Associate Professor Michelle Dickson smiles and stands in front of a painting.

PHAA celebrates Michelle Dickson’s teaching contribution and shares her COVID-19 ‘silver linings’

PHAA celebrates Michelle Dickson’s teaching contribution and shares her COVID-19 ‘silver linings’

‘For over 30 years, she has made a catalytic contribution to strengthening Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, their communities and their health, through education, research and service.’

So said the nominators of Associate Professor Michelle Dickson, a very worthy winner of the PHAA’s 2021 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Public Health Award.

A proud Darkinjung/Ngarigo woman, Michelle has committed herself to the teaching, training and capacity building of so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

For more than a decade, Michelle has been the lead academic in the University of Sydney’s Graduate Diploma of Indigenous Health Promotion, a program dedicated to training the next generation of health practitioners and health promoters.

The successful program has now graduated more than 260 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from every state and territory, with a completion rate of about 90 per cent.

Her nomination says Michelle “has built the program from about 15 students a year to 75 students, and has created a dynamic, flexible learning environment that is culturally safe, cutting edge and culturally grounded.

“A Strong feature of the program is the degree of individual support and mentoring offered to students. Alumni return to teach on the program and having exclusively Aboriginal academics on the team provides valuable role modelling. In 2019, Associate Professor Dickson secured a $4m donation to expand the program with a specific focus on social and emotional wellbeing; this stream currently has over 60 students enrolled.

“The graduates of this program are working across Australia in government, NGOs, public health organisations, and community-run organisations, making a difference in areas such as mental health, tobacco control, health equity, diabetes programs and more.

“At the same time, Associate Professor Dickson has made a massive contribution to research leadership in Indigenous research methodologies and methods for First Nations health and wellbeing research.

“Importantly, she is providing mentoring and support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander candidates in research degrees. She has won more than $12m in research funding from various Australian and overseas schemes, in collaboration with eight Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services and with collaborators from 30 universities and research institutes.

“Associate Professor Dickson has also championed opportunities for non-Indigenous educators and researchers to pursue deeper learning of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures that will allow all of us to forge a respectful and collaborative engagement with Indigenous stakeholders.”

Continuing our series of profiles about Australia’s diverse public health workforce, Michelle has shared via email her story about forging a career which has positively influenced many thousands of Australians.

Why did you choose a career in public health?

Apparently from early in my childhood, I always told people I wanted to be a teacher. I have also always been very nerdy. I love data, reading, thinking, exploring. Importantly, my core values include making a positive difference whenever I can, giving back whenever I can, and always moving from rhetoric to taking meaningful action. Public health gives me the environment to bring all of those things together in my work. We have an amazing opportunity to approach public health education, policy and initiatives in ways that value a diversity of worldviews and ways of working. I never stop being excited about that part of my career.

What part of your work gives you the greatest satisfaction?

I come to this role as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander public health academic knowing we can always learn so much from each other, and from our neighbours. I gain enormous satisfaction from sharing public health education, research and collaborative spaces with students, colleagues, community partners. In those spaces we all learn – especially when we take time to listen and think…and then move thoughts into actions! Seeing cohorts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander postgraduate students graduate from our school twice every year always brings me to tears (good tears). We are building an amazingly talented Public Health Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce.

How has COVID changed your life and your work?

I really want to focus on some what I call my “COVID silver linings”!

Personally, I have celebrated (true COVID style) the marriage of one of my children, I have welcomed the birth of my first grandbubba (again in true COVID style), and I moved into a home that is home to three generations of us. Now that is joy. While I miss family who are not living in our home, and I miss all of the hugs and the face-to-face get togethers that were always part of everyday, I have made sure we all stay as connected as possible. We’ve had a fair few family Zoom education sessions, so we can all function well on the big family Zoom-fests! The hardest thing is to not all talk at the same time- pretty hard in my family, we love to talk.

At work, we had to move a face-to-face block intensive postgraduate degree (Postgraduate Diploma in Indigenous Health Promotion) to online mode, almost overnight. And we needed to make sure our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students all over the country had everything they needed to support the switch to online learning. Sounds hard, yes it was… but the silver lining is that our enrolment numbers have grown enormously! So many students have said they had wanted to do the degree for years, but couldn’t take time away from work, family and community to attend block intensives in Sydney. Those students jumped at the chance to study with us, online. I also have had the privilege to onboard several new staff into the public health team, and to support the progression of existing staff. Doing all of that, amidst the COVID challenges, really has brought me some smiles.

To whom would you like to give a shout-out?

Hats off to every single person who has taken time to contribute to someone else’s experiences over the past while. COVID is tough on us all, but I see people really caring. If you have worked in health, logistics, food supply, education – thank you.

Massive shout out to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members who continue to support others; building up community resources, sharing health knowledge, helping to boost vaccination rates, developing COVID care plans, and keeping people engaged with Culture, and with each other- a HUGE thank you.

What’s coming next for you in your career?

I have just been appointed Deputy Head of School for the Sydney School of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine and Health, at the University of Sydney. I look forward to supporting our Head of School, Professor Joel Negin, as we continue to support our School Public Health Community through the next phase in our work. I am really focused on the social justice role public health schools can play in contributing to achieving equity in health and wellness outcomes in our country, and globally. I want my work to contribute to the growth of the current, and next, generation of public health professionals, practitioners, clinicians and academics.  Very high on my ‘To Do list’ is working to infuse and engage our work in public health with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander worldviews and lived experiences.

Yanu Yilabara (bye for now, in Gadigal language).

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