The enormous load on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders

Mark Ragg

Ragg & Co > Commentary > The enormous load on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders

Donnella Mills is a Torres Strait Islander woman who is on the board of Wuchopperen Health Service, a community-controlled health organisation based in Cairns, and a lawyer with LawRight, a community legal centre that coordinates the provision of pro-bono civil legal services to disadvantaged and vulnerable members of the community. Two years ago she became deputy chair of National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), and recently became chair.

She spoke at Health Justice Australia’s recent conference Health Justice 2019 of the impact of the workload with its long hours and sense of obligation to others.

Donnella Mills

‘I’m very blessed that I come with a couple of different hats. I have a significant role in my community where I’m seen as a leader, and with that comes an enormous amount of responsibility and duty,’ she said.

Working at both Wuchopperen and LawRight has been extremely challenging, she said.

Two systems

‘We have two systems. I have my customary way of being, which is some that is 24/7. I’ve often said to the executives at LawRight that I don’t get to stop being black at 5 o’clock. That’s something that is continuous.

‘And then also meeting the demands, within that legal framework, of LawRight. They two don’t meet in the middle because the expectations of my community are far-reaching.’

When the role with NACCHO is added, it’s ‘not sustainable long term,’ she said.

‘It has a disproportionate impact on me, because I’m working with my own families, I’m working with my kin. It comes with many complexities. I have success, I have this wonderful role, I’m so passionate about it and I’m in a community where my people are living in poverty.

‘But disproportionately the impact is enormous, I don’t want to make that less significant than what it is, but it’s a space that I cannot be in for too long because it’s really soul-crushing to work across systems that are so challenging. So much energy is required, and I have a huge amount of energy, but I know that it will come to an end before too long, I look to other practitioners across the health and justice domain – we have to work in teams, we have to collaborate.

‘The other challenge, which is a positive, is that I’m a blackfella – my people are screaming at me, they want me to make all the changes, it’s really hard for me to communicate to them that I’m one person that’s trying to assist. I don’t have the power to bring good housing, I don’t have the power to bring their kids home, I don’t have the power to get them back on their homelands, so it’s this constant conversation of trying to express love for my community and a truth that doesn’t further traumatise them.’

Law is not fair and just

Eddie Cubillo, an Aboriginal man with strong family links throughout the Northern Territory, is now Senior Indigenous Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Law School. He has been executive offer with National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS) and director of community engagement for the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

He has written previously about the cost to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advocates when governments fail to act.

In addressing Health Justice 2019, he said: “I did law because I thought I was going to change the law, but you do first year and you realise law is not fair and just.”

Eddie Cubillo

Cubillo spoke of the incredibly long hours put into the Royal Commission, and the commitment to the cause, but that it never left him.

He said:

When you go home, people are really questioning your participation, and [asking] where does your allegiance lie.

When other people work in organisations they can go home and switch off, but blackfellas we can’t you know – people find your number and people find where you live … it’s really hard to get away from it.

In the end you become really cynical, or you don’t want to have anything to do with the space, or you just go through the motions, because it takes a huge toll on you.

[And working on the Royal Commission], you see it every day, you see it on TV, you get on a bus, you get on a plane … it comes back to haunt you.”

That load carries through to people who may not be national leaders, but carry a weight by working in mainstream organisations.

I’ve been working recently in partnership with Dr Megan Williams, head of Girra Maa, the Indigenous Health Discipline at the Graduate School of Health, UTS, and in some of our work together we’ve interviewed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working with mainstream organisations in justice and in health.

Cultural load

One of the common threads to arise from our work is what can be termed the cultural load. This is the load borne by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the workplace where they are either the only Indigenous person, or are one of a small number of Indigenous people.

People we’ve interviewed have consistently told us that with cultural load comes a lot of expectations from non-Indigenous colleagues – that they will know all things Indigenous, that they will know the cultural norms of the Country they’re on, that they’ll be happy to share their knowledge at all times, that they’ll be the Indigenous representative on committees, that they’ll be comfortable doing an acknowledgement to Country, that they’ll ‘represent’ and be representative of their people.

People we’ve interviewed may also be asked to deal with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients and clients, and to deal with the families or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients and clients, on top of their own workload.

Expectations of families and communities

Because of the skills gained through education and their positions of influence, there are also expectations from their families and communities that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people working in mainstream organisations will be able to ‘solve’ the problems they set out to address, whether that’s at an individual level or at a national level.

People we’ve interviewed spoke of:

  • a lack of recognition of work hours when formal and informal roles are combined
  • a lack of financial remuneration for additional hours worked, skills drawn on and ‘level’ worked at
  • high levels of worry and effort in having blended professional and community roles
  • having to be a cultural educator or interpreter for other staff, including staff more senior in position or age
  • standard career progression criteria not reflecting the reality of working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the varied tasks required, with no formal opportunities to record or use these for career progression.

These issues speak to the lack of development of the mainstream health and justice sectors. They represent the mainstream norm, and while they suggest some inclusivity, they also suggest a struggle to fully internalise the cultural respect they may be seeking to uphold.

Possible solutions will vary according to the workplace and the sector, but acknowledging that such a cultural load exists at a personal level is a start. More formal approaches, such as looking at career progression criteria and formal recognition of cultural load in wages and working conditions, are also an option.

From Twitter

 This article was first published by Croakey in November 2019

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Mark Ragg
Location: Sydney, Gadigal land
Description: Write, edit, research | Yulang Indigenous Evaluation with @MegBastard | Adjunct Fellow Indigenous health @UTS | Ragg & Co | Equity, justice
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