In the heart of central Australia, Celeste Brand, a young Aboriginal woman and Curtin social work graduate, is improving the health outcomes of Aboriginal mothers and their children.
Brand, 28, has Arabana (South Australia) roots grounded in Eastern Arrernte. She currently lives on Central Arrernte Country, which covers the land occupied by the township of Alice Springs (Mparntwe) and surrounding areas.
Brand is a social worker with the Australian Nursing Family Partnership Program, which provides primary healthcare to Aboriginal mothers and mothers to-be living in and around Mparntwe.
As part of her role, Brand helps women to stay healthy during pregnancy and their baby’s formative years. She also helps them connect to services, set goals and foster nurturing family home environments.
“We work with pregnant mums right through until the child’s second birthday. I work alongside nurses, midwives and Aboriginal community workers. Some of my work includes advocacy, assessment (safety, risk and psychosocial), referral and liaising with community services,” Brand explains.
With the gap for quality of life and life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians as wide as ever, Brand says it’s crucial for Indigenous people to have autonomy over their own health practices.
“It allows Aboriginal people to be involved in decision-making about us and for us. Control of and access to health care by Indigenous people allows us to make decisions about our health in line with our priorities and our ways of working.”
Brand’s statement is echoed by significant research findings, including a 2016 paper published in the International Journal for Equity in Health, which concluded that Indigenous health care services are “more likely to be free of racism and are generally more culturally appropriate than mainstream services. They also tend to employ Indigenous staff who are able to speak the local language and are often known by people accessing the service.”
But Brand says there’s a disconnect when it comes to applying this type research on the ground, and progress in the health sector continues to be ad hoc.
“I believe that some things are getting better – there is more awareness and recognition into what is needed and what practice works in this space.
“What frustrates me is the copious amounts of research conducted in relation to Aboriginal health and wellbeing with countless recommendations, however, we still have the poorest health compared with non-Indigenous Australians.”
In her role, Brand has first-hand insight into the complexities of health care. She highlights how insufficient housing, for example, can affect a person’s ability to progress in other areas of their life.
“Lack of suitable housing and accommodation is one of the biggest issues, and is often associated with health outcomes because it intersects with other social determinants of health, for example education, the criminal justice system and employment.
“How is someone supposed to feel safe when they are living in overcrowded housing? Or how can you work with an individual to engage in employment when they have no safe place to stay, wash, and store their clothes or belongings?
“To contextualise, we have private and public housing in Central Australia. Due to socioeconomic disadvantage, a lot of people I work with are not ‘eligible’ nor suitable for the private market.”
A social calling
Despite the difficult nature of her job, Brand was drawn to social work after her friends, family and community pointed out that she had the qualities of a good social worker – a strong sense of social justice, self-determination and respect for others.
“My interest in social work started when I was 18 and my foster brother joined our family. From there, I developed an interest in child safety, identity and development, and I started working in child protection,” she says.
“During this time, my colleagues encouraged me to study social work as they identified I had the skills, knowledge and values, and would benefit from the theoretical knowledge of social work.”
In 2013 Brand enrolled in social work at Curtin, moving nearly 2,500 kilometres from Alice Springs to live with relatives in Perth, who supported her pathway and gave her a home away from home while she completed her studies.
“I really enjoyed studying on campus and preferred learning in a classroom environment, which is one of the reasons I chose to study on campus as opposed to online or distance education,” she says.
“The grounds at Curtin were welcoming and relaxing, and I loved the food trucks! I chose Curtin because it was recommended by several of my colleagues during my work in child protection.
“What I loved about the course was the knowledge and skills provided in relation to advocacy, the focus on health and law, and how it crossed into other fields, which is relevant to the real world.”
Brand encourages other Indigenous Australians to consider university study, but acknowledges it’s not always easy.
“Be realistic,” she advises. “University is challenging, not just the study itself, but if you have to move away from family and country, you may feel additional worry and stress. Look after yourself and remind yourself of the benefits.”
She also encourages them to apply for scholarships and seek cultural support and mentoring, such as that offered by Curtin’s Centre for Aboriginal Studies.
“The course may seem like a long time (four years) – commit and persevere as much as you can. The four years I spent studying were some of the best years of my life!”
Brand’s hard work certainly paid off; she found employment as a social work graduate in Perth just six months after completing her degree in 2016. In November that same year, she returned home to Alice Springs to give back to her community.
“As a social worker, I hear sacred stories from the people I work with, and I hold this experience close to my heart,” she says.
“Social work allows me to work and make a difference in the Aboriginal health and wellbeing space.”
Brand’s dedication to the health of Indigenous people of Alice Springs has earned her formal recognition, including an Allied Health Inspiration Award in 2017, and as a finalist in the Northern Territory’s 2017 Genesee and Wyoming Australia Indigenous Achievement Award.
Brand personifies a better future for Indigenous Australians – and Australia – one that is equitable and proud of its First Nations culture and history. As she continues in her career, may she inspire other young Aboriginal people to realise their individual strengths and potential.