Working For a Healthier Indigenous Australia
25 August 2014 at 10:07 am
Years of experience in the Indigenous health field will guide Romlie Mokak as he establishes himself in his new role leading the Lowitja Institute, Australia’s national institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research. Mokak is this week’s Changemaker.
Mokak has been the Chief Executive Officer of the Lowitja Institute since July 2014. Prior to this appointment, Mokak was the CEO of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association (AIDA) in Canberra, building that organisation into a substantial and critical contributor to improving the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
He says his broad aim for the Lowitja Institute is to establish the organisation as “a natural and compelling point of collaboration when researchers and institutions are considering working with our communities on matters that impact our communities”.
A Djugun man from Western Australia, Mokak was born in Darwin and has extensive experience in medical education and workforce development. He has also worked at community, state and national levels in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy areas, including disability, ageing, population health, financing and substance use.
He holds a Bachelor of Social Science degree and a Postgraduate Diploma in Special Education and has also completed the Australian and New Zealand Health Leadership Program.
What drew you to the Not for Profit sector?
After working for 15 years in the public sector at policy, program and community levels, I grabbed the opportunity to join the Not for Profit sector with both hands. I was, and remain, committed to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander not for profit sector for its proximity to, and connectedness with, the people for whom we work. For me, the focus of that work has been on the development of strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander institutions, encouraging an emerging cohort of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander professionals and, most importantly, delivering real and positive benefit for our people.
How long have you been working in the Not for Profit sector?
For nine years since 2005, I was the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association (AIDA) and, since July 2014, of the Lowitja Institute. During my time at AIDA, I supported a number of new and emerging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders in health and other sectors. I have also contributed to non-Indigenous Not for Profit organisations as a colleague and peer, and was a Board member of the Fred Hollows Foundation.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Being a part of the changing narrative and landscape of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health in Australia; bearing witness to the emergence of an amazing new cohort of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, and making a small contribution to making all that happen.
What do you like best about working in your current organisation?
While only recently appointed to the job as CEO of the Lowitja Institute, I am impressed with its strong track record in delivering, through a collaborative model, work that is making a significant contribution to improving the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
What excites me about the future is our potential as a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation delivering quality and impactful research for our people’s benefit. Our model ensures that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ voices and values are embedded throughout our activities and is characterised by real collaboration with our partners.
I consider my greatest achievement to be …
Without doubt, my pinnacle achievement is being, together with my partner, parent to three beautiful kids.
In terms of work, and this is by no means an individual effort, I have two standouts.
Firstly, the development in 2005 of the petrol sniffing framework, which resulted in the production of a world’s first: Opal low aromatic fuel. The drop in rates of sniffing was dramatic and immediate in many of the affected communities in remote Australia.
Another highlight has been in the area of medical education. In 2011, for the first time ever, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander medical students matched the ratio of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to non-Indigenous Australians, that is, 2.5 per cent. Against a backdrop of enormous and enduring educational and economic disparity, this was a remarkable result. The positive individual, family, community, institutional and societal impacts of these students graduating as doctors in future years will reverberate for generations to come.
Through your work, what is your ultimate dream?
That all children grow up with respect, dignity and free from the many and destructive ‘isms’.
School taught me …
That having teachers who believe in the potential of individual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is priceless.
What (or who) inspires you?
I am surrounded by things inspiring — Elders and environment, kin and kindheartedness, peers and poetry. My wife and kids are my true inspiration. Now, I also work with two of Australia’s most inspirational women: Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue AC CBE DSG, the Institute’s Patron, and Ms Pat Anderson AO, the Lowitja Institute Chairperson.