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Quiet defiance: An Indigenous health project officer who always meets a challenge

“I can remember my father saying to me as a teenager ‘you’re just a girl, you don’t need an education,’” says Gaye Doolan. Now as the Indigenous Health Project Officer in the School of Rural and Indigenous Health at the Medical School her injunction to others is different: “don’t rule out going back to school, don’t rule out anything!”

Perhaps with an echo of her father’s period-fashioned advice still present, Gaye is still fathoming her inclusion as an ANU inspiring woman.

“Never quite good enough, it’s been a hang-up,” she says, softly spoken and having convinced all but herself that she clearly is good enough, perhaps never more so than in her father’s eyes.

“Dad came to my graduation and he was extremely proud of my achievements but I don’t think he realised how much of a driving force he’d been in saying those throw-away little words, I was just a girl, so education didn’t matter,” she reflects.

“It’s always been there. There probably was a little bit of ‘I’ll show you!’ If somebody puts a challenge there, I’ve got to meet it.”

There is a simple formula that distills the essence of Gaye’s drive: “Whatever I’ve done, I’ve done it to the best of my ability and everything I’ve done I’ve built on and grown from.”

She struggles to recall being asked to do something and saying, ‘no I can’t do it’. “If it’s something I haven’t done, I will always say, ‘I’ll have a go at it’. It’s always been, ‘I’ll have a go’, in work as in life in general.”

Now she applies and communicates that ethic while working to encourage local and regional Indigenous students to consider studying at the ANU, particularly in health-related careers. This work earned her the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Reconciliation in 2011.

Sponsoring her for this award, Professor Amanda Barnard of the ANU Medical School’s Rural Program typically notes “Gaye is very modest and quiet about her achievements.”

Those achievements she cites as Gaye’s mentoring, her hands-on workshop program for Indigenous students from Years 10, 11 and 12 from the ACT and south-east NSW region, her work on numerous committees, her involvement in research and evaluation projects and her presentations of her work at national conferences.

But the capping feature is not only what she does, but how she does it: “Running through all these activities and achievements is Gaye’s knowledge and understanding and her remarkable interpersonal and communication skills. All those who have the fortune of working with her are greatly enriched,” says Amanda.

There is a certain graceful unfolding of Gaye’s life and, as she sees it, the hand of fate working in the background. “I’m a firm believer in fate, that something happens and it leads you to the next position,” she says.

Yet this easy description of her journey and where it has led her veils its difficulty and her poor beginnings. “There was no money. My sister and I can remember having warm milk and bread with sugar sprinkled on it as a meal,” she recalls, adding the upside: “You never went without… Dad bought us new shoes with his tax return.”

Her father, whose misspoken words spurred her, brought riches besides shoes – he brought his Aboriginality.

“My grandmother came over to mainland Tasmania from Flinders Island with her children because her children would always be said to be half castes and living on the islands they were identified, whereas if you moved into mainland Tasmania you could meld into the community more and your children wouldn’t have that stigma,” she explains.

“I loved to listen to her, her stories, her life and how she lived. This woman did whatever she had to do to keep her family together and put a roof over their head and a meal on the table.”

Tracking down her family history led Gaye to a bachelor’s degree through distance learning at the University of Tasmania.

Her career path to that point had been job-by-job from the age of 15, building her skills and administrative capacities. Having followed her father’s dampening advice (“a secretarial course is always good to fall back on, you can go and work in an office”) she started work in the mid-1960s as a junior officer clerk at an electrical service company in Tasmania, followed at age 17 by four years as a Communicator in the Women’s Royal Australian Navy.

She became a WRAN and “worked in the communications centre in the Vietnam war days, so we had our ships going up to Vietnam, the troop carriers, it was a busy time.” But, she points out, “At that stage women didn’t go to sea.”

Her last two years of service were spent in Sydney as a communications officer secretary with a promotion to a Leading WRAN. Straight from the Navy, she landed a job with the Australian Institute of Building whose offices moved from Sydney to Canberra in 1973.

“I’m a firm believer in fate,” she says. “The day I was leaving the Navy I was asked whether I was interested in working in the Captain’s office. I thought, ‘come back and work as a civilian for the Navy?’ But the Captain was leaving the Navy at the same time and he wanted somebody at the Australian Institute of Building who knew what naval life was like to work with him on civvy street.”

During her four years with the Institute she met and married her Irish-born husband and they now have three children (two girls and a boy) all of whom proudly identify as Aboriginal.

She followed up her Building Institute work with stints at a computer services firm, a data entry business, the Australian Federal Police, solicitors Sly and Weigall, and then spent 12 years working for the AMA (Australian Medical Association) mainly in secretarial and administrative roles.

Her father was now firmly in the camp of ardent admirer but there were others who unwittingly supplied the prod of “I’ll-show-you” ambition to Gaye’s stride. “There were younger employees with university degrees, with no experience but with an attitude of being God’s gift to the universe and a look of – what have you got?” she recalls.

“I thought, well, what I’ve got is a lifetime of experience.”

Enter Dr Keith Barnes, aged 72, obstetrician and gyneacologist, who had gone off and done a master’s in fine arts and was thinking of doing a PhD. “I still think of him and wonder if he ever finished it. He was hoping to have it before he was 80 and, I thought, ‘well if he could be thinking of doing a qualification into his 70s, surely I could think about doing an undergraduate degree in my 50s’”.

Thus inspired, in 2008 Gaye turned her interest in family history into a Bachelor of Arts (Aboriginal Studies). “I had never written an assignment before, but I did it in six years, did two subjects a semester, majoring in indigenous studies and philosophy.”

Growing in confidence, these were purple days for Gaye whose commencement of studies coincided with her appointment in 2002 as Program Officer, General Practice Education & Training (GPET). Helping her to realise her worth, a general practitioner she had worked with at the AMA, Dr Jenny Thomson, urged her to apply for the position.

“Jenny has always been a great mentor to me,” says Gaye. “GPET is probably something I wouldn’t have looked at. Jenny said, ‘Gaye, you’ve got the skills!’ She helped me to have belief in myself.”

Other inspirers float into the frame. She mentions Jenny Reath, Professor of General Practice at the University of Western Sydney, with whom she also worked: “she’s another great mentor, her commitment to Aboriginal health just blows me away.”

She goes on to mention two Aboriginal women that stand out – Ada Parry, a cultural educator and artist who lives in Darwin, and Mary Martin, also a cultural educator in Brisbane, from Stradbroke Island.

She cites their years of commitment to Aboriginal health. “To come through it year after year and sometimes having to listen to the racist remarks that they have tolerated. Well before ‘Closing the Gap’ was even on the horizon, they were there doing it.”

For Gaye, her own Aboriginality is of abiding importance. “Dad never formally established his Aboriginality. He said people who knew him knew who he was, he didn’t need a piece of paper to tell him who he was.”

She has the piece of paper but still parries questions about her skin colour. “People look at me and say, you don’t look Aboriginal.”

“My answer to that is – what do I have to look like to be Aboriginal? Yes, I’ve got fair skin and, yes, I’ve got blue eyes and I didn’t grow up knowing I was Aboriginal. But for me to identify as being Aboriginal, it’s to say to people very clearly – ‘we’re not dead’. I’m standing up for my ancestors and saying, ‘I still carry their blood, yes we’re still alive!’

Written by Garry Sturgess and published with the kind permission of the Australian National University’s Gender Institute.