Letters from Alice

“Dear Mr Mundine” – 10 October 2013

In Letters from Alice // 2013.10.10 //

Another week of varied activity in Alice with “Circus Oz”, an afternoon of great fiddle playing (with unusual “humour”) and local country singer sitting in the bush setting at “Olive Pink’, all male cabaret, poetry night, usual art house cinema at Araluen, Desert Mob Art festival, etc etc … plus local footy final of course…

Got up at dawn and attended beginner’s guide to bird watching …. what a difference when you know how to use binoculars properly! …. 12 different birds in half an hour and a group of tiny wrens(?) passing a butterfly around their “group” to share it …. poor butterfly but had no idea they would cooperate like that over food…

Another round of experts (this time Baker Institute from Melbourne ) dropping in to Alice to talk to all the white fellas about what we either already know or could find in a journal about Aboriginal health problems …. such a pity that when they visit Alice they don’t insist that organisations only send Aboriginal staff to the event, and make their expertise relevant and useful to them …. not as endless power points but appropriate learning and exchange of info so these “experts” leave with a deeper understanding of the issues and Aboriginal staff obtain practical info they can use to improve outcomes…

Warren Mundine was in town too …. Friday night public event .… very little time for questions so…

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Dear Mr Mundine …….

Thank you for coming to Alice Springs and sharing your own story with heart disease to which many in the audience could relate.

However I would like to assure you that all the dreadful statistics you quoted about Aboriginal health are known and “lived” by people in Alice Springs on a daily basis, either personally, in their work or what they observe in the community.

Many of us are just as frustrated as you about the “industry” that has developed providing white fellas with employment servicing Aboriginal disadvantage.

I would have liked to hear more about what you meant by “focusing on outcomes” as my experience has been that programs are focused on outcomes …. but the problem is that desired outcomes, and how they will be achieved, are rarely decided by, or owned by, the individuals or communities targeted.

Since a feeling of control over your own life now, and in the future is absolutely fundamental to health and wellbeing …. this lack of real control needs to change if constructive, meaningful and sustainable change is to occur.

Unfortunately your talk indicated that you had already decided the priorities on what needed to change: health, education, and “economic development”. It was concerning that what you meant by these priorities was not articulated ….. how you define and view these priorities may be very different to how local individuals and communities view them …

e.g health and wellbeing are two very different things.

“They only want to fix my heart and kidneys ….. they are not interested in fixing me ….. they fix my heart …. what for?  So I can be unhappy longer? ….”

(Local Aboriginal man resisting heart surgery …..)

My observation over many decades is that Aboriginal people in Alice Springs and the Central Desert are fed up with being studied to tell them what is wrong, and subjected to an endless round of outside experts with “solutions” … these experts are usually invited to Alice by entrenched non Aboriginal professionals to support what they want to do …. regardless of what or how Aboriginal people know may have the best chance of actually working.

(The advantage of visiting outside experts to Non Aboriginal professionals can be that they leave again. They are not around to see the consequences of their ideas or challenge the non Aboriginal professionals when they inappropriately apply research from mainstream settings.

Apart from tax deductible side trips to an “interesting destination” these experts do not appear to realise how they can be used …. by coming to town they can increase perceived credibility of an organisation when applying to funding bodies.

Meanwhile some of the most effective grass roots organisations work on a shoe string …. or have their funding cut….)

In the time I have been involved in the Central Desert I have been repeatedly impressed at how much of what Aboriginal people say will help, is backed by a mountain of emerging research into health and wellbeing….

Before any more money and energy is wasted and Aboriginal people further used as social experiments please look beyond traditional medical / public health and social work / community development models …. look at what is already working …. look at the real reasons so many Aboriginal people are unemployed or leave good jobs they can easily do: the entrenched institutional racism, widespread covert, overt and bystander bullying and harassment, cross cultural incompetence and appalling arrogance….

Engage with traditional cultural values as well as practices to create a holistic strategic approach …. and when you measure outcomes be aware that it is very easy to fiddle statistics and records …. (one organisation here changed my patient records and those of other psychologists to “massage” outcome statistics) …. do “360” evaluations by external auditors to find out what is really happening in programs ….

Talk to health psychologists, community psychologists and social psychologists …. they have the research to back what Aboriginal people have been trying to say for decades …. But most of all if you come to town again listen to the community.

Yours Respectfully


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