Mr Justin Mohamed, Chair of NACCHO representing over 150 Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations throughout Australia today welcomed the annoucement that Professor Kerry Arabena has been appointed Chair of Indigenous Health at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health
Our thanks to the Melbourne AGE for sharing photo (Photo: Sarah Anderson) and story in which Kerry spoke about the challenges facing Indigenous Australians, and why local and global leadership is critical for Indigenous affairs
Strong, charismatic and decisive leadership within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is something Kerry Arabena identifies as crucial to improving Indigenous health outcomes in Australia.
“Since 1970, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have taken our rightful place in discussions about health service delivery, the health and wellbeing of families and the positive transformation of our communities,” she says.
“Our role as leaders has been to learn to navigate and operate in complex health service, government and community systems to represent the issues we’ve heard from people in our communities.”
A descendant of the Meriam People of the Torres Strait, Professor Arabena is the first Torres Strait Islander woman to achieve and receive a professorial position. She has had many senior appointments: as well as recently being appointed Chair of Indigenous Health at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, it was announced in April that Professor Arabena would be taking on the role of Chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Equality Council.
A social worker by profession, Professor Arabena began her career in community services and case management in the Northern Territory over 20 years ago, where she worked in one of the most remote Aboriginal medical services in Australia at Kintore, 600km west of Alice Springs.
“I think I’m the only Torres Strait Islander woman who’s ever lived out in the desert like that,” she says.
She transitioned from social work into human ecology, community-controlled health organisations, co-ordination of national public health initiatives and finally into academia. At the University of Melbourne her role involves community engagement and capacity-building.
She notes that the role of leadership within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community is constantly changing.
“Some of us have been in our fields for at least 20 years and are in positions to mentor others. We are modern intellectuals with ancestral and cultural connection to country. This type of leadership is now critical for all our affairs.
“Our role is to look to the next generation, to ensure we are supporting and creating spaces for them. We need to unify on matters affecting us all, and engage in conversations about our affairs on a local and global scale.”
These conversations are much needed. Many disparities still exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous population health status and outcomes, determinants of health and health system performance.
While Professor Arabena is wary of “simplifying, stereotyping and amplifying” the difficulties of life for people in some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, she says “The reality of life is grim” for many of them.
“Life is such that some children would choose to end their lives before they get a chance to live it. Life is such that we have young people who have completed year 12 but who are unable to read or write.”
Professor Arabena believes negatively framed discussion of Indigenous issues in policy environments is, however, deeply problematic, directly impacting health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.
In many public conversations, Indigenous people are viewed as “disadvantaged” and “in poverty” and all of these other terms we use so loosely.
“What we forget to see and know is that people can change, people can empower themselves, and that given information and opportunity, people can transform their lives from what might have been incredibly difficult circumstances.”
Professor Arabena identifies several strategies she will focus on during her time at the University, including helping build recognition of the rights of Indigenous families and communities to live self-determining lives, free from discrimination; and creating and advancing knowledge of the contributions Indigenous Australians have made, and continue to make, to Australian society.
“I get excited about what we can do together. Despite difficult circumstances, there have been eight Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians of the Year, and I think That’s something we can all be proud of.
“We get described as “disadvantaged” and not able to do things: actually we can, and we are, and we will. Whether people recognise that or not ” we know what we do, we know what we can achieve. And to me, that is worth celebrating.”