Aboriginal Voices

“Aboriginal Insights invites Aboriginal people to contact us about matters that affect them and their community. We will offer this page as a platform for Aboriginal Voices to be heard.”

I have been a Director of an Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service (ACCHS) since 2013 and I am currently in my fourth two-year term. This is my most important role in my Community. I am part of a Board that has the responsibility to drive the strategic direction of our most important Aboriginal Organisation that services over 3,000 people.

I attended the WA State Aboriginal Health Conference (27 – 28 March 2019, Fremantle) and two clear issues were highlighted. These issues were: (1) Racism; and (2) Suicides. I am not an expert on the second issue, so I won’t speak on it other than to say that the lack of response to this National Emergency is heart breaking. We need our ACCHS to be funded to employ at least one full time Psychologist and two Mental Health Counsellors. Any funding for suicide prevention related to Aboriginal peoples must be given to ACCHS as opposed to non-Aboriginal service providers. Aboriginal Health must be placed in Aboriginal hands.

On the issue of racism, I want to point out a fact. It has only been illegal to discriminate against Aboriginal or non-white peoples in this country since 1975 (45 years) when the Racial Discrimination Act became law. Prior to that, it was normal to be racist. So, I recognise that many Australians come from home environments that practised “racism” as being normal. With this knowledge, I recognise that there will be racist attitudes in all areas including the health sector. The question is, how do we as Governments and employers, respond to these racist attitudes? We cannot make the assumption that just because we expect there to be no racism in the workplace that there won’t be any. If we assume that racism is not an issue, we have failed because the main reason why there is a disgusting gap in the life expectancy between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians in this country is “racism”. We always say that the key to positive change is “education” and in the context of racism, the key is cultural education which must come from Aboriginal people.

Every health service provider in this country must commit to Closing the Gap in life expectancy by addressing racism through cultural education that must include:

  • Understanding the historical impact of laws and policies on Aboriginal health (for example, alcohol became legally accessible to all Aboriginal people in 1967)
  • The reasons why the ACCHS sector was established
  • The journey of the ACCHS in your region
  • The attitudes of local Aboriginal families towards the health sector and your organisation/ employer
  • The diversity of cultures that are present in your region and specifically the diversity of cultures accessing your service/s
  • The reasons why local Aboriginal people do not access mainstream health service providers in your region
  • Cultural laws and rules practised by local Aboriginal cultures that may impact on access to health services
  • Family and cultural obligations and responsibilities that may impact on access to health services
  • The meaning of Cultural Safety to local Aboriginal people
  • The importance of building relationships with Aboriginal families
  • The importance of employing Aboriginal people
  • The impact of grief and loss on the Aboriginal Community that you service

Our ACCHSs MUST be given the power and authority to tackle health issues in Aboriginal communities. All health-related services that are for the benefit of Aboriginal people SHOULD be provided through our ACCHS. For those who do not know, ACCHS were born out of discrimination towards Aboriginal people who were turned away for simply being Aboriginal. Our ACCHS in Roebourne has been operating for 34 years and my connection to it spans more than 30 years through my mother who started out as an Aboriginal Health Worker and now leads the service as the Chief Executive Officer.

It is crucial that all health practitioners and other staff delivering health services to Aboriginal people identify and understand their clients. It is equally crucial that decision-makers understand the role that cultural learning plays in successful engagement. It is one thing to offer a service; and it’s another thing to ensure that the service is used to achieve its purpose. The key is having a culturally confident workforce.

Jolleen is a current Director of Mawarnkarra Health Service Limited, located in Roebourne in Western Australia.


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