How a teacher from the Torres Strait is driving social change

2 February 2018
When you take away culture, you take away someone's ability to live, writes Dr Vanessa Lee. In this opinion piece, she explains her transition from teaching in the Torres Strait to academia.

There was a point in my career where I was struggling 

I was experiencing a lot of discrimination and inequality in the workplace. I was feeling angrier and angrier, and I had no outlet. I came across a women’s writers group at Newtown Library. Such incredible women from all walks of life. One woman read a poem about her experience of heroin, another wrote a poem about her best friend who had died at the hands of an abuser.

I realised that the work I do as a social epidemiologist – they’d done it through poetry. I went home after that writing group and sat down with a pen and paper and wrote until the sun rose. I’ve been writing ever since. I’ve published six poems now, three in the Australian poetry journal about the stolen generation. I wrote it in the context of someone who had been stolen. Poetry has helped me to combine art and health and at the same time I have allowed myself to heal by letting things go.

I’m from Queensland, from the Torres Strait and Cape York

My people are from the Yupungathi and Meriam nations. I graduated from an early childhood education degree and began working for Education Queensland, which saw me travelling all around Queensland as a teacher for 10 years.

I first came across epidemiology when I was delayed at an airport many years ago and struck up a conversation with fellow a passenger, Professor Haswell from the University of Queensland, who was travelling to the Torres Strait to study diabetes in children under the age of twelve. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island flags flying above the University's Main Quadrangle.

I offered to help her collect the data and later travelled to Cairns to learn how to analyse the data. From there we created a range of programs to teach children how to try sports, clean the beaches, measure the seaweed, and use trees to reduce beach erosion – important knowledge due to our connection to the land, the water and the sea animals.

Things grew from there – I got funding from the government to continue this program. We introduced sports programs, had nutritionists come in and demonstrate how to prepare healthy meals, we stuck a food pyramid on the walls and explained what sugar did to the body. I even got my bus licence because some parents didn’t want their kids walking home in the heat.

Professor Haswell encouraged me to document this work and submit it as a research proposal to the University of Queensland for entry into a Master of Public Health degree. This process happened at the same time that my grandmother was encouraging me to do something more for our people.

My grandmother took the time to teach me about our cultural ways of doing, knowing and being 

I remember listening to a radio program prior to the commencement of the Northern Territory intervention with her. She looked at me and said “they don’t know how to look after our people – our people are dying; our children are dying. Vanessa, you have to go, you have to teach them our culture in their language.” After trying to convince her that she had other grandchildren who could go, I realised that her mind was made up.

During my Master’s an opportunity came up to look at Vitamin A deficiency in pregnant women in Bangladesh. I found myself living in Bangladesh for five months doing this research, and after combining our research with another study that looked at iron deficiency in children we were able to attract the attention of the World Bank to fund nutrition programs for pregnant women and children across Bangladesh; these programs resulting from our research are still in place today.

This experience made me realise that if I could make those kinds of changes internationally, I could make them for my own people. After I returned to Australia, I applied for a scholarship at Griffith University to look at how the Aboriginal community-controlled health services worked with government and communities. Halfway through my PhD, I applied for a position at the University of Sydney. I have since completed my PhD and am a qualified social epidemiologist.

I work closely on best cultural practice in health service delivery with a particular focus on linkages and services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and communities. I have experienced racism and inequity at the University, however on a larger scale I want to drive change that is already happening here.

When I think about enacting change, I think about my culture. The systems in Indigenous culture are constantly changing, kinship adapts and I’ve adapted my own cultural values to align with living in Sydney. I now feel like Sydney can be my home away from Cape York and the Torres Strait.

We’re trying to work out ways to give people back their identity so it can make them stronger.
Dr Vanessa Lee

Throughout my career, I’ve taught students who have since committed suicide. I was appointed as one of the directors of Suicide Prevention Australia last year to bring public health and social epidemiology into suicide prevention. We don’t just look at the suicide, we need to look at the why – why did someone commit suicide and what was happened in their social world to make them want to take their own life? 

Indigenous Australians have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In the Kimberley alone, there has been more than 11 children who have committed suicide. That’s terrible. You wouldn’t wish that on any community.

When I think about enacting change, I think about my culture.
Dr Vanessa Lee

We’ve been working with different bodies trying to work out what these children are missing and what they need to feel happy. And you know what we’re finding? A lot of these kids are missing their culture. When you take away culture you take away someone’s ability to live. We’re trying to work out ways to give people back their identity so it can make them stronger. 

There’s strength in unity – we come together, we work together

In my experience, when a non-indigenous person develops an initiative for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program, they lack the knowledge and experience of our culture to make the initiative succeed.

At the moment, we’re working on a First Nations Women’s Alliance Against Violence to help women to understand that violence is unacceptable. We’re developing frameworks ourselves and involving a range of women.

The platform is based on our culture and that’s what will give it strength. We’re happy to share our culture, but it’s offensive when people try to dictate to us what our culture is when they haven’t lived it. That’s one of the major strategies needed to work with a range of organisations.


Dr Vanessa Lee is a social epidemiologist in the University's Faculty of Health Sciences. Dr Lee is an Honorary Associate of the National Centre for Cultural Competence and Chair of the Public Health Indigenous Leaders in Education Network. 

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