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A Vision for a Culturally Confident Aboriginal Community

29 January 2018 at 8:26 am
Luke Michael
Ian Hamm has just been appointed CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), after more than 30 years’ experience working with the Indigenous community. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Luke Michael | 29 January 2018 at 8:26 am


A Vision for a Culturally Confident Aboriginal Community
29 January 2018 at 8:26 am

Ian Hamm has just been appointed CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), after more than 30 years’ experience working with the Indigenous community. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Hamm was appointed CEO of VACCHO for 18 months, while Jill Gallagher AO takes a leave of absence to commence as Victorian Treaty Advancement Commissioner from February.

He described himself as a proud Aboriginal man, who has extensive experience in the public service, including as executive director of Aboriginal Affairs Victoria.

Hamm currently serves as chair of the Koorie Heritage Trust, the First Nations Foundation and Connecting Home Ltd (Stolen Generations Service).

In this week’s Changemaker, Hamm speaks about his plans for VACCHO in the next 18 months, details his sister Cherie’s special connection to the organisation, and explains what keeps him motivated to serve the Indigenous community.                                                                                                     

Have you been involved with the community sector before?

I’ve been in government for a bit over 31 years. So this is my first time working in the community sector itself, but I have worked closely with the community sector over that time. I’ve worked for federal and state governments, mostly around Indigenous community stuff. But I’ve also worked in education, in health justice economics and so forth.

What attracted you to work in the community sector?

I suppose it was the opportunity to get to work in the sector that I’d always worked with, if you like. So over the period of 31 years, I’ve worked across a range of different things to do with the Aboriginal community. I’ve worked closely with the sector. So when the opportunity came along to be CEO of one of the leading community organisations for 18 months, you get asked these things once and once only and you don’t say no.

What are your plans for VACCHO during your term as CEO?

At the moment there are a lot of developments going on in Victoria on Aboriginal matters. So quite clearly, the predominant one at the moment is the treaty discussions which are which are about to take off. The person whose role I’m taking, Jill Gallagher, is going to be the treaty commissioner for 18 months. So that’s the big piece of work in Victoria, in fact Australia to be honest.

Victoria is also doing work around self-determination and how do we bring self-determination to life. So those are two really big things going on. So clearly I want to make sure that VACCHO is well engaged in those two pieces of work and also continues to prosecute the efforts around improvement in Aboriginal health outcomes and also ensuring that our members are best practice organisations, in terms of their administration, their governance, their workforce development and all that kind of stuff as well. So there’s a fair bit I want to do and obviously looking at VACCHO itself, is there an opportunity for VACCHO to improve? I mean everywhere can improve over time and develop its operating and business models. So I want to look at VACCHO itself and how we work as an organisation.

How do you see the state of Indigenous health generally at the moment?

Look it would be easy to say that we haven’t got anywhere, but the fact is with Aboriginal health, I look at this holistically. So there’s health in the traditional notions of health, that is physical well-being and mental health well-being, and then there’s the broader concept of health which is the whole of the person’s life and all the things that impact on that. I think we’re making gains, but given our starting point and where we’re coming from, things don’t change quickly. It will take a number of generations for us to get to what I’d call self-equity.

It’s taken us 200 years to get where we are now, so to turn it around and get on a level par with everybody else is going to take quite a while as well. So I think we are trending in the right direction, but it will require a sustained and increased effort over many years to come, to get us really on the path or to reach the point of health equity.

How do you see a typical day going for you as CEO of the organisation?   

A lot of my background has been around [strategic] long-term outcome focus, around where we want to be in a number of years from now as opposed to where we are now. So my type of day as I see it, [will involve] a lot of time spent with an external focus, building up critical relationships and ensuring we’re well engaged with the members, because VACCHO exists by right of its membership. So ensuring that we have good and productive relationships with our members [is vital] and we’re supporting them in what they do.

I’ll obviously be having an oversight of the organisation but leaving the day-to-day operating, the daily grind as you might call it, to the people who are much better and much more skilled at that type of work than I am within the organisation. So a typical day for me will probably be in a number of meetings, making sure that at a higher level I’m across stuff around the operating of the organisation and probably talking to the chair of the organisation once a week or a fortnight just to make sure that the leader of the board is across stuff. So it’ll be a mixed bag of things that CEOs do, that you can never quite put your finger on when somebody asks you “what is it that you do exactly?”

You have spoken in the past about how your sister Cherie has a special connection to VACCHO, what does this mean to you?

My sister Cherie worked at VACCHO for many years, for 10 years if not longer. She not only was a worker there but she was part of the soul of the place. And she did a lot of work particularly around palliative care. She confronted the difficult issue of when Aboriginal people are passing and not just looking at health improvement, but dealing with the dreadful reality that people die.

She herself died of breast cancer in 2014. She was well loved by the VACCHO people, the VACCHO staff and the VACCHO community as a whole. So to be CEO of the organisation that she was such an intimate part of, not just in a work sense but in a soul sense, is an additional thing for me that was one of the reasons I took this job.

Amongst all the work that you do, how do you find time for yourself and what do you like to do in your spare time?

I learnt a new word in 2017. It’s called “no”, as in “no I cannot go onto another board, no I cannot do this”. I’m actually on seven boards in addition to being CEO of VACCHO now, and I do other stuff outside of that. So when I do find the time just to myself, I like to cook, and I still play cricket at the age of 53. So I’m still going around on a Saturday playing in a 4th XI as a wicketkeeper, which I should have given away many years ago, but I get to play cricket with a bunch of blokes who have no idea what I do for a living.

So there’s that kind of stuff. Obviously my pride and joy are my children Jasper and Isabel. I have a special relationship with my niece Narita, Cherie’s daughter, and she’s just had a little boy. So I enjoy being part of his life, [even though] he’s only about three months old. That’s the type of thing I do privately and is my little piece of paradise.  

You’ve been advocating for Indigenous causes for a long time. How do you remain motivated and optimistic despite all the challenges that arise?

It’s just a fundamental thing inside me that I can’t stand inequity, I can’t stand people not being given the opportunity to be the best that they can be. I can’t actually describe it any deeper than that, but particularly with our own community, I have a deep commitment to us finding what I believe is our rightful place in the great Australian community. That to me is what drives me. It’s something that I find hard to describe. It just is. It’s just what makes me get out of bed in the morning.

It’s what makes me do work which is essentially really hard. But I wouldn’t do anything else. There are a lot easier ways to make more money than this, but for me and everyone else in this sector, it’s not just about job satisfaction or what you get out of it as a job. It’s a much deeper thing, this isn’t about me this is about everyone. So that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and makes me do what I do.

What kind of future would you like to see for the Indigenous community in the years ahead?

One of the things which I’ve always had in my mind around what I try to do with anything [regarding] the Aboriginal community, is not just looking at what are the problems we have now and how do we fix them. If you just focus on that you never get ahead. I’ve always said in my mind, “What does Aboriginal Victoria look like in 20 years from now?” So if I jump forward a generation, Aboriginal Victoria will have equity on most things which we measure.

So economic equity, health equity, education equity etc. Most critically, Aboriginal community identity will be a confident one. It will be not only culturally strong, but culturally confident in itself and its place in the wider Victorian community. It will be universally respected and in fact, may even be the thing that the rest of the Victorian community aspires to. That is where I want to see Aboriginal Victoria as a whole 20 years from now.

Do you have any particular people that inspire the work that you do?

Oh there’s a number of people. So William Cooper, my great uncle, he inspires me. There’s Doug Nicholls, and Alf Bamblett who I knew quite well. Those three people inspire me. I went into government 30 years ago and decided to stay there to work for Aboriginal people. Charlie Perkins, he inspires me to no end. And he got sacked a couple of times, but he did what he thought was right for the Aboriginal community.

I got sacked once for doing what I thought was right for the Aboriginal community, and getting sacked from high profile positions is never fun, but you know what, I could sleep at night because I knew I had done the right thing. So those type of people inspire me and there’s a whole range of others. My own family inspire me, my aunty Claire, she’s one of those people who inspired me and there’s a whole range of people.

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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