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Our Vision in Our Hands: eye health conference highlights shift to First Nations leadership

Introduction by Croakey: The Indigenous Eye Health Unit at University of Melbourne refreshed its Advisory Board this year to have majority Indigenous membership chaired by the esteemed human rights leader Pat Anderson AO, who is an Alyawarre woman.

It is one step in a move towards Indigenous leadership throughout the organisation. Another significant shift saw the establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Conference Leadership Group that led the organisation and development of the 2022 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Eye Health Conference.

Below, Shaun Tatipata, Anne-Marie Banfield – both chairs of the Conference Leadership Group – and Dr Guy Gillor, chair of the NATSIEHC22 Program Advisory Group, outline the transition to Indigenous leadership, in addition to some of the key messages from the conference.


Shaun Tatipata, Anne-Marie Banfield and Guy Gillor write:

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Eye Health Conference 2022 (#NATSIEHC22) was held from 24-26 May in Darwin on Larrakia Land.

With over 220 registered delegates from all states and territories, this year’s conference was a welcome opportunity for the sector to physically gather for the first time in three years.

Alongside the rich content and inspiring speakers, a real highlight was the opportunity to connect and reconnect with colleagues and friends.

#NATSIEHC22 conference delegates, on Larrakia Country

Transition to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership

This year’s conference saw a significant shift, with the establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Conference Leadership Group (CLG). This transition should be seen in the wider context of the long, ongoing journey to expand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and self-determination into eye care.

This shift in leadership is strongly reflected in this year’s theme, Our Vision in Our Hands, set by the CLG, which represents Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and ownership of eye health.

This year’s theme is significant as it shows in clear and plain terms the centrality of self-determination to any effort to improve eye care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Moreover, this year’s theme is written from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective for the first time, which also indicates the internal shift in the leadership of the conference, to the all-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander CLG.

Conference history

National conferences of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye care sector have been organised annually by Indigenous Eye Health Unit at the University of Melbourne since 2017. This year was the first in-person event since Alice Springs in 2019. Last year’s Conference was held online and covered by Croakey.

The first national conference of the sector, then called the Close the Gap for Vision by 2020 National Conference, was held in Melbourne. Gathering just over 100 delegates at the University of Melbourne, the conference helped facilitate direct knowledge exchange by people working on very different parts of the eye care system.

From year to year, the conference has grown and evolved. This included moving to different locations – starting in Alice Springs in 2019, co-hosting with Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services peak bodies (starting with AMSANT in 2019), opening the program for abstract submissions (starting 2020), establishing a Program Advisory Group with representatives of eye are sector peak organisations (starting 2020), and adopting its current name in a delegates vote (at the 2021 conference).

Our vision in our hands

Our challenge as organisers has been to find creative ways to ensure that the theme is reflected throughout the conference, while creating a supportive, collegial, friendly and safe environment to allow delegates to learn and grow through an immersive learning experience, which sometimes includes challenging and difficult themes.

More practically, this meant for us finding ways to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates to lead the changes needed in their communities and to guide other delegates in becoming better allies or – in the words of keynote presenter Dr Summer May Finlay – “an accomplice”.

This approach was reflected in all aspects of the conference, including its structure, keynote speakers, and the spirit in which conversations throughout the conference took place. One of the ways in which the theme has been actively implemented n the program is by creating and respecting some First Nations–only spaces for conversation and planning.

This included a full-day workshop for First Nations delegates only. In the workshop, titled Visions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Eye Health in 2030, participants envisioned what a better eye care systems for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians could look like and discussed some of the necessary steps to get there.

The CLG further identified the importance in strengthening the connections between the eye care world and the broader Aboriginal health movement and beyond. The primary urgency in focusing on the social and political determinants of health has been strongly reflected through many speakers and presentations.

The approach of the CLG to the conference, as well as the broader direction the sector is working towards, is strongly rooted in the holistic definition of health, which is at the heart of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health movement.

As defined in the 1989 National Aboriginal Health Strategy:

Health is not just the physical wellbeing of an individual but is the social, emotional and cultural wellbeing of the whole community in which each individual is able to achieve their full potential thereby bringing about the total wellbeing of their community.”

Allies and accomplices

In her keynote presentation, Dr Summer May Finlay explored the roles of ally and accomplice, and encouraged delegates to consider their work and positioning in these terms. Nicole Turner, in her keynote speech, shared with delegates the wonderful journey of Indigenous Allied Health Australia, which she chairs.

In his keynote speech, Thomas Mayor helped delegates understand the broader political context which directly impacts on peoples health and wellbeing, and delivered an impassioned call to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Delegates unanimously voted in favour of this at the end of the conference.

A special presentation for Sorry Day by Auntie Maisie Austin also asked delegates to reflect on the ongoing impact of child separation on families and communities, and all aspects of health and wellbeing.

Other speakers explored the importance of access to safe and effective housing, environmental factors which impact on eye health, and the unique role of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations in the planning and delivery of services and practical connections across other health areas, among many other themes and topics explored.

Recognising leaders and unsung heroes

One special presentation, introduced for the first time in this year’s conference with the aim of becoming part of future conferences, is the Jilpia Nappaljari Jones Memorial Oration. This oration is meant to highlight an unsung hero in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander eye health, while honouring Jilpia Nappaljari Jones, who sadly passed away last year.

Jones had a long, rich, and proud history of work in health, including eye health, and education. Among many other things, Jones was a registered nurse with specialist ophthalmic training, and was one of the first staff members at Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service, the first Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service, as well as work on the National Trachoma Program, among many other achievements and notable contributions.

The inaugural Jilpia Nappaljari Jones Memorial Oration was presented by Jaki Adams of the Fred Hollows Foundation, who shared with delegates Jones’ history and contribution, as well as Adam’s own work and how she was influenced and supported by Jones along the way.

Recognition of leaders and unsung heroes was also reflected in the presentation of the annual sector awards during the conference dinner. These awards, which are a cherished part of the national conference since their first introduction in 2018, were also further shaped this year with new categories that better centred the awards around First Nations peoples.

This year’s award winners include Orange Aboriginal Medical Service, the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia, and optometrist Lauren Hutchinson. Allyship awards were given to optometrist Will Chin, and optometrist and public health practitioner Mitchell Anjou.

Each and every award winner, in their everyday work, helped create a space for First Nations leadership in the eye care sector, as a necessary step towards improving eye care access and outcomes.

Recognition of leaders and unsung heroes of our sector is in itself an important part of creating a culture of empowerment, camaraderie, and support, so our sector’s emerging and future leaders are better empowered to lead the efforts to keep improving eye health access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

The wider context

The shift towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership in this year’s conference is strongly grounded in the wider social and political context in which our work takes place. Eliminating unnecessary vision loss and blindness for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples requires us to address the social and political determinants of eye health.

This was strongly reflected in presentations throughout the conference. For many years, our sector has been highlighting these determinants – the need to ensure appropriate housing to eliminate trachoma, the need to access health and affordable food choices to avoid or manage diabetes, which can also cause vision loss.

In addition, the conference highlighted the need to ensure appropriate funding for no-cost access to eye care to meet population-level needs and the need to ensure cultural safety of service providers to ensure patients attend and feel safe doing so.

In the transition of the conference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership this year, we challenged delegates to be brave, to consider and act also on the social and political determinants that impact eye health.

We have a strong and proud history of the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services movement in Australia, who advanced self-determination in health for over 50 years through primary care and beyond.

Self-determination in other areas of health has since been advanced, in the medical profession (Australian Indigenous Doctors Association), allied care (Indigenous Allied Health Australia), and nursing (Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives), among others.

In this year’s conference, we tried to better align the eye care sector with the wider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health sector by expanding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership and self-determination into eye care.

We hope to continue this evolution through future eye care sector gatherings as well.

About the authors

Shaun Tatipata from Deadly Enterprises and Anne-Marie Banfield from Hearing Australia chaired the NATSIEHC22 Conference Leadership Group.

Dr Guy Gillor from the Indigenous Eye Health Unit, University of Melbourne, chaired the NATSIEHC22 Program Advisory Group.

*Note that the following Conference Leadership Group members are missing from the conference photo: Walter Bathern, Lauren Hutchinson, Tanya Morris, Makkaillah Ridgeway and Emma Robertson.


See Croakey’s extensive archive of articles on Indigenous health.

 

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