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“I ask everyone working in public health and other health fields to put down tools” – and read this

Croakey is closed for summer holidays and will resume publishing in the week of 13 January 2020. In the meantime, we are re-publishing some of our most widely read articles from 2019.

This article was first published on 24 July, 2019.


Public health professionals and the wider health sector have been urged to engage deeply with strong calls to action embedded in the official statement from the recent Lowitja Institute International Indigenous Health and Wellbeing Conference.


Summer May Finlay writes:

As an Aboriginal person, working in a predominantly non-Aboriginal environment is challenging – and this includes public health.

The Lowitja Institute International Indigenous Health and Wellbeing conference held in Darwin last month was anything but challenging. It was invigorating.

I work in public health. I write, I teach, I research, I volunteer. I now work in mostly non-Aboriginal settings. I am a strong, motivated, passionate, educated and experienced 38-year-old Aboriginal woman, and yet some days are just bloody hard.

Why are they hard?

Because the systems and structures in mainstream settings are set up to meet the needs of non-Aboriginal, predominantly white people, and at times don’t understand or even value other ways of doing business – our methods of doing business.

When I’m in the Aboriginal space, it’s like coming home.

Brave and bold

Associate Professor Chelsea Bond, during her presentation at the Lowitja Conference, urged us to be brave and to be bold.

She asked Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics to call out systems that minimise the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. These are systems which either intentionally or unintentionally maintain the inequalities. She inspired me to write this article. She inspired me to be bold (or at least bolder than I often am).

Bond gave us permission to push back against the systems. To challenge the current structures in public health that do little to benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.

In public health, we always talk about equity and diversity, but too often I see a focus on equality and same, same. We see old white, mostly men, with a minimum of “Doctor” in front of their names, spruiking the good deeds of public health.

In the current systems and structures, we have to give equal weight to all non-Aboriginal voices alongside Aboriginal voices on our issues.

This is despite many non-Aboriginal people just not realising they are way off the mark, so much so that they are essentially maintaining the inequities.

Privileging of non-Aboriginal voices emboldens other non-Aboriginal people, also with limited knowledge and expertise to speak on our issues. The result is that the 97 percent end up drowning out the views of the very people they are seeking to assist.

The Lowitja Conference demonstrated that Aboriginal people are skilled, motivated and educated. When we come together, there is an unrivalled passion. A passion that can make a significant change.

Yet too often there is a token Aboriginal person on a committee or group – a lone ranger expected to be the fountain of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge.

And when we are unable to make the changes required, it is us who are perceived by the world to have failed. No acknowledgement is made of the systems and structures that put up invisible barriers limiting our capacity to make changes.

Blueprint for change

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and ways of doing business are a core part of the Lowitja Conference Statement 2019, which was endorsed by the delegates.

The Statement is grouped under the Conference themes, Thinking, Speaking and Being. It is a blueprint for global change.

It says: “Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing are norms and should not be marginalised.”

We need people working in the public health space to stop and reflect on how they, through their practice, even subconsciously marginalise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of doing business. Budgetary considerations or competing demands are usual excuses for not prioritising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, effectively maintaining the norm, which in practice continues to marginalise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Statement also says: “First Nations health research funding should go to First Nations organisations and researchers.”

This is something that should be front of mind for both funding bodies and researchers. Researchers have often made their names and progressed their careers off research on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It’s time to give back and stand back. Allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to do the work that needs to be done for our communities.

Bond, during her speech, did say that there is a place for non-Aboriginal people. Bond stated that non-Aboriginal people have space as “foot soldiers” supporting their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues. I agree.

We cannot and should not do it alone. But it has to be done our way, focusing on our agenda and meeting our needs.

I ask everyone working in public health and other health fields to put down tools, and read the Statement.

Take the time to reflect on how you can action the principles in the Statement daily.

• Summer May Finlay is a Yorta Yorta woman, a public health practitioner and researcher, and a contributing editor at Croakey. Follow on Twitter at @SummerMayFinlay.


Summer May Finlay and Marie McInerney covered the #LowitjaConf2019 for the Croakey Conference News Service. Bookmark this link to follow the coverage.


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Australian Palliative Care Conference
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