In July, we welcomed Bundajlung dietician and researcher Alicia Dunning (right in photo above, with Dharriwaa Elders Group Secretary Virginia Robinson) to the YN team to work on the Food and Water for Life project with the George Institute for Global Health, the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service and the Dharriwaa Elders Group that is in part funded by an NHMRC Ideas Grant. Alicia is bringing great expertise and energy to our work on improving food and water security in Walgett, and we love having her in the team.

Alicia shared how she came to be working with YN and some of her thoughts so far.

What attracted you to working with the Yuwaya Ngarra-li Partnership?

Finding this position feels like it was fate to be honest.

I was on a career break from dietetics, living in Canada and thinking about what my next career step would be when I returned to Australia. I knew I didn’t want to work in the hospital system again as a clinician and I didn’t want to return to individual consultations. While in Canada, I’d been learning about First Nations people in Canada and how colonisation had impacted them in a similar way to the Australian context. I also learned about the unethical nutrition experiments that were conducted in Residential Schools and the horrific treatment that First Nations people of Canada, particularly children, have endured. I felt really inspired to get more involved in my own Aboriginal culture, learn more about our history and culture and hopefully find a job working with mob.

When applying for jobs to return to Australia, I’d actually applied for a different research position working with mob at The George Institute for Global Health (TGI), but it wasn’t nutrition related. Kez, the program lead in the Guunu-maana (Heal) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research team at TGI, contacted me to let me know of another project they were involved with that I might be more suited to and enjoy more. The position was working with the  Yuwaya Ngarra-li partnership on the Food and Water for Life Project in Walgett. I read a lot of articles about the work that was going on in the Yuwaya Ngarra-li partnership and knew I wanted to be a part of this amazing work. Kez was right - it was the perfect project for me. It ticked all the boxes I was looking for plus I would be able to utilise my nutrition and dietetic skills.

I can truly say it has been a dream come true to have the privilege of joining this team to support the amazing work being led by community and to be surrounded by such inspiring and supportive people. 

What have been your experiences of working in Walgett?

Visiting Walgett has been amazing. Everyone has been so welcoming. Listening to Elders and other community members talk about what life is like in Walgett and what it has been like in the past; how food systems have changed; the history of the town and the treatment of mob, both in the past and the present, has been so vital to understand the context of what we are working towards and how we should work towards it together. Experiencing the taste and feel of the water supply has also been so valuable in adding to my understand of what the community has had to experience for so long. I grew up & live on the coast of NSW, so visiting Walgett has helped me really appreciating the difference in climate and has helped me think about the different approaches to food production, particularly in terms of growing local fruits and vegetables that will withstand the climate across all seasons.

I love small rural towns, so I look forward to each time I have the privilege of visiting. 

Is Yuwaya Ngarra-li different to other places you've worked?

Yes, it’s been different in a couple of ways. I’ve not had the opportunity to work with a team of predominantly Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander colleagues before. There aren’t many First Nations dietitians across Australia, so I’ve always been the only one in the hospitals I’ve worked in. It’s been so nice to have an enhanced level of cultural understanding in the workplace as well as connecting with other mob, listening to their own experiences and stories and developing cultural bonds with colleagues.

Although as a clinician, my practice was patient-centred, this work has been a bit different in the way research is conducted. Being led by community on their priorities, how they want the work to look, what outcomes they wish to achieve and how they want to share the results or outcomes has been so fulfilling and has allowed me to see the impact that community-led initiatives can have on communities. As well as learning more about Indigenous methodologies and research methods has been a change from the western scientific framework I was taught through university and within the hospital setting. 

What are you hoping to achieve?

I hope for a long career with the Yuwaya Ngarra-li team to see the impact of this great work in the community. I hope to contribute to achieving food and water security for the Walgett community as well as improved health outcomes. I hope to share knowledge, lessons learned and empower other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and researchers to develop community-led solutions to address community concerns. And I hope to inspire and mentor other First Nations peoples to become dietitians and work effectively and collaboratively with mob.