“A teacher once told me that I couldn’t do something because I was an Aboriginal person.”

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Today (March 16) is National Close the Gap Day.  Tens of thousands of people across the nation will participate in events to send a strong message to government to get its approach right on addressing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health crisis.

It’s a health crisis that sees Indigenous people die 10-17 years earlier than non-Indigenous Australians.

I’m taking over Oxfam’s twitter account, to highlight my experiences as an Aboriginal woman and as a health worker. So, why am I doing this?

close the gap
This is Banok's story. (Image: Supplied)

Because as a proud 22-year-old Yamatji-Badimia woman, aspiring nurse and a strong advocate for Indigenous health, I see every day the lived reality of this health gap.

I see cardiovascular related diseases, poorly managed kidney health and growing mental-health related illnesses.

I see every day how the causes of the health gap are complex.  I see how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are afraid of accessing health care because of past and ongoing experiences of racism and the lack of Indigenous health workers.

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My view is rooted in my own experience. I went to school in Perth. My siblings and I were the only Aboriginal kids in the school.

We dealt with a lot of racism; people said a lot of nasty things.

One of the worst things that happened to me was when a teacher told me that I couldn’t do it because I was an Aboriginal person.

Her words were that Aboriginal people were ‘stereotypically known to be unemployed and drunk’.

I can’t overstate the impact this had on me.  I didn’t think I’d make it to Year 12, yet alone university.

But my father said don’t be afraid of anything or anyone.  And here I am, about to finish my nursing degree.

"I see every day how the causes of the health gap are complex." (Image: Supplied)

My Dad is one of 13 children - and every single one of them has diabetes.

That’s what motivated me to pursue a career in health.  Indigenous people are three times more likely to have diabetes than other Australians.

As well as that, babies born to Aboriginal mothers die at more than twice the rate of other Australian babies, and Indigenous people experience higher rates of preventable illness such as heart disease and kidney disease.

But our people shouldn’t be suffering preventable illnesses, or dying younger than other Australians.

"Indigenous people are three times more likely to have diabetes than other Australians." (Image: Supplied)

One of the ways to tackle this is to have more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers.

And for the government to take the time to ask communities what they need in order to tackle their own health, rather than impose a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

This is because each community tackles its own issues differently.

Indigenous people know and understand the needs of their community; we know what works well and what doesn’t.

In my community in Geraldton, if there are issues that mob members bring up, we, collaboratively as a community, offer solutions and support - because community is family.

 

For this reason, for the Close the Gap campaign to reach its target of ending Indigenous health inequality within a generation, we need community-based solutions.

An example would be for the government to better support community-controlled health organisations in educating community members about diabetes.

Recent cuts to funding to Indigenous programs have affected community-controlled organisations.  This makes closing the gap much harder to achieve.

Coming from a family where every single one of my father’s siblings are diabetic, informing them about their condition verbally was difficult, due to the simple fact that Aboriginal people are naturally visual learners.

"Indigenous people know and understand the needs of their community; we know what works well and what doesn’t." (Image: Supplied)

We’ve been visual learners for thousands of years, which is well depicted through how we’ve passed down our traditions, stories and culture.

Where I come from, the community-controlled health organisation’s approach to educating mob members about diabetes is done by providing visual aids, drawings and taking a collaborative approach. It’s a mirror and a reflection of our culture in modern day society. And it works as it has for thousands of years.

For me, the daily racism I experienced throughout my childhood took a toll and eventually added up, as it does for so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Looking at how resilient I’ve become because of family and community support proves that locally-based solutions work, because Indigenous people know their mob members well and how to treat them.

Taking a collaborative approach is crucial – that is, working alongside other Indigenous health professionals to ease access to health services for our children, mothers, fathers and elders.

"I need to go back into my community. I want to help shape the state of our people’s health." (Image: Supplied)

I’m heartened by a rise in the number of Indigenous health care professionals, working alongside non-Indigenous counterparts to reduce the appalling life expectancy gap, which is so extensive because everything is interrelated - education, health, employment.

Given that interconnectedness, what are we, as a wider community, going to do to overcome this?

Put simply, we need community-based solutions.  Also, state, territory and federal governments must work together, in partnership, on strategies that take account of the social and cultural determinants of health – racism being one of them.

One step the everyday Australian can take is to join a Close the Gap Day event, and to acknowledge that surely this country has the capacity to solve an issue that only affects three per cent of its population. This is not just an “Indigenous problem”, it is our problem as a nation.

I need to go back into my community. I want to help shape the state of our people’s health. That’s why I wanted to do nursing. That’s how we will close the gap. We are still here, still proud and still strong.

Thursday 16 March is National Close the Gap Day. Banok will be on twitter @OxfamAustralia. The Close the Gap coalition — a grouping of Indigenous and non-Indigenous health and community organisations — together with nearly 200,000 Australians, is calling on governments to take real, measurable action to achieve Indigenous health equality by 2030.  You can find the nearest event here.

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