“It’s about coming with an open mind and heart, and willingness to deeply listen to community… to have any preconceptions challenged and re-learn ways of doing research.”
– Dr Veronica Matthews , co-lead investigator, STRengthening systems for InDigenous healthcare Equity (STRIDE)
Photo: CRE-STRIDE gathering on Coodjingburra Country, July 2022
Dr Veronica Matthews and the team at STRengthening systems for InDigenous healthcare Equity (STRIDE) are driving change to position Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities at the core of health care research.
Dr Matthews believes this change is coming – that communities will influence research agendas by contacting researchers themselves rather than the other way around.
“Community understand the process and they have the knowledge to be able to reach out to the researcher they want to work with rather than be driven by any particular researcher’s project,” she says.
“We are really just facilitators of that vision.”
STRIDE is a national Indigenous-led network of researchers, practitioners, policy-makers and communities working together to strengthen primary health care systems, and a Centre of Research Excellence administered by the University Centre for Rural Health, The University of Sydney.
Dr Matthews holds a PhD in environmental toxicology and has more than 15 years’ experience working in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, from program delivery and policy to research.
She has a particular interest in community engagement and resilience, and says STRIDE has a focus on holistic health – the model of comprehensive care embodied by community-controlled primary health services that care for body, mind and spirit.
“Our research work is diverse, investigating topics from maternal and child health, social and emotional wellbeing and preventive health, and how connection to healthy Country plays such an integral role in our wellbeing.”
From the Quandamooka community, Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island), Dr Matthews has strong established networks and relationships in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health care sector and experience with facilitating grassroots community-based participatory research.
Her PhD studies combined her passions for the environment and health of mob, investigating pollutants in local seafood, and conducting a health risk assessment for community on the islands, including her own.
Dr Matthews says it was the perfect project, because it had such a special blend of science and community.
As co-lead investigator for STRIDE with Professor Ross Bailie (Director of the University Centre for Rural Health), Dr Matthews says she and her Indigenous and non-Indigenous researcher colleagues are guided by a framework with relationality, respect and reciprocity at its centre.
“STRIDE researchers compiled the guiding framework, based on decades of Indigenous leadership and scholarship that speaks to our ways of knowing, being and doing,” she says.
"Our collaboration aims to challenge the norms of health systems research and practice that are based on non-Indigenous paradigms. We aim to encourage reflection and change within research systems to recognise and embrace Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges, theories and methodologies."
It was her background in environmental toxicology that led Dr Matthews to work in the leadership team of NHMRC-funded special initiative in Human Health and Environmental Change, called the Healthy Environments and Lives (HEAL) National Research Network. As with STRIDE, HEAL seeks to urgently transform systems.
“This requires us to change the way we think of and interact with our environment – turning to Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing that reflect deep, respectful and reciprocal connections to others and to Country,” Dr Matthews says.
“Ultimately, we need to dismantle power systems that enable inequality. We need change to happen at the top, but we also need ground-up, place-based approaches to address these challenges.”
With a core focus on Indigenous leadership and community participation, STRIDE is looking to build and strengthen the next generation of Indigenous health researchers, including by linking to OCHRe (Our Collaborations in Health Research), culturally secure and inclusive network of over 90 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers funded by NHMRC.
Dr Matthews says linking into other networks such as HEAL and OCHRe provides a critical mass needed to change systems.
“The development of OCHRe is a real inspiration and support for younger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers coming through,” she says.
The best thing about her research work, though, is collaborating in person with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
“It’s actually a real privilege, visiting communities and experiencing different countries and learning about cultures, meeting Elders and health staff that work in these communities and are so dedicated to what they do,” she says.
NHMRC’s Centres of Research Excellence scheme supports teams of researchers to pursue collaborative research and develop capacity in clinical research, health services research and public health research. In 2019, NHMRC announced Dr Matthews would receive $2.5 million in Centre of Research Excellence funding for STRIDE between 2020 and 2024.