What I’ve learned about how for-purpose, community-controlled entities can drive change

Friday, 01 April 2022

Denise Cullen

    With her background in legal aid and current roles as a non-executive director on several boards in the First Nations healthcare sector, Yorta Yorta woman Sandra Bailey GAICD reflects on her journey and governance lessons.

    I am a Yorta Yorta woman and grew up on Country in Shepparton, Victoria. I completed secondary education in a technical college that only went to year 11. When seeking to enrol at the only high school in town, the principal told us tech school kids we “didn’t have the aptitude” to even try. Bendigo Tech then set up a small campus in Shepparton to accommodate year 12 tech students. During that year, a teacher suggested I should study law at Melbourne University. Company law was part of the curriculum. The university environment was alienating and I found it hard to settle into the city. I rang home most days, usually reverse-charge.

    I was the first Aboriginal student to graduate from the Melbourne University Law School and my family and community were very proud.

    I did my articles of clerkship with Slater and Gordon, learning about the Workers’ Compensation Tribunal and common law, including once instructing in the Federal Court. I had only one Aboriginal client and was always glad when that person had an appointment. It was a memorable day when then barrister Mick Dodson AM moved my admission to practice in the Supreme Court of Victoria. I worked as a solicitor with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, appearing mostly in local magistrate’s and children’s courts in country towns.

    There was no hiding the fact that Aboriginal people were overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Whatever the outcome on that court day, it would most likely have a negative impact on their lives in some way, even for cases of what I’d call a “trivial” nature — and especially when clients pleaded guilty. I learned the relationship between race, disadvantage, poverty and justice.

    Sense of history

    My mother, a Yorta Yorta woman, was born and raised on the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Reserve. Cummeragunja has a long history and in 1939, the community walked off to protest living conditions there. Some people stayed put and some returned over time to the only home they knew. I grew up learning about this history.

    Like the other children there, Mum was taught to grade 2 level in the Cummeragunja school.

    At the age of 14, they were all sent to work as domestics or hands on farms and stations.

    There was no access to health services, the nearest hospital was in Echuca — if you could get there by horse and cart, and could be admitted to the hospital. Hospitals were known to have segregated wards for Aboriginal patients. My grandmother, aunties and ancestors looked after people in the traditional way if they were sick, but there would be few remedies for imported diseases, which had decimated the Aboriginal populations over time. The tiny, unmarked graves in the cemetery bore witness to the sad reality.

    In 1983, only a few families remained on Cummeragunja and fears arose among the community that the government might be planning to close and sell the land. A residents’ committee was formed, which was later incorporated under the Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act 1976. Projects began to happen, including a building and renovation program, and importantly, salaries were paid, creating employment instead of the “working for the dole” payments. The access road was sealed, allowing the school bus to pick the kids up on rainy days. Water quality was also addressed, although not entirely, due to water retention upstream for farming and recreation. An Elders’ hostel was set up as well as a health service. I call this my first directorship. I was later nominated to represent the region on the executive of the newly formed Aboriginal Health Resources Committee.

    In NSW, on 9 March 1984, the title deeds for Cummeragunja passed to the Yorta Yorta people. In Victoria, a claim was prepared by the Yorta Yorta Tribal Council for the return of the Barmah Forest to its traditional owners. Yorta Yorta country spans the Dhungulla (Murray River).

    I learned a lot at our meetings — it was exciting to be on that council with many Elders, who were custodians of knowledge and politically involved in the struggle for recognition of rights, land rights, sovereignty and self-determination.

    Indigenous rights and justice

    I was also a director of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service board, and the Aborigines Advancement League, which was established by early leaders such as Cummeragunja Elder Uncle William Cooper (1861–1941) and other activists for land rights and justice. This leadership inspired me. I learned how governance of a for-purpose entity, controlled by its community, could be a vehicle for change.

    When the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was underway, I was asked to head up the Victorian Issues Unit.

    It was tasked with seeking the views of Aboriginal communities, government departments and organisations about the underlying issues contributing to the disproportionate representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system, the high incarceration rates and deaths in custody.

    After a $40m Royal Commission delivered 339 recommendations to address the appalling situation, it is unacceptable that Aboriginal people continue to die in custody. It reminds me of young people nervously waiting outside the courthouse where a decision was soon to be made that would affect their future life outcomes — statistically likely to be the same outcomes that have led to this moment for them, through generations.

    First Nations healthcare

    In 1992, I came to Sydney for a working holiday and ended up becoming the coordinator of the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council (AHMRC) of NSW, formerly the Aboriginal Health Resources Committee. I was CEO there for what seemed like the fastest 25 years of my life. The AHMRC is the peak body for Aboriginal community-controlled health services in the state. I had a supportive board, elected by the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (ACCHS). These services deliver comprehensive primary health care to Aboriginal people who might not otherwise access health services. They are based on a holistic definition of health that is not simply the absence of illness, but the cultural, social and emotional wellbeing of the whole community, where an individual can reach their full potential in life. ACCHSs don’t just treat illness, they promote health, they are like family and often provide a social hub in their communities.

    In 1999, the International Centre for Eyecare Education (now the Brien Holden Vision Institute) visited the AHMRC to talk about working in partnership to provide eye health services in Aboriginal communities. This partnership has stood the test of time. No decisions are made without first consulting the relevant ACCHS. And that program is still going — it ran a free spectacles program, arranging for optometrists to visit up to 120 sites.

    I’m on the board of the Kaiela Institute, an Aboriginal organisation based in Shepparton, which champions innovation and leadership, and aims to increase prosperity for Aboriginal people and the broader community. I also work with the Sax Institute as a senior adviser on Aboriginal health. We established a longitudinal study 15 years ago on Aboriginal resilience and child health, and are involved in other Indigenous-led research projects. Hopefully, the findings will help guide governments in terms of policy and resource allocation.

    Governance roles

    I was on the Vision 2020 board and in 2014, became a director of the newly formed Brien Holden Foundation. In 2018, I was appointed chair at a time when the foundation (service delivery and education arm) and the institute (research arm) were undergoing reforms. I stepped down as chair in January 2019 because of constraints on my time, but retained my role as a non- executive director on the institute board. I chair the institute’s audit and compliance committee and am a member of the foundation’s audit and compliance committee.

    In 2015, I got a scholarship for the AICD <em>Company Directors Course.</em> I was working full- time, so had to fit it in around that. I sat the exam in 2017, on a library computer because I didn’t have one at home. I later participated in the Chair’s Mentoring Program. Guidance from my mentor, AICD chair John Atkin FAICD, was a great help in setting forward processes, especially in relation to the development of audit/compliance processes as part of an organisational reform.

    My aim is to use my skills and abilities to take advantage of opportunities to work together and make a difference in the lives of Aboriginal people. But sometimes I feel out of my comfort zone when I look at the world that has displaced Indigenous people on their own country while low life expectancy and high incarceration rates, all symptomatic of poverty, continue.

    I see this as the lingering manifestation of dispossession.

    The Cummeragunja struggle

    Cummeragunja Mission Station is an Aboriginal reserve situated in Yorta Yorta country on the Murray River in NSW. The station was founded in 1888 as a farm to enable the local First Nations community to be self-sustaining. Illness, bullying and threats of expulsion or removal of rations by station managers was constant.

    In 1894, the station was subdivided to provide individual and family allotments. The community thrived, its Koori-led management overseeing the successful production of wheat, wool and dairy. Conditions improved as station finances were directed back into the community.

    But the 1909 Aborigines Protection Act gave the Aborigines Protection Board (APB) full control over the lives of Indigenous people in NSW. By 1915, limited freedoms had been eroded and children could be removed from their families and placed into servitude.

    Profits were delivered to the APB and the station fell into neglect, with disease rife due to poor sanitation, and lack of quality housing and clean water. In 1939, after deaths due to minimal rations and insanitary conditions, the Cummeragunja Walk- Off occurred. Most did not return.

    Following WWII, the government gave land on Aboriginal reserves to returned servicemen as part of the Soldier Settlement Scheme. This land grant was unavailable to Koori returned servicemen.

    In 1983, the title deeds to Cummeragunja were returned to the Yorta Yorta people via the Yorta Yorta Land Council.

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