When it comes to myths about cultural diversity, sociologists and historians from La Trobe’s Centre for the Study of the Inland are uniting to fight the fables.
Here’s two major myths they’ve busted in regional Victoria, where diverse cultures, languages and religions meet.
Myth #1: Regional Victoria lacks cultural diversity
We often assume that Victoria’s regional places are less diverse than its cities. But in fact, many regional towns have very diverse populations.
“I’d challenge that myth,” says Dr Anthony Moran, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at La Trobe.
“While regional places have issues of discrimination and racism like many other places, there’s also a fair bit of living with diversity that’s been going on for a long time. There’s a lot of capacity for thinking across cultures and dealing with people from different backgrounds.”
Anthony’s research on social cohesion has found that two regional Victorian towns in particular – Shepparton and Mildura – have settled large numbers of multi-ethnic migrants since the early 20th century. Immigrants were attracted by the towns’ seasonal agricultural and horticultural work, which provided semi-skilled opportunities for people without technical or English language skills.
“Shepparton has always had a diverse immigrant background that goes back a long way. From the 1920s onwards, there have been significant movements of people from European countries like Albania, Italy, Greece and Turkey, as well as an early Jewish farming settlement,” says Anthony.
Migration in Shepparton diversified after World War II, and recent years have seen the direct resettlement of humanitarian refugees and people seeking asylum. Adding to the multicultural mix is Victoria’s largest Indigenous population outside Melbourne.
Early multiculturalism during the gold rush
Historian Professor Katie Holmes, Director of La Trobe’s Centre for the Study of the Inland, points to regional Victoria’s goldfields towns as places where diversity has flourished since at least the mid-19th century.
“One of the things that history can do is challenge assumptions about identity, cohesion and the make-up of Australia in particular. It reminds us that, aside from the Indigenous population, Australia hasn’t always just been an Anglo-Saxon population,” Katie says.
“If we think about regional Victoria in gold rush times, the goldfields were extraordinarily multicultural places. And with the exception of the Eureka Stockade, they were places where people actually got along.”
With so many different people calling regional towns home, you might wonder how well everyone is living together. That’s where social cohesion comes in – and regional places are doing it better than you might think.
Myth #2: Different cultures clash in regional Victoria
You’d be forgiven for thinking that diversity in regional Victoria is fraught. News stories, talkback radio and comments feeds brim with hostile views on issues of migration, multiculturalism and ‘ethnic gangs’. But the changes brought by migration don’t only drive intolerance and discrimination – they also foster receptivity.
Anthony’s research found that Shepparton and Mildura are examples of successful socially cohesive, multicultural places. For the most part, people in these regional centres feel accepted, worthy and part of a broader social group.
“People feel some sense of belonging to a community. They have a sense that they can participate in that community, economically and in terms of education. And they feel relatively free of discrimination. It’s quite close to a notion of social inclusion,” says Anthony.
Why social cohesion works
That social cohesion work in places like Shepparton and Mildura is partly down to capacities that have developed through historical experiences of immigration.
“When we asked people, ‘What seems to work here?’ they’d often say, ‘Well, it’s always been like that. We’ve just gotten used to it over time. It’s something we’ve always done.’ There’s a certain pride in that for people,” says Anthony.
The chance for intercultural social interaction is also key. Having grown up in Shepparton, Anthony remembers mixing within cultures from a young age.
“My early experiences came through the Catholic church and school. I remember going with my Catholic school to visit the first Vietnamese family that came to live in Shepparton. We had Aboriginal people living next door, and I used to go to my friends’ houses who were Italian, share their food and hear Italian language spoken,” he says.
For Shepparton, having good governance and leadership has helped, too. Agencies work cooperatively to recognise and celebrate diversity through regular local events and inclusive organisational policies, and local newspapers encourage positive messages around diversity.
But perhaps the most important factor in social cohesion is people’s behaviour. Anthony’s research found endless examples of individuals going out of their way to welcome new people.
“I heard extraordinary stories of things people did. Just everyday, friendly interactions where people feel like they belong, that they’re part of a place and are welcome there,” says Anthony.
He describes the story of a volunteer at Shepparton’s English Language Centre who, on learning that Muslim girls needed to pay to hire the entire public pool, offered his backyard swimming pool for their swimming lessons.
“A lot of people from recent immigrant backgrounds would talk about those kinds of experiences, of people that helped them out and others that they could just go to.”
So what can you do to promote social cohesion? Anthony recommends being open and respectful to others, helping out where you can, and participating in cultural events like Refugee Week and food festivals. Anything you do that creates positive contact between different ethnic groups can help improve awareness and understandings of diversity.
With campuses in Bendigo, Albury/Wodonga, Shepparton and Mildura, La Trobe is the largest provider of university education in regional Victoria. Experience diversity firsthand at our Bold Thinking Series event, Social cohesion in the Goulburn Valley, in Shepparton on 27 September 2017.