‘Still, we rise… as black women do
Culturally bonded, spiritually empowered, strength and resilience valuable tools,
with integrity and generational humbleness, we are the drivers, backbone, visionaries,
feelers, healers, leaders, prophetic with degrees in silence-ness.’
Excerpt from poem As Black Women Do: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s resilience by Vanessa Lee, published in Us Women, Our Ways, Our World
Growing up between Cairns and Thursday Island enjoying her days fishing and camping, Dr Vanessa Lee never imagined she would have ended up as a researcher—fulfilling her grandmother’s request to ‘help our people’.
Now a social epidemiologist, Vanessa looks for the best models of practice as a preventative measure for diseases that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. She also uses data linkage methods to help bring together the social, political and cultural determinants of health, producing a holistic picture of the causes of an illness.
Vanessa’s family comes from Meriam in the Torres Strait and Yupungathi in Cape York—so she is both an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. Her road to research wasn’t always straightforward and was filled with many challenges; however she definitely rose to meet them, in the process exceeding her expectations.
‘A lot of my teachings were by my grandmother—the science of it was the connection to country, understanding how things work around you and how to interpret that,’ Vanessa said.
‘Growing up in the Torres Strait—I loved it. I loved the community, I loved family. Family is culture, culture is family.
‘You’re taught the importance of listening in silence. You’re taught how to listen to the land. You’re taught the importance of understanding the water and listening to the wind.’
And it was listening to her grandmother that led Vanessa down the path of research.
One day whilst listening to a radio program about Indigenous children, Vanessa’s grandmother stood up from gardening and just looked at her and said, ‘they [Western people] don’t know how to look after our people… you teach them. You learn their language and you teach them our culture in their language.’
At first Vanessa was stunned. She had spent the last ten years as a teacher. She had a house with her two boys around the corner from her grandmother’s. She went fishing every other day. She participated in triathlons for fun and was enjoying her life.
‘Go learn their language—the only thing I could think of was to go and do research,’ she said.
A few years back whilst stranded at the Cairns airport, Vanessa had met Dr Melissa Haswell (now Professor)—an epidemiologist from the University of Queensland, in the Torres Strait researching diabetes. It was this chance meeting that got Vanessa first interested in making a difference through research.
‘From Dr Haswell’s findings we used a community approach to establish healthy lifestyle programs for children on Thursday Island,’ Vanessa said.
‘So I contacted Dr Haswell and asked her how, do I do what you do?’ she said.
Professor Haswell suggested writing a research proposal for a Masters in Public Health at University of Queensland, which is exactly what Vanessa did.
‘It was very hard, particularly in the first semester. But I did it and I was the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to graduate with a Masters in Public Health majoring in Indigenous health,’ she explained.
‘From there I decided to do my PhD. Doing my PhD, working full time, and single parenting, was really hard. How I did not stop studying after my masters I do not know. I was so determined to make change and to do what my Grandmother had asked of me.
‘I was getting to the end of my PhD and I was sitting there thinking—have I done what you asked me to do?
‘It dawned on me that I had become the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to graduate with a PhD in medicine from Griffith University, the first Indigenous national vice president of the National Public Health Association of Australia, as part of a team I was involved in reviewing the masters of public health programs across Australia on how they integrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content into their curriculum, and I also advised on various boards and networks.’
However, one of Vanessa’s biggest fears about doing a PhD was that she would lose her cultural identity.
‘I would often sit and meditate, asking my ancestors for me not to lose my identity—please don’t let me forget who I am or where I come from,’ she said.
‘Do I think I’ve done what my grandmother asked me to do—yes I think I’ve done it. However, it’s been really hard and I think she would be humbled to think that her belief in me could lead to making change for our people.’
Vanessa’s creative and academic work is directed towards preventive health and linkages to services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Vanessa now works at the University of Sydney on a number of projects. The latest, funded by NHMRC, is the BE WELL project looking at the best model of practice for lung disease.
‘We want the communities to develop and build practices based on a model that we have developed,’ Vanessa explained.
‘I also look at models of best practice for breast cancer and suicide prevention for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people including the sexuality and gender diverse populations.’