizational culture, and that relies a lot on strategic planning documents that employees use to guide their activities and decisions.

If I can place marker buoys in the strategic planning documents, then the activities and decisions will be better equipped to consider cultural differences. For example, a Board asked Committix how to embed cultural safety in their constitution, which in no way mentioned First Nations Australians. Rewriting the constitution meant that every activity of the organization was influenced by the Board members asking a question: how do our decisions affect First Nations Australians?

Cultural life and health are deeply connected.

SH: How do you think a person’s cultural life and health are connected?

ML: I think cultural life and health are deeply connected. My social, emotional, and spiritual health is strongly positive because I make it positive through my work and life philosophy. After a hard day at work—which is lots of writing about cultural safety, research design, and critical data analysis—I feel that it has been a worthwhile activity for me to do. I feel energized and look forward to the next sunrise. At the same time, and it’s complicated, I feel a deep wound in my soul, which is the missing traditional culture. I don’t speak the language, practice any ceremony, or know any secret men’s business—all that is forever gone, and it hurts my heart if I think about it too much. The best I can do is to ensure that today’s systems are designed so that culture is respected and nurtured.

Mark Lock and family

Nan Marjorie with her grandson Mark and great-granddaughter Phoebe. Photo: Unknown, 2010. Source: Committix website

SH: In your 2012 essay, you also wrote you think it’s possible to embrace the positive consequences arising from adverse circumstances for an optimistic future. How optimistic are you?

ML: I am optimistic because there are more Aboriginal people in influential positions working towards better human rights for our peoples. I am optimistic especially in relation to cultural safety, because non-Aboriginal people are understanding the need to talk with us and journey with us, rather than make decisions about us. My cultural identity feels respected, I feel valued, and I feel empowered in my abilities and for my contribution to policy and strategy.

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Mark Lock.

Mark Lock descended from First Nations Ngiyampaa people. Through his company, Committix Pty Ltd, he is leading a cultural safety governance revolution in Australian health care. His work interweaves scientific and cultural rigor. He believes corporate governance can include Aboriginal cultural voices through every point and pathway of decision-making processes.

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Stephen Houston is a South Australian inspired by former State Premier Don Dunstan’s anti-colonial and socially progressive vision for Australian life. A secondary school teacher interested in the politics of intercultural translation in media and public life, he also uses his arts background to promote awareness of diverse voices for peacebuilding enterprises.