In Our Own Right: Black Australian Nurses' Stories

Speech notes for CATSIN book launch.

Steve Larkin, Principal
Australian Institute of Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander Studies

Adjunct Associate Professor, James Cook University

Wednesday 28 September 2005

In Our Own Right: Black Australian Nurses' Stories

Good evening distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I would like to firstly acknowledge the Ngunawal people as the traditional owners of the land on which we launch this important book. I would also like to acknowledge that we are also honoured by the presence of many of the contributors to this book.

I feel very honoured to have been asked by CATSIN to launch this book. As an Aboriginal person, I have spent the best part of 25 years working in Indigenous health and so have some understanding of the policy-politico-bureaucratic context in which many of the accounts on this book both take shape and are grounded.

I also have a personal interest in this book. My sister is a qualified nurse, trained through the hospital system in Darwin as a nursing sister and as a midwife some twenty years ago. She still remains working in her chosen field today.

I also lay claim to the title of the book, suggesting it to Sally Goold and MaryAnn Bin-Sallik in the Canberra Qantas club during a chance meeting a few weeks ago!! The title came to me almost instantaneously although I had not then read the book. Rather, the words formed in mind almost immediately when I listened to Sally and MaryAnn describe what they saw as the purpose of the book and why they saw it as important.

In preparing for the launch, I gave considerable thought as how I should approach my analysis of the book. It's very tempting to try and quote bits and pieces from each chapter, inserting coloured sticky bits of paper throughout it to demonstrate that you have in fact read it!! But because this about real people and their personal stories, I didn't want to be seen to privilege the stories of some over others, or give the impression that some were more interesting or important compared to those of other contributors. Each account is different and unique, in terms of perspective, standpoint and personal circumstances. This, in my view, constitutes a major strength of the book and adds to the solidarity and collective support each of the contributors has for their peers and colleagues. Understandably, CATSIN www.indiginet.com.au/catsin/ is a strong vibrant organisation because of this.

Instead I have opted to try and describe what I perceived to be the major themes that the collective accounts and biographies speak to. Clearly the book honours as it should, the unique and particular experiences of each of its contributors. Its not always an easy thing to do - sharing one's personal stories of their experiences in their vocation, especially when some of those in the book are still actively involved. However, in acknowledging this point, I want to recognise and make explicit the courage and strength of the contributors who made the decision to share their stories and say thank you - to not have done so would have meant we would have not the book we have today. I also acknowledge that others chose not to and that this should be respected, not judged. For some of us, the memories are too painful or sensitive, or for others, there may be other understandable or justifiable reasons.

Firstly, I want to say that one of the first impressions I had on reading the book was the sense of 'calling' people had in deciding to pursue a nursing career - to want to become a nurse. This was not the case for all but certainly for many. Many of the contributors told of their early realisation that this is what they wanted to do, very much like a personal destiny. Not everyone took a straight path, some had to negotiate a number of personal and cultural challenges before their goals were reached but all got there in the end - well, not all, one contributor is still studying but given the role models in this book, I have no doubt she will successfully complete her training. What all have in common was/is the desire to do something worthwhile, to have a career where they were happy, to help others less fortunate to have a better quality of life, to make a contribution to our people, and to work towards making things better.

This in turn illuminates the special qualities of what the book describes as 'trailblazers' or 'pioneers', reflecting that many of the earlier graduates chose nursing as a profession during a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people weren't considered capable of achieving anything professionally other than those jobs considered menial. It also refers to the influence these pioneers had in making a path for others to follow. Certainly words to describe the trailblazers that came into my mind included resilient, dedicated, determined, persistent - all necessary qualities of leadership - all requiring a combination of that special substance of spirit, inspiration and endeavour that leads to success. I'm reminded of a recent saying I heard that came from a discussion about the relativity of courage with footy players - there are those who have no fear and will do whatever they are asked to do anyway, there are those who have some fear and but will still do what they're asked, and there are those who are in complete fear but still go ahead and to do the tough things - perhaps this or parts of it may apply in some way to describing the high achievers in this book.

When you read the book, you will also see that for all of the contributors, the road to achievement was not unproblematic. A range of barriers had to be confronted, including a lack of confidence and self esteem, academic deficiencies most certainly the consequence of a hostile and unsupportive education system, systematic everyday and institutionalised racism and the isolation, mystification, alienation and separateness that attach to engaging with a foreign western knowledge system. Years of forced exclusion from mainstream society generally underpinned and exacerbated these obstacles. Yet whilst we read many varied accounts and first experiences within the book acknowledging these hardships, in implicit terms, we are seemingly not asked to dwell on this. Rather, the contributors 'cut to the chase' and take us with them on their respective journeys to work through steadfastly to overcome such impediments and reach their 'prize'. I could not help but be impressed by the degree of personal sacrifice these people chose to make to attain their qualifications and am in awe of them for this alone.

Of significance to all others who will undoubtedly follow in years to come are the pearls of wisdom offered by these special people - the sorts of credentialed knowledge that can only be sourced from experience, from those who have been there and done it, who have done the time and paid their dues. There is a consistency in this advice - be strong, don't give up, don't be controlled by the negativity of others, work hard, because you can be anything you want if you stick at it. You only have to look at the forms of official societal recognition eg Australia Day honours, awarded to a number of the contributors to realise that their advice ought to be heeded.

At the same time, I would be remiss if I didn't make mention of those acknowledged by the contributors as having provided valuable support and guidance. These people include first and foremost, immediate and extended family members and close friends, but also non-Indigenous peers, colleagues, superiors and significant others. To an extent, times have changed but I couldn't help reflecting that the support of non-Indigenous people acknowledged in this book mostly represented the exception rather than the rule.

I was also impressed in the stories by the progression of careers for many of the contributors. Some continue to work in the field of nursing but others have moved on to work in other important areas of activity such as policy, training and professional development and academia. In fact, black nursing has produced some of our finest national leaders!! This is not unusual in the helping professions. However all those who have chosen new careers remain engaged with Indigenous affairs. I was also taken with the commitment shown throughout the book to change and reform. These people have spent considerable time working at the coalface, the frontline. Yet rather than become passive supports for an imperfect system, the nurses in this book have sought to actively challenge that which is unworkable, confronting inequities and inequalities and generally identifying service/programmatic gaps that result in poor outcomes for Indigenous people. Through the examples in their stories, we are provided with a source of inspiration for those of us who continue to work for positive change, to reform, to transform and to innovate.

In concluding, I want make a number of closing remarks.

Firstly, I believe this book speaks loudly to notions of equivalence between Indigenous and non-Indigenous professionals working in this instance, in health. Too often have I heard many Indigenous health professionals lament that their experiences in working with non-Indigenous peers and others have been tainted by feelings of non worth, lack of recognition and respect. The stories in this book attest to the need to instil mutuality, reciprocity and equivalence across black/white health professionals.

Secondly, many of the stories recount instances and experiences of the 'R' word - racism. The tendency currently is to adopt an attitude and approach of colour-blindness - to think and behave as if race is insignificant and doesn't matter. These stories say differently. Rather than retreat from racism, the stories provide the impetus to have these issues placed squarely on the table so they can be acknowledged and dealt with. To deal effectively with racism requires a collaborative and systemic effort, all of us are implicated and suffer as a result of inaction. The contributors do not advocate movement into a state of paralysis, rather they have shown that it is possible to move forward and resolve such issues effectively, in collaboration with non-Indigenous peers, if there is a commitment and willingness to confront and succeed.

Thirdly, I think both the stories and the previous point are instructive of the heterogeneity that characterises a number of health professions today. Qualified nursing professionals are increasingly sourced from different genders, classes, ages and ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It is no longer a homogenous domain. For the nursing profession in particular, I would argue that this represents an important strength. Nursing can only benefit from embracing and incorporating difference through a diversity of views, perspectives and standpoints to inform its capacity to deal innovatively with a myriad of professional/practice issues that continue to emerge. This book represents one such contribution to this development.

Finally, the title of this book explicitly refers to the achievements of 'black nurses'. One contributor stated that they preferred to think of themselves not as an 'Aboriginal nurse', but as a nurse who is Aboriginal. I hope that in time, we can move to a space where the achievements of Aboriginal people are seen in much the same way as those of the mainstream, as not othered by race, but as the special achievements of significant Australians.

I commend the editors of this book, Sally Goold and Kerrynne Liddle, their contributors, members and staff of CATSIN, the Commonwealth office for the status of Women for their support, and eContent Management (Contemporary Nurse journal) as the publisher.

I highly recommend this book to all and accordingly I now officially launch In Our Own Right: Black Australian Nurses' Stories.

Thank you and good evening.

Steve Larkin, Principal
Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
GPO Box 553 Canberra ACT 2601
Adjunct Associate Professor, James Cook University

Dr Sally Goold OAM
Senior Australian of the Year 2006

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