Holy Cross College, Ellenbrook
'I came that they may have life, and have it to the full' John 10:10

Cultural Connectedness

A question that I have never been asked, but perhaps should be asked, is “what do teachers do on a pupil free day” or, as we say at Holy Cross College, a student home study day. Now that you are thinking about asking, we do some wonderful and amazing things in order that we continue to be at the forefront of educational innovation, creativity and school improvement. We draw our focus for school improvement from our Strategic Compass 2019-2022, which was developed by undertaking research into contemporary and future educational practice along with collaboration with key stakeholders. The Strategic Compass is available on the College website. In 2020, we have chosen to focus on the following goals:

Learning Pillar
Student Voice – To foster student agency to encourage students to act with vitality and purpose in shaping their own learning.

Inter-relationships Pillar
Connecting Communities – To realise the full potential of a culturally diverse College community.

Faith Pillar
Telling The Story – To further develop the capacity of staff to articulate the Catholic world view.

Enrichment Pillar
Promoting Excellence – To grow enrolments by leveraging the unique identity, character and achievements of the College in the wider community.

The recent pupil free day held on Tuesday 2 June 2020 was devoted to the Inter-relationships Pillar and the goal of connecting communities. The day began with a communal gathering in the Olive Grove for prayer and meditation. The Holy Spirit was truly present amid the dappled early morning sunshine peeking through an ensemble of altocumulus and altostratus clouds, sounds of running water from the Olive Grove fountain, flocks of screeching pink and grey galah’s flying above and the inspirational music of Ross Edward’s Dawn Mantras. The meditative prayer captured the theme of our goal of a culturally diverse College community united as one people as we are all composed of the same four elements of classical philosophy; earth, water, air, and fire.

Our first two sessions included all staff across the College in a video conference led by Ms Deborah Pyatt and Ms Terese Micallef from the Metropolitan Migrant Resource Centre (MMRC) aimed at building our capacity for cultural awareness. To set the scene we looked at data relating to Western Australia’s population and cultural landscape, which included the top ten countries of birth, top ten ancestries and top ten most culturally and linguistically diverse local government areas, with the City of Swan ranked about seventh. Except for Italian, the largest languages other than English spoken at home are comprised of Asian and African languages. More than 240 languages are spoken in Western Australia, including Aboriginal languages.

When considering the number of forcibly displaced people in the world the figures are staggering, if not distressing. There are more than 70.8 million internally displaced people, 25.9 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum seekers. In the past year, Australia has resettled or permanently protected 18,750 refugees. Given our wealth and our “boundless plains to share”, I’m sure we could do more. Of the more than 25 million refugees, each year fewer than 0.5% get the chance to resettle in a safer country. The composition of cultures and  ancestries at Holy Cross College would reflect a similar mix to the local region.

Cultural awareness was likened to an iceberg, where we know only limited aspects of different cultures that generally include stereotypes about food, national dress and music. Beneath the surface lies more deeper characteristics that relate to cultural values and morality, behaviour expectations, notions of respect, rules of law, social interactions and relationships, and many more elements.

The MMRC provided some insights into the strategies used by government support agencies when working with former refugee families and migrants.

Some time was spent collaborating in groups looking at how we, as a Catholic school, can better meet the needs of our culturally diverse community. Staff were given the opportunity explore the results of a school survey of more than 90 parents and over 300 students on aspects of culture, including family customs, languages spoken at home, food, incidents of racism and other challenges of starting a new life in Australia. Videos of students talking proudly about their cultural heritage were a highlight.

Further time was given to explore some of the resources available to promote cultural awareness and understanding. I particularly enjoyed a Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian national, called ‘The danger of one story’. Adichie argues that inherent in the power of stories, is a danger – the danger of only knowing one story about a group. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story and when this happens complex human beings and situations are reduced to a single narrative. She used personal anecdotes to illustrate the importance of sharing different stories. She briefly talked about the houseboy that was working for her family whose name is Fide and said the only thing she knew about him was how poor his family was. However, when Adichie’s family visited Fide’s village, Fide’s mother showed them a basket that Fide’s brother had made, making her realise that she created her opinion about Fide based on only one story of him. Adichie said, “It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.” She also used the example where her university flatmate had only one story about people from Africa as pitiably poor, starving victims of war torn dystopian societies.

Our focus on realising the full potential of our culturally diverse College community is timely given the tragic situations that have driven the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. I think we are all influenced by the ‘dangers of one story’ at some stages in our lives and in our interactions with people different from ourselves. The implications for our school is that we must foster a cultural connectedness, where we embrace difference and listen to many stories. This speaks directly to our College Vision that we are ‘a community of transformation in the spirit of the Risen Christ’ committed to the dignity of the human person.  The value of the pupil free day will become evident in the coming weeks and months as we continue to build our cultural awareness and introduce actions to better meet the needs of our culturally diverse community.

The day concluded with a meditative prayer in the Olive Grove, which linked back to the four classical elements of earth, water, air, and fire and the characteristics common to all humanity.