Strength in the face of adversity
27 July 2020 at 8:17 am
As the director of the First Peoples Health Unit at Griffith University, Professor Roianne West is not only training the next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers, but challenging the wider health system and workforce. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
West, a proud Kalkadoon woman from far northwest Queensland, has faced many “firsts” throughout her career. She was appointed as the first Queensland nursing director for Aboriginal health, the first professor of Indigenous health for the state health system and a university, and the first director of First Peoples Health at Griffith University, to name a few.
These jobs haven’t been easy. She raised small children by herself while completing a university degree, and has faced racism from inside and outside the health system, something that could have stopped her from achieving her goals, but did not.
West’s perseverance as a leader in Aboriginal health care means she is not only training the next generation of healthcare workers to actively close the health gap between white and Aboriginal Australians, but is working to challenge the way the wider health system operates.
For her efforts, West was recently named the winner of the 2020 Lowitja Institute Cranlana Award for outstanding research leadership.
In this week’s Changemaker, she discusses the different faces of leadership, overcoming challenges, and why life shouldn’t get in the way of success.
What are you trying to achieve in your role at the moment?
I’m trying to improve health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through workforce, training and education innovations.
My work is really about education, training, [and] cultural safety training to ensure that the next generation of Australia’s healthcare workforce graduate from university with the minimum skills and knowledge required to actively close the healthcare gap. This is instead of inadvertently adding to that gap because graduates don’t have the necessary knowledge and skills.
What are some of the best pieces of advice you’ve ever received throughout your career?
For a long time, I mistakenly thought leadership was about your title and not about your individual leadership. A couple of years ago, a colleague said to me that my leadership style was transformational. That was a real epiphany for me because my leadership comes from being a sole parent, raising three kids, and being captain of my basketball team. Although they’re really important, I didn’t understand leadership theory and frameworks. When I was pointed to transformational leadership, it was exactly what I was doing. So I then got to learn about what transformational leadership was and how to do it more deliberately and intentionally, rather than feeling like I was fumbling my way through this role.
The second really important piece of advice was recruiting for values and not for qualifications. Because universities are all about qualifications, I recruited people that the university sector would consider as highly qualified. I was doing that because that’s what the system wanted, rather than recruiting to the values of the First Peoples Health Unit and the program of work that we were leading.
What’s a challenge you’ve been able to overcome?
A few years ago, I probably would have said that raising three children on my own and nailing down a career was the biggest challenge. I used to just say that life gets in the way of achieving what you want to achieve, but what I realised was I was so driven, determined and ambitious that it doesn’t actually get in the way, it just happens, and you just need to move and shuffle. It has as much importance as what your career does.
The second challenge was dealing with racism. That’s the reality of the space we sadly live in in 2020. Even though I experienced racism all my life, once I’d completed my nursing degree, I naively thought I would be exempt from racism, when in fact, it had the complete opposite effect. An Aboriginal person with a university degree flies in the face of the stereotypes of Aboriginal people being dumb or alcoholics. We received a lot of criticism that the degree that we’d done was less than other degrees, that we could only look after Aboriginal people – really ridiculous things which took their toll very early in my career.
Racism can stop you in your tracks and cause harm, which it does irrespective of anything, but I’ve learnt over the years how to transfer any of the negative emotions that come from these challenges and to channel them into positive outcomes. Once I learnt about where racism comes from, I realised that people (like some of my nursing peers) are products of Australian society whereby they weren’t fortunate enough to learn about the real history of Australia in their schooling. So you can’t blame them if they don’t know the truth. I Initially left nursing because I couldn’t stay within it, but once I went on and did a Masters and I learnt about where racism comes from, I knew that I had to go back into the discipline and change it from within.
Are you hopeful that in say 10 or 20 years, other young Aboriginal men and women will have a different experience to you?
I bloody hope so. I’m fortunate enough to come from a long line of traditional healers, and my passion for improving the circumstances of Aboriginal people can be attributed to the tireless work of my grandmother and mother. In spite of all the challenges that come with that, back then and now, my grandmother and mother still managed to envisage a life for us that was full of possibility, and I want that for my children and my grandchildren as well.
I now have three children that are also studying nursing and midwifery. I also have two grandchildren, and I only hope that I have as much influence on them, as well as other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth across this country, as my grandmother and mother had on me.
I believe it would be somehow diminished to choose a life less than what my grandmother and mother were holding out as possible for me, and that’s very much the mantra that drives me today.