Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association (AIPA) Steering Committee member, Graham Gee, is a descendant of the Garawa nation and comes from Darwin, Northern Territory. He is a dual diagnosis counsellor at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Services, and is completing a combined Masters/PhD degree in clinical psychology at the University of Melbourne. Graham is a recipient of the APS Bendi Lango Bursary for an Indigenous postgraduate student in an APAC-accredited course. Graham was appointed in December 2009 to the inaugural Board of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation.
The Healing Foundation has been set up in response to the Apology given by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his Government to Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on 13 February 2008. Based on a series of nationwide consultation workshops held in 2009, one of the recommendations from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities was that the Foundation be an independent, national organisation to address the legacy of trauma and grief in Aboriginal and Torres Islander communities as a result of colonisation, forced removals and other past government policies.
Broadly speaking, the aim of the Foundation is to support the development of successful models of healing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the nation, with a particular focus on Stolen Generation survivors, but also for all Indigenous Australians that have been affected. More specifically, the Foundation has three core functions: to identify and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healing initiatives at the community level by providing funding and capacity development; to conduct promotion and education about healing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their communities, including skills training in the prevention and treatment of trauma; and to contribute to an evidence base for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healing through community-driven and culturally-appropriate research and evaluation.
On a personal level I feel really honoured to have been appointed to the Board of the Foundation. It is a privilege to be given the opportunity to assist in the healing of our mob, and the nation as a whole - and obviously with that comes a responsibility to do the right thing by our communities, and to get the process right.
As a provisional psychologist I think it means different things. I love the fact that all of the directors of the Board bring a diverse range of expertise and experience, and I suppose that as a psychologist I hope to offer to the Board what I see as the ‘best' of psychology. For me that includes combining a deep respect for the nature of human suffering - an empathic, humanistic approach if you will - with a systematic approach towards trying to understand what works, one that encourages critical and reflective thinking. As a psychologist it would mean a lot to me if the work of the Foundation, and the issues involved in Indigenous social justice and Indigenous health, could somehow influence the world views and perceptions of mainstream psychology in Australia. In my opinion there still isn't enough awareness and understanding of the psychological impact of social inequalities, and the important role that social determinants of health play in contributing to the wellbeing of individuals (or lack of). We are really just beginning to understand the transgenerational, historical impact of political injustices such as those experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples.
On a more positive note, something that really excites me is that many Indigenous programs around the country are incorporating strength-based approaches to program development. I would absolutely love to see these programs be successful, and to have the success of such programs documented and brought to the attention of the mainstream. I think the field of psychology has yet to develop a mature understanding of the relationship between strengths and deficits, and it would be great if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and their healing programs led the way in developing greater knowledge in this area.
My greatest hope, of course, is that the Foundation is able to make a significant contribution to the healing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across the nation. I would dearly love it if the work of the Foundation results in measurable outcomes that assist in closing the gap in some of the inequities that exist across nearly every major health indicator for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in comparison to other Australians. Concretely, I hope the Foundation can support communities to run successful healing programs - programs that are developed and delivered according to community needs. Ultimately, healing and empowerment comes from individuals and communities themselves.
My hope for the Foundation is that it finds the resources to be a long term, independent organisation. In starting out, we have a small resource base indeed compared to similar initiatives that have occurred internationally. For the Foundation's long-term survival it is absolutely critical that we find philanthropic support and investment, and that we build strong partnerships with like minded organisations and individuals.
It's a difficult question to answer well. The question is really about how psychologists, and all Australians and the Government, can respond to the Apology in a meaningful way which backs up the symbolic gesture with genuine action that makes a difference. I have personal, political views about how I believe the Australian Government should respond. But if I put those views aside and think about what psychology as a field can do, I suppose I would love to see psychologists become more informed about what Stolen Generation survivors have experienced, and how the removal of Aboriginal children from their natural families continues to affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities today.
Unfortunately I think the term ‘Stolen Generations' sometimes obscures for people who don't know a lot about the topic some of the deeper meaning and consequences of past policies, and so to begin with, I would encourage my colleagues to take the time to do some critical reading, or engage in some way that goes beyond immediate, surface level understandings. I think that the ‘First Australians' documentary series is actually a pretty good place to start for people, and I recommend Robert Manne's In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right (Manne 2001), because it is a brief, but concise and illuminating read. There are also resources for psychologists available at the APS Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and Psychology Interest Group web page (www.groups.psychology.org.au/atsipp/resources).
The reality is that with two young daughters and my very supportive wife being a full time mother at home to care for them in their early years, there is no way I could have committed to full-time postgraduate study these last three years without the Bendi Lango Bursary. I'm grateful to the generosity of the APS and the individuals involved, and hope that the work and study I'm involved in will repay their kindness.
We need you (grovel, plead, beg ...)! Seriously though, so far I have found my own studies in psychology to be immensely rewarding. There are so many opportunities in psychology as a profession for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. For example, I love the fact that I am able to work for an Aboriginal community controlled organisation at a grass roots level, where Indigenous psychologists and counsellors are in high demand (and valued), while also being able to immerse myself in fascinating research (my PhD topic is about understanding resilience to trauma) that is focused on the needs of the community and underpinned by Indigenous and social justice principles.
There are so few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander psychologists, and you have a lot of freedom and opportunity to decide what capacity you would like to work in. It means you can do what you love. There are about 40 of us in the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association and we are all about supporting Indigenous students. So please contact us if you want support or are considering a career in psychology and would just like to talk more about it. A lot of useful information, (including how to contact us) can be found on our new website that is about to be launched.
Thanks to Heather Gridley for conducting the interview.