Change is crucial, but it’s no walk in the park


As National Close the Gap Day is marked around the country on 18 March, Associate Director of the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health and Palawa woman Shawana Andrews discusses change in the tertiary healthcare system and in the higher education and academic sectors.

After 15 years working to effect change in the healthcare system for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, Shawana Andrews felt burnt out.

While her primary role was that of a clinical social worker, mostly in children’s health in Victorian public hospitals, the expectation on Shawana and her colleagues was that they would simultaneously work with the Aboriginal community to facilitate access to healthcare services while also agitating from within to bring about institutional change.

Shawana says the system, in many ways, was flawed, with Aboriginal Hospital Liaison Officers across Victoria often working in isolation and carrying a significant burden that was not acknowledged.

She joined a team of two Aboriginal Hospital Liaison Officers which grew over the years.

The team worked to improve sustainable access to health services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families while also navigating health bureaucracy to implement policy change and improve practice to better facilitate that access.

Such a huge remit, in an environment where the wheels of change turn very slowly, eventually took its toll.

This led to a significant career shift in focus for Shawana, who worked for a short time in project management before taking on an academic role as the Senior Indigenous Lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at Melbourne University.

Here, Shawana was charged with developing the curriculum and teaching into each of the disciplines within the School of Health Sciences.

She spent a decade teaching, developing the curriculum and agitating for greater recognition of Aboriginal health across the health disciplines.

When Shawana took on the role she was the only Indigenous member of staff at the school.

Shawana challenged the School of Health Sciences to think differently about Aboriginal health education and not to ‘just tow the line’.

Part of that included integration of work she had done immediately before taking on the academic role, when she was part of the Onemda Koori Health Research Unit, housed in the university’s School of Population and Global Health.

Shawana and a small team of researchers created Billibillary’s Walk at the Parkville campus, which is still used today to connect staff and students to the land and tell how the land relates to human health.

‘In higher education, once again I found myself trying to push the boundaries of the system to make changes in terms of how Indigenous health is being taught. But also in how you engage students,’ Shawana says.

‘The majority of the students are non-Aboriginal, predominantly white and middle class and haven’t necessarily had much engagement with the Aboriginal community.

‘Working outside of a deficit approach and bringing strengths-based teaching and learning to the classroom was important.

'Challenging a classroom of 100-plus students sitting there looking at you as someone in a position of power, but who is also, in my case, an Aboriginal woman, is difficult to do.

'This dynamic challenges many students’ thinking as they’ve often never met an Aboriginal person, let alone one that has some power over them.

'For me it was a very interesting experience but also reflective of my previous career in challenging the health system and challenging people’s perceptions and values.

‘It’s been quite a journey seeing how institutions and systems engage with Aboriginal communities and impede access and engagement through the way they’re positioned and the way they conceptualise what it is to be an Aboriginal person, what indigeneity is and how they think Aboriginal people should be,’ she says.

Shawana, a speaker familiar to attendees at the APA’s NEXT conference in Hobart in 2018, took on her current role at the Melbourne Poche Centre in the few months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year.

The pandemic in Melbourne impacted the centre’s ability to run some of its key programs, which focus on building Indigenous leadership and developing pathways towards higher degree education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professionals.

The Melbourne centre is part of the National Poche Indigenous Health Network, which has five centres nationally and is funded by philanthropists Greg Poche and Kay Van Norton Poche to address Indigenous health through higher education. 

‘The Poche Centre shifts the positioning of Indigenous peoples in higher education because it has a strengths-based focus.

'Our strategic goals are to develop emerging leaders across the growing Indigenous health workforce in Australia and to grow the leadership capacity of this workforce through higher degree pathways such as PhD or post-doctoral research.

‘We have the Familiarisation Program, run annually, which is designed to break down the misconceptions, or make it easier to conceptualise, what a PhD entails.

'It is designed to encourage Indigenous students to see that a PhD is manageable for them, and that they are absolutely capable of achieving a PhD.

'Investing in the Indigenous workforce and fostering the leadership we have within it gives us the capacity to determine our futures.’

Walk is a step back in time

Billibellary’s Walk at the Parkville campus of the University of Melbourne is an acknowledgement of Indigenous country and is created around a central figure, Billibellary.

The self-guided walk covers some of the area  that  Billibellary,  the  Ngurungaeta  or clan head of the Wurundjeri people at the time of Melbourne’s settlement, would    have traversed. It pulls together a narrative about Billibellary and the natural, cultural landscape and seasons of the land.

Shawana Andrews led a collaborative team from across the University of Melbourne which researched the history of the area and its cultural significance. The research team included the Wurundjeri Land Council and Wurundjeri Elders, and used archives at the State Library such as old maps of the Melbourne area to help shape the narrative.

‘There’s a concept that you need to go to the bush to be “on country”. But in fact, you’re on country when you standing right in the middle of Melbourne. And that,      for us, was an important message to staff and to students, and it grew from there,’ Shawana says.

‘We talked to Elders and researched the area’s cultural significance to develop a narrative. The walk became an important tool for student and staff professional development, but we had no one to meet the demand of tours. So we built an app to self-navigate the walk and listen to the narrative. The walk introduces students to this conceptualisation of country and connection and how it relates to health.’

Click here to find out more about the walk.


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