I have a really good boss. We had our periodic heart to heart today after work, and shared insights and ideas. I really appreciate the support and understanding he displays, and I particularly appreciate that he has no unreasonable expectations. His background and mine are very different, but we share many experiences and opinions.
I had been pretty devastated a while ago when an official of the Department suggested in an email that the Shire (read Alan) was not demonstrating value for the money invested in the program I lead. The problem was that I had not produced statistics sufficient to satisfy the Minister of the number of people I and Des had spent time with, lecturing on Trachoma, handwashing, environmental health and so on. My approach has been to gain some trust, find people who would actually listen, and get them on our side, willing to act to help change the status quo. My argument was that the acceptance and support of one influential person, who will champion our work in the community, was worth a dozen lectures to a dozen young people or their parents trapped at a session they didn’t want to be at, listening to another gardya telling them what is best for them, and forgetting us the minute we drive home.
Time spent with one person who can influence others may be a far better investment. My efforts have been spent doing the rote stuff expected, to an admittedly minimal degree, but I have been working quite hard to build relationships and to gain some trust and respect. Also to put Des in frontman position. We help with a lot of matters not directly covered in my brief, but which can be loosely defined as environmental health and community wellbeing. We have been trying to show that we really were there to help, not to patronise. In particular we have been trying to encourage the communities to regain control for themselves. The successful delivery of the message I have been engaged to spread depends to an enormous extent on the credibility and respect given to the messenger. Something some may not appreciate. If it was easier than that my job would never have been created. I believe I may be making some progress, though I doubt here will be a great quantum leap in what remains of my career.
At my first performance review a month or so ago, I was relieved and elated to learn that the boss and the CEO were completely with me. They understood and accepted my approach. It reminded me a little of NZ where those in Head Office were perceived as having no idea of how the real world is. (Until I went to head office, that is – of course). This is a long term game. My employers have committed to it and if the two year funding renewal we have just been given is not renewed again in two years time, the CEO intends to keep me on somehow. By then I hope Des will be my replacement. I will be 65.
In an hour-long phone conversation with my counterpart at the Department, we came to an understanding of our relative positions and an agreeable compromise that I would continue as I have begun, but I shall produce some better statistics they can show the Minister.
It was a surprise to learn that I am the only Environmental Health Officer in the Trachoma programme. Not just in WA, but in the entire country. All the others have a clinical background. Nurses, mainly. As Trachoma is very much an environmental health problem, not just medical, and inextricably bound with other environmental health problems which have the same root cause and the same cure, I feel I am in a superb position to at least try and encourage some change. The cutting edge, to coin a phrase, of community environmental health.
Even so, had I fully understood at the start how great the challenge really was, I might have thought twice about applying for this job. The so-called Aboriginal problem is deep and complex. Those with simplistic solutions show very little understanding of just how deep and complex. I cannot pretend to understand it, but I can try. Anyway, I am here now, and though I know it will be very little in real terms, I am determined to have something to show for my efforts before the retirement curtain. The positives of being here still outweigh the negatives, the greatest of which, apart from the distance between me and my loved ones, is the distance between me and the ocean. I have never been so far from the sea. It is surprising how that affects me. The positives are mainly the insights I am slowly gathering, the great, awe inspiring country I get to explore, and new friendships.
An interesting insight: the boss told me that back when he was visiting communities, the people in Balgo were bewailing that there were no jobs for them out in the community and it was impossible for them to find work while remaining in their own country. The boss pointed out that there were plenty of jobs for them. The community store was run by outsiders. The CEO of the community and his secretary were outsiders. The clinic staff – nurses and doctors – were outsiders. The contractors who built their houses and installed their sewage systems and water supplies were all outsiders. They could have any of those jobs if they wanted, they merely needed to get the necessary qualifications. They needed to want the jobs.
His assertion was met with incredulous looks. Such is the self esteem of the locals, and so indoctrinated they are by the contemptuous attitude of the gardya who exploited and patronised them, that unless they have some artistic ability and the motivation to pursue it, they could see no future employment except as station hands, labourers or maybe for some, the remote dream of professional football. Is it any wonder that social problems arise?
This is not an attempt to excuse those who commit crimes and waste their lives. I can almost understand how apathy may become such a tyrant in the circumstances. It is not an excuse for apalling behaviour. I am trying hard to understand how the worlds oldest culture, so long unchanging, and so quickly torn asunder, can mend and survive through the 21st century. Culture must adapt to change, in my opinion. Mine did, others have. We give away those cultural practices that no longer work for us. My in-laws ancestors were, only a hundred years ago, cannibal. My own collected the heads of their enemies. Change is not only inevitable, but necessary.
The poorly envisioned unforgivable attempts by the Australian Government to change Australian indiginous culture have resulted in a hideous backlash and we see the results around us. Most of the changes that were introduced were negative, destructive and oppressive. We have to do better than give material things and tell them to get over it. We need more indiginous people to lead. To become professionals. People like my mate Des, who was part of the stolen generation and who suffered such indignities and brutality that his story brought me to tears, yet who has lived his life, and raised his own children and those of his extended family, in such away that he can be very proud. Des says that he has learned a lot from me. I can sincerely say I have learned a lot from him. To have huge numbers of people like Des may not happen for a while. But it can happen. If even a few of the children Des and I speak to, or who are influenced by the parents we speak to, can become a leader, then our work will be a success. That is the time scale we are looking at. We have no illusions. That is why we believe the long term effect of our interactions will hopefully be more profound than the number of interactions I report in the next few years. If that seems too grand an ideal, it is a better cause than counting how many kids have managed to keep their hands and faces clean, if only while we are watching.
I still suffer from depression. I have bad times in the small hours. I have failing knees and I am overweight. But I am off the antidepressant pills and I go to work cheerfully. Because I still believe.