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PhD research uncovers stories of hope and hardship among proud Indigenous health workers

Darlene Rotumah sits at her desk

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Words
Tamara Hamilton
Published
2 July 2024

Through her Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples PhD studies, Chancellor’s Medal recipient Darlene Rotumah is helping build a more culturally-informed health workforce.

Idyllic Fingal Head in Northern NSW is known by the Bundjalung First Nation people as ‘Booninybah – home of the echidna’.

Indigenous Australian Lore paints the echidna as a patient and wise observer, who values reflection over reaction and carefully chooses its battles.

It’s fitting, then, that Booninybah is also home to proud Bundjalung mother and academic, Darlene.

During her Southern Cross University PhD studies, Darlene, like the echidna, took the role of ‘patient and wise observer’ of Indigenous health workers, who told her of their struggle to be heard by the mainstream health system, and to be understood by colleagues.

For Darlene, it has been a long road to this point.

Her academic and career success has been hard-won since the moment, 30 years ago, she chose to ditch factory work and become a mature-age university student - a different kind of role model to her two teenage children.

“I grew up with parents who worked very hard as labourers and travelled for employment,” she said. “My father is in the dreaming now, but I can still hear him encouraging me to get an education, so that I didn’t have to work so hard to survive.”

Darlene enrolled in the Aboriginal Rural Education Program through Sydney University and over five years completed a Bachelor of Arts, focusing on Welfare.

“It was overwhelming having to leave country and be away from family for two weeks at a time, but I was determined and I really wanted a change,” she said.

“I wanted to show my children they can do whatever they want to do.”

In her final year of study, Darlene landed a job in Aboriginal Health at the Bugalwena Health Service in Tweed Heads.

Darlene had found her place and spent 16 years working for Bugalwena.

“My PhD at Southern Cross University was such an exciting opportunity to help the voice of Aboriginal health workers to be heard.”

Darlene Rotumah stands among trees

Five years later she launched into her Masters in Trauma with Gnibi College at Southern Cross University - Lismore campus.

“Listening to clients and working in the field as an Aboriginal health officer and counsellor, I was witnessing lasting impacts from colonisation, the ongoing impacts of racism and discrimination in terms of access to health services, housing and employment,” Darlene said.

In recent years, Darlene became aware of a new distressing trend.

“I saw an increase in Aboriginal health workers seeking counselling, who were struggling in their jobs,” she said, “mainly because of a lack of understanding within mainstream organisations around Aboriginal (Identified) roles and how they work. That was creating tension for these workers and they were presenting with their own health problems.”

Realising these tensions would impact on the career longevity of Aboriginal health workers, Darlene saw an urgent need for research and embarked on her PhD.

“I wanted to hear from the people themselves what it's like to navigate the cultural interface as Aboriginal health workers within a mainstream health context,” she said.

“I heard of a resistance to bringing Indigenous people into the conversation, to applying the protocols of respectful listening and looking at ways we can work together.”

However, a story of hope also emerged.

“I was delighted to hear about the strength of identity, and connection to country and culture of these workers,” she said, “and the love of doing their job.”

“Despite the challenges of the system, they expressed pride in being an Aboriginal person, working in and with the community.”

While Darlene acknowledges there is still much work to be done to close the gap in relation to Aboriginal life expectancy and rates of illness, she believes there is also much to celebrate.

“Indigenous health workers are hearing success stories directly from their community – when an aunty is doing better after attending a group session, or an uncle has completed a weight-loss program, for example,” she said.

Just like the wise, patient Booninybah echidna, Darlene burrows in for the long fight, holding hope for better health outcomes for Indigenous communities and greater understanding, among colleagues, of Aboriginal health workers.

“After working in health for so long, my PhD at Southern Cross University was such an exciting opportunity to help the voice of Aboriginal health workers to be heard,” she said.

In May 2024, Darlene was awarded a Southern Cross University Chancellor’s Medal for her outstanding thesis.

“I'm grateful to the Aboriginal health workers who have shared their knowledge and expertise with me and my supervisors for their leadership,” she said.

“I have always wanted my children to know who they are as Aboriginal people, to be able to draw on the strengths of our country, our people and our ancestors. My studies have had a huge impact on me and my children. They can see what I have achieved and they know that anything is possible.”

Learn more about the exciting courses on offer at Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples.

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