Councils gear up for Harmony Day

Article image - Councils gear up for Harmony Day The LEAD program encourages the Shepparton community to embrace cultural diversity.

This month Local Governments around Australia are getting ready for Harmony Day on 21 March. Harmony Day is a celebration of Australia’s cultural diversity and since 1999 many councils have used the day to promote the arrangements they have in place to manage cultural diversity at the local level.

In Victoria, Greater Shepparton City Council has just started to work with VicHealth on an innovative project that will spread the spirit of Harmony Day throughout the Shepparton community.

In 2007 a VicHealth survey revealed that most Victorians support a diverse society but a minority hold attitudes that suggest intolerance of cultural differences.

Discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, race or religion can be a cause of anxiety, depression and poor physical health. Therefore, preventing discrimination and promoting diversity not only builds stronger and more productive communities, it can help prevent health inequalities.

“VicHealth and Greater Shepparton City Council will use the Localities Embracing and Accepting Diversity (LEAD) program to involve local workplaces, schools, media and sporting organisations in strategies that address behaviours and influence attitudinal and behavioural change,” said Greater Shepparton Mayor Councillor Geoff Dobson.

LEAD was developed by VicHealth in partnership with the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and with input from Local Government, academic, policy and community experts.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship is supporting the program through its Diverse Australia Program, and beyondblue: the national depression initiative is also involved

LEAD is designed to support diversity, reduce discrimination and strengthen connections between groups and will be rolled out in the Cities of Whittlesea and Shepparton. It is hoped the lessons learned and resources developed through LEAD can be shared with councils across Victoria and elsewhere through a partnership with the Municipal Association of Victoria.

Mayor Dobson said that Greater Shepparton City Council has embarking on the three year project which could become a benchmark for all Australian Local Governments.

“The difference between what we are doing now and what we will do under the LEAD program is to focus on our community as a whole, not just on people from migrant, refugee and Aboriginal communities directly affected by discrimination or racism,” he said.

With a $200,000 Diverse Australia Program grant, Greater Shepparton City Council and VicHealth are at the start of a comprehensive program of change, activities and review, which will be monitored and evaluated by the University of Melbourne.

Among other things, the University of Melbourne will measure change to compare what happens in Shepparton with trends in similar areas elsewhere in Victoria that are not involved in LEAD. In that way results and lessons learned will be available for other Local Governments and the research can help to support the Local Government sector to establish best practice.

Council will work through private, community and public sector partnerships to initiate cultural diversity ‘audits’ across the employment, education, sport and recreation, and media sectors. These initial audits will identify existing antidiscrimination policies and practices and help to shape a range of activities.

Council will work with schools, early childhood centres and adult education organisations to develop antiracism and awareness strategies that build a ‘culturally safe’ environment for staff and students.

It will work with local media outlets to assess the current reporting of diversity issues and to provide training to journalists to enhance their capacity to report on issues affecting Aboriginal and migrant communities in a fair and even manner. LEAD will also encourage the media to communicate prodiversity and antidiscriminatory messages to the whole community.

Sporting organisations will be encouraged to join the project to remove barriers that stop people from culturally different backgrounds from participating in sport.

And Council will form partnerships with employers and businesses to support them in ensuring their work practices and employment strategies are nondiscriminatory. Council will also take part in the audit process to ensure it has no cultural barriers to employment, services or participation in Council.

“Often it isn’t difficult to make small changes which make a big difference,” Mayor Dobson said.

Shepparton is currently in Phase One of LEAD. This involves arranging partnerships across all sectors and developing work plans and policies with partner organisations. Later phases will involve implementing strategies followed by publishing the LEAD findings.

“The program won’t be all policy and strategy,” Mayor Dobson said. “The range of activities undertaken through LEAD will range from community workshops and seminars to community arts programs aimed at raising awareness, dispelling myths and promoting a positive image for local Aboriginal and migrant groups.”

Greater Shepparton City Council will also work with community groups to build networks and their links to business, government and other community groups.

“I’m looking forward to being involved in this program, and to the Greater Shepparton City Council’s involvement in making our communities healthier, happier and safer,” said Mayor Dobson.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship provides funding through the Diverse Australia Program to help Local Governments and other organisations to address issues of cultural, racial and religious intolerance.

Harmony Day on 21 March 2010 offers Local Governments the opportunity to profile their diversity policies. Councils can order limited stocks of free promotional items through www.harmony.gov.au

For more information on the LEAD project contact Ben Waterhouse at VicHealth telephone (03) 9667 1313 or email bwaterhouse@vichealth.vic.gov.au