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Leadership in the room: IAHA conference was a masterclass in Indigenous knowledges, practices and voices

Introduction by Croakey: Last week, the annual conference of Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA) took place on the traditional lands of the Kabi Kabi peoples, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

In the post below, Danielle Manton, a Barunggam woman-grown on Dharug land and a Senior Lecturer in Indigenous Teaching and Learning, describes how delegates were taken on a journey of reflection on the “leadership, strength, resilience and courage of our ancestors, to honour and protect our ways, our knowledges, our voices and our practices.”

It’s a journey you won’t want to miss, in very good company, so hop on. (And also check out the previous post of Snaps and Selfies from the conference).

Our Knowledges, Voices and Practices: conference themes. Image, IAHA

Danielle Manton writes:

The theme of leadership was clearly woven through the 2023 IAHA conference, starting with the Welcome from Uncle Lyndon Davis, Traditional Custodian of Kabi Kabi lands, waterways and skies.

In sharing the stories and songs of his ancestors and old people, Uncle Lyndon commenced a journey for us, the delegates, that was carried throughout the conference to reflect on the leadership, strength, resilience and courage of our ancestors to honour and protect our ways, our knowledges, our voices and our practices.

The welcome shared culture through song and dance, immersing us in the strong, powerful and rich history of Kabi Kabi culture.

IAHA CEO Donna Murray said “the welcome and the nourishment, love and strength our Kabi Kabi brothers and sisters have given us has been phenomenal.”

She said:

It’s about our ways of leadership, our ways of learning, our ways of working and our ways of transformation, collectively and individually.”

Leadership “in the room”

The leadership was in the room – Jayde Fuller, Gamilaroi woman and National Director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Strategy in the Australian Health Practitioner Regulatory Agency (Ahpra), acknowledged the “staunch leadership” of Donna Murray in her opening remarks.

Fuller further recognised “the strength and the power of Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing,” as a “critical protective and enabling factor for combating racism in healthcare,” and acknowledged the collective expertise of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health practitioners.

She went on to discuss the important work she is leading at Ahpra, noting that racism is inextricably linked to healthcare outcomes, that the role of Ahpra is to protect the public, and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are absolutely deserving of safe care.

Fuller recognised the important and central role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership in anti-racism and cultural safety reform stating,

reform requires blakspertise (a shorthand word for black expertise). We have Indigenous staff in Ahpra to lead and implement the cultural safety strategy.”

Through the leadership of Fuller and her team, October 2022 saw the introduction of a national legislative amendment prioritising cultural safety in healthcare provision – “the first time the word racism has been featured in healthcare legislation in Australia”.

This legislative change provides a clear measure to hold all healthcare practitioners and healthcare education institutions to account.

Fuller highlighted  a landmark anti-Indigenous racism tribunal decision earlier this year in which a non-Indigenous medical professional’s behaviour was found to constitute medical misconduct, resulting in prohibition from providing any healthcare service and ineligibility to apply for medical registration for at least 12 months. (See also this Croakey report).

Uncle Professor Tom Calma AO, an Aboriginal Elder from the Kungarakan tribal group, member of the Iwaidja tribal group in the NT and co- patron of IAHA, demonstrated his leadership by igniting the fire in the delegates “Creating opportunities is one thing. Taking advantage of opportunities is the other – that’s your job”.

Uncle Tom acknowledged the year that has passed, saying “there is hope, there has to be hope”.

“The referendum lost, we will look at other measures and work, and put pressure on government and the opposition, to make those changes. We still have truth-telling and treaty processes to come,” he said.

Calma also reminded us that 6.2 million people that voted yes and over 60, 000 Australians walked with us as volunteers – “how do we capture and maintain the momentum? The younger voters were positive in voting yes,” he added. “The future is looking bright!”

The co-design process of the Uluru Statement from the Heart modelled leadership through a process that was “validated by Community, demonstrating the inclusive nature of what a voice should look like – participation across the nation, capacity building. They [the principles of effective leadership] are all there, and they are sound,” said Calma.

From this leadership and modelling, he said, “many Aboriginal organisations have started to take up these principles within their own Aboriginal Community Controlled organisations.”

Professor Tom Calma AO addresses the conference. Image IAHA instagram

Dr Aunty Jackie Huggins AM, a Bidjara and Birri Gubba Juru woman, began her keynote address by recognising the leadership and expertise in the room, saying, “I salute all of you and the work that you do in terms of keeping our people healthy, alive, sustained and well.”

Huggins invited us to listen to her journey and the leadership that has shaped her career. She said:

I walk in the giant footsteps of my ancestors, particularly my mother Rita who struggled and worked for our people to be treated equally and to be recognised as this Nation’s First Peoples. I am reminded of her and so many other people, and it spurs me on, and it should spur you all on.”

Huggins, who has been a strong advocate for Treaty in Queensland, said “now is the time I really believe that we can correct all of the misinformation through treaties across the Country”.

Further, she has been instrumental in establishing a staged approach to truth-telling and healing that honours the importance of the local context and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples since colonisation in Queensland (more information can be found through the Interim Truth and Treaty Body.)

Huggins continued to remind us of the strength we draw from our ancestors, that they have prepared us to stand up, be strong, and do what is right for our people and Country. She told the conference,

You know we are a strong and resilient mob and how can we not be, since we have existed over 65 000 years in this place, cared for it, loved it, our links to nature and the environment will go unrivalled anywhere in the world.

We are living treasures in our own land and our ancestors will not see us suffer too long. We carry all their legacies and will keep fighting to help justice and healing amongst others.”

Johnathan Thurston AM, Gunggari man, also opened his talk recognising the leadership and sacrifice of the Elders that have gone before him, saying he would like to “thank our Elders for the paths they have walked and the battles they have fought. Because of you, my generation are afforded the freedoms that you were not, so thank you.”

Johnathan Thurston AM: a true leader and a conference favourite. Image IAHA Instagram

On Day two of the Conference, Uncle Dr Mick Adams spoke to the IAHA delegates about his journey into academia and the leader he was born to be. He said “I never took a backward step, never felt shame. If I wanted it, I tried to get it.”

Adams, who is a descendent of the Yadhiagana/Wuthathi peoples and the Gurindji people with extended family relationships with the people of the Torres Straits, Warlpiri (Yuendumu), and East Arnhem Land (Gurrumaru) communities, spoke of a paper he wrote in 2004 documenting his journey titled “A journey through the academic mist.”

In the paper he highlighted the leadership of those before him and those beside him. He said: “The journey of reconstruction for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males has just begun. For some of us we have followed leaders and broken down the barriers to take our rightful positions within our communities and the family context.”

Adams provided this advice for future leaders in the room:

Do what you want to do and make sure you do it right, that’s when you become the expert and no one can fault you, but if you take shortcuts, they are going to catch you out”.

Dr Mick Adams, later in the conference, received the 2023 Craig Dukes Lifetime Achievement award

Adrian Carson, CEO of the Institute for Urban Indigenous Health (IUIH), shared the story of leadership from Aunty Pam Mam IUIH Patron who in 1973 opened the First Queensland Aboriginal Medical Service in Redhill, without any government funding. At the time, racism was overt and aggressive. Within the first two weeks of its opening, the Institute was firebombed! Aunty Pam said, “Nothing is to stop, everything must continue!”

Carson spoke of the organised approach of the IUIH network despite a health system that was designed to be convoluted and complex. The IUIH network is coordinated and integrated to be able to provide culturally safe healthcare access to up to 40,000 Indigenous patients in Southeast Queensland.

Carson’s concluding slide read:

“IUIH continues to be guided by the experience and wisdom of our Elders, particularly our Patron Aunty Pamela Mam who pioneered Indigenous Health in Southeast Queensland. She was driven by the principles of compassion, commitment, and dedication in what she termed proper healthcare. We hold her teachings in the highest regard and honour her legacy in everything we strive to achieve.”

Leadership in Our Practices

Throughout the conference, we saw many examples of leadership in practice. Beginning with Jayde Fuller who spoke about the importance of Indigenous leadership in regulating against racism.

She said: “To work respectfully and safely with mob, the governance must be grounded in principles of self-determination, centring our leadership in defining and driving cultural safety. We (Ahpra) have the Aboriginal and Torres strait islander health strategy group, our most senior authorising body relating to cultural safety program.”

Uncle Tom Calma, in acknowledging the Kabi Kabi peoples, recognised the leadership in practice of IAHA, stating:

Our youth are going to be the future custodians of our knowledge, stories and culture, history and languages. We demonstrate in practice the recognition of our youth here at IAHA, in the way we bring them through and take the opportunity to develop people.”

Calma demonstrated leadership in practice, speaking in his role as the National Coordinator for Tackling Indigenous Smoking.

He called on delegates to be active in tackling smoking and vaping, saying, “it’s important we don’t just rely on GPs … Each of you have a responsibility and capacity to do a brief intervention. If you come across a client… and can smell a cigarette or the flavour they are puffing on – the smell of the vape – just have a chat with them. It’s not about telling people don’t do it, it’s about saying if you need a hand to change your behaviour these are the referral pathways. It’s one of the biggest killers for our mob.”

Johnathan Thurston talked about leadership in practice, through his own experience in Rugby League saying, “It’s not luck, it’s hard work, dedication and sacrifices.”

Thurston has also demonstrated leadership in practice through the work of the Johnathan Thurston Academy. He said: “Our staff and myself want to be that support crew to help them start setting goals, wrap our arms around them and hopefully get them re-engaged back into schooling and create better behavioural changes.”

Adrian Carson provided many examples of leadership in practice at IHUI, including IHUI’s integrated system of care, growing from five services in 2009 to 19 in 2023!

IHUI is also implementing the First Specialist Mental Health Hub in Queensland.

Leadership in Our Voices

Jayde Fuller demonstrated the leadership in our voices, underpinned by principles of sel