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Because of her – we can! RANZCO celebrates NAIDOC Week

Earlier this week, we celebrated the work of the women and men who participated in the on-the-ground service delivery of the groundbreaking National Trachoma and Eye Health Program. The article focused on the work of two women, Jilpia Nappaljari Jones and Rose Murray, who worked in one of the multidisciplinary teams that methodically covered most of Australia, for screening and treatment of trachoma and other eye conditions.

Today, RANZCO is celebrating the work of Naomi Mayers OAM, a leader and advocate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s rights, whose contributions to health, including eye health, are immeasurable.

In 1957, as a teenager, Mayers started working for the Aborigines Advancement League, one of the earliest Aboriginal organisations, which advocated for equal rights in Australia.

After moving to Sydney, Mayers was active in a number of breakthrough projects in the Aboriginal community in Redfern. Mayers joined the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service in 1972, the first Aboriginal Community-Controlled Health Service in Australia, following its establishment in the previous year.

In 1976, Mayers co-founded and became the convenor of the National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation (NAIHO), an umbrella organisation of Aboriginal Community-Controlled Health Services throughout Australia, the predecessor of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO).

Mayers’ vision for the Community-Controlled Health Services model has shaped the movement in its development, and from the early days of Redfern, emphasised the importance of genuine grassroots control over external administration. These principles were at the heart of establishing the NSW Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council (AHMRC) in 1983, and when she Chaired the committee developing the National Aboriginal Health Strategy (1989).

In her capacity as the convenor of NAIHO, Mayers was heavily involved with coordinating the involvement of AMSs around the country in the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program. From November 1981 to January 1982, Mayers was employed by the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists (RACO, a predecessor to RANZCO) as an Aboriginal Advisor to the Trachoma and Eye Health Committee of the College, in a 10-week contract. In her role, Mayers travelled throughout the country to meet with AMSs and other local organisations about the Trachoma Program, and wrote a detailed report with recommendations for the next phase of the Program.

In the report, Mayers write under the Statement of Principle section:

“The past ten years have seen the establishment and consolidation of the basic principle in Aboriginal Affairs, as being the fundamental necessity for Aboriginal people to assume control of any programmes which are intended to be of benefit to their community.

"In the area of Aboriginal health, the application of this principle has been most dramatically illustrated with the development and proliferation of “community controlled” Aboriginal Medical Services.

"The success of A.M.S.’s is living prof that, given the opportunity, Aboriginal people are not only perfectly capable of controlling their own affairs, but, given adequate resources, are capable of radically omproving their own health situation to a far greater extent that has yet been achieved by “white” initiated and controlled programmes. There is extensive evidence available which proves that aboriginal people will respond more positively to an Aboriginal controlled health programme than one which is run by white people. Indeed, this is recognised by the present Federal Government, the Prime Minister of which [Malcolm Fraser] has stated, “the Government is determined to see a substantial improvement in the health status of Aboriginals. To this end, we are totally determined to se a substantial and increasing degree of Aboriginal involvement in, and control of, the design, control, management, delivery and evaluation of health services provided to them.

Consequently, the same principle must be applied to any programme which is intended to “focus” on the eye health of Aboriginal people.”

Naomi Mayers’ work had deep, long-lasting impact in shaping Aboriginal health policy and practice over the past 50 years. Her influence and dedication to the model of community-control and grassroots ownership continues to resonate today.

Because of her, we can!

Guy Gillor

RANZCO Policy Manager