The white UOW RESPECT signage is displayed in front of the Duck Pond. Students are visible sitting on the Duck Pond lawn in PULSE deck chairs.

Bystander training gives students, staff tools to take a stand against harmful or abusive behaviour

Bystander training gives students, staff tools to take a stand against harmful or abusive behaviour

Cultural Change Workshop part of UOW's Safe and Respectful Communities initiative

If you see something, say something. On the surface, the message is simple. But putting it into practice, especially when facing a fraught situation, can be much more complex.

A series of new Cultural Change Workshops at the University of Wollongong (UOW) aim to provide students with the tools they need to be active bystanders, to intervene when they are confronted with harmful or abuse behaviour.

Spearheaded by the Safe and Respectful Communities (SARC) team, the Cultural Change Workshops were introduced in response to feedback from the 2022 Respect Week, in which students and staff requested training in how to effectively and safely intervene when they view negative behaviour.

The Cultural Change Workshops are the result of a new partnership with Griffith University’s MATE Bystander program, a national leading program in the delivery of bystander intervention training for safer and more respectful communities.

The first workshop was held last week (Tuesday 14 March) and drew participants from across the University. The focus was on creating a cultural of personal leadership and respect among the student cohort when they are confronted with harmful or abusive behaviour, including racism and gender-based violence.  

Angela Cowan, Project Coordinator for Safe and Respectful Communities (SARC), said the response to the workshop was overwhelmingly positive.

“The training had a real impact on the students who attended. They were engaged with the material and felt a sense of ownership over the role they can play in creating a safe and respectful community at UOW,” Ms Cowan said.

“One of the most meaningful messages was around the ‘ripple effect’ of our actions. By standing up for others and intervening when we see behaviour that is not acceptable, the students have recognised that they are truly contributing to the overall environment of respect at the University.

“It is about cultural change. We are encouraging every person, every student, to not turn away when they see something that is troubling, to not think that it’s too hard or they can’t help, but to have the tools to take action. 

“The behaviour we walk past is the behaviour we accept. And by standing up for others, we are showing them respect and that they matter.”

Shaun Rafferty, a UOW student who is also part of the management cadet program, took part in the Cultural Change Workshop and said it provided essential tools that were beneficial to all staff and students.

“I wanted to know and understand what I can do to support people during difficult situations. Learning different approaches to either intervene in a situation or how to support a person experiencing these situations is a great first step in stopping discrimination, harassment and bullying within society,” Shaun said.

“One of the biggest takeaways that I had from the session is that when it comes to being a bystander, you can’t make the situation worse so it’s best to do what you can to stop/diffuse the situation and/or support the victim. I think everyone, no matter staff or student, should participate in the training as you never know when these skills will be needed. Everyone is a bystander, even if you weren’t present at the event – just hearing about something unfolding makes you a bystander, so knowing what to do next is vital.”

Ms Cowan and another colleague from SARC will soon be taking part in training to become accredited MATE Bystander workshop facilitators, enabling the program to be rolled out across the University in the coming months.

UOW Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Patricia M. Davidson said that issues of discrimination, harassment and assault have no place at the University and in the wider community.

“It can be difficult standing up for others in complex situations, but by providing the practical training and tools, we are ensuring that all members of our University know how to be an active bystander. You never know when you will need to step in and address harmful and abusive behaviour,” Professor Davidson said.

“The Cultural Change Workshops are an amazing initiative that will continue to build on our cultural of respect at UOW and to shape the next generation of safe and respectful leaders, at University and in the community.”

The Cultural Change Workshop forms part of UOW’s Safe and Respectful Communities, a comprehensive, whole-university approach to creating a safe and respectful environment for all.

MATE Bystander Director Shaan Ross-Smith said: “We commend the University of Wollongong on its commitment to creating safer campuses and really listening to the needs of staff and students for cultural change. MATE Cultural Change workshops shift the narrative and empower us to make change at an individual level to safely and respectfully challenge problematic behaviours that sit beneath violence, discrimination, bullying. If we work as effective individuals, we can make collective change."