About the speaker
Our speaker today is Ms Leona McGrath.
Leona is the Senior Adviser to the Aboriginal Nursing and Midwifery Strategy. Prior to her current position, she was a Project Officer within the Strategy. The Strategy was developed in 2001 by the NSW State Government to increase the number of Aboriginal nurses and midwives in NSW.
Leona was inspired to build a career on the same advocacy after personally noting the absence of Aboriginals in the Nursing and Midwifery workforce. Upon the completion of her degree, she began her career as a midwife at the Royal Hospital for Women, completing her graduate year with the Malabar Midwives, a caseload practice catering specifically to Aboriginal women and their families.
Leona co-chairs the Rhondanthe Lipsett Indigenous Midwifery Trust Fund, as well as Chair of the Australian College of Midwives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee. In 2014, she was recognised by the Australian College of Midwives and was honoured with the task as Australia’s flag bearer at the International Confederation of Midwives.
Leona holds a Bachelor of Midwifery from UTS and was awarded with the UTS Alumni Award in 2014.
It gives me great pleasure to invite Ms Leona McGrath to deliver the occasional address.
First I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which this great university stands on, the Gadigal and the Guringai People of the Eora Nation. I would also like to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, elders past and present and pay particular acknowledgement to my Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander sisters and brothers who are graduating today. I would also like to acknowledge the Presiding Chancellor Professor Brian Wilson, the Presiding Vice-Chancellor, Professor Shirley Alexander, Dean of the Faculty Professor John Daly, Staff of the faculty and distinguished guests and of course the reason we’re all here today, Graduates and also your families.
Today I would like to share my story, my journey from being a single mum to where I am today. I am a very proud Aboriginal woman, a mother, a grandmother, an artist and a midwife. I grew up in Sydney in the suburbs of Redfern and Waterloo so this is home. But I am originally from Queensland from the Woopaburra People, that’s my grandmother’s people, from great Keppal Island and the Kuku Yalanji People which is up far north Queensland. If I was asked eight years ago to get up here in front of you all to be your occasional speaker, I would’ve made every excuse in the world and run a mile. I’m still a bit nervous, but I took a leap of faith and I made that decision that I wanted to make a better life for myself and my children to become a midwife and to follow my dream. Unknown to me I am not the first midwife in my family. My mother was always interested in researching our family history. And my mum, whilst I was studying, I found this out; my great aunt was accepted as a trainee to complete midwifery studies at the South Sydney Hospital in 1938. On completing her studies, Nana Muriel went home to Queensland to work in our communities caring for our people, so learning this along with my wonderful family, friends who are here today helped me get through my studies and it’s not an easy feat to study and complete your studies, so I commend you all on such a wonderful accomplishment.
My passion for midwifery was first ignited when I was 16 years old, I saw my 15 year old sister give birth to her first child, a beautiful little girl “Lailani”, what an incredible privilege to be part of, supporting a woman while she gives birth to a baby and I thought to myself that maybe, maybe, big maybe, that I could do that but I was a bit of a wild child. I left school when I was 14 years old and I too had my children early and I had always said that through my own not so great experiences, it would’ve been a whole lot different if there was another black face in the clinics or better yet whilst I was having my babies, I remember being in the clinic feeling so isolated, feeling judged and feeling an outcast but this is what women in our family did, we had our babies early so that was all very normal for me. At this time I didn’t think that one person could make a difference.
Over the years I’ve worked in various positions whilst having my kids, but these were all just jobs to pay the bills and help raise my children not my passion. So in 2005 I heard about the Bachelor of Midwifery being offered here at UTS so I took that leap of faith and I made the decision to undertake my midwifery studies. By this time my daughters were teenagers and I sat my girls down and I said “so I want to be a midwife and I am going to be a student for the next three years” and they sat there and then they looked at me and they said “you’re mad” so I also sat back and thought about it and I thought “you’re only saying that because we’re going to be poor” but we survived. So in 2006 me and my son, we both started school, I started University and my son started kindy. So as a young Aboriginal woman I knew of the disparities between Aboriginal people and the rest of the population in our country but my studies really opened my eyes to this. I knew that if I could make one Aboriginal woman’s pregnancy experience better than my own, I knew that it would be all worth it.
I remember I said earlier that I didn’t think one person could make a difference, whilst I was studying that started changing for me. So one of the proudest days of my life was my graduation, I remember lining up like you all did today and getting ready and my name got called out, I could hear my kids screaming out and my friends and family and I stepped up onto the stage and I just thought to myself “don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t trip, don’t trip” so everyone did really well today.
After my graduation I worked three years in clinical roles and then in 2011 it was quite a difficult year. We lost our beautiful mother to cancer at the very young age of 57. So this too was confirmation that I had made the right decision and took that leap of faith. Our Aboriginal population currently sits at 3% and our nurses and midwives we only represent 0.9% of the workforce. The Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders of Nurses and Midwifes is our national professional body but conservatively estimate that we will require an additional 6000 nurses and midwives to reach parity. If we are going to close the gap, it’s imperative and I don’t think its negotiable that we increase our workforce, as Aboriginal people are more likely to access healthcare services if there’s an Aboriginal person working there and I believe you all have a fantastic opportunity to be part of this by providing culturally safe services to our people, I encourage all non-aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people to get to know your Aboriginal colleagues and learn from them and if you’re not sure, ask! But also remember that in NSW alone there are over 250 tribes so we don’t know everything Aboriginal. I hope and I believe that we can all work together to build a healthier future for our country and all of our brothers and sisters will have longer and healthier lives.
Also in 2011 I moved into my current position at the Ministry of Health. After being at the ministry for three and a half years I secured a permanent position as the Senior Adviser of the NSW Aboriginal Nursing and Midwifery Strategy, making this position a permanent fixture in the office shows a strong commitment that increasing our workforce is firmly on the agenda of NSW Health. During my time at the ministry I’ve grown both personally and professionally. My passion is now shifted and I have a real desire to increase our workforce so I feel quite blessed to be in my current position. Our strategy offers cadetships and scholarships to Aboriginal people to undertake undergraduate nursing and midwifery studies. To date we have graduated over 104 students and I am very proud to say that I am one of those graduates and how wonderful, what a great day for UTS that they have an Aboriginal midwife doing the occasional address and they have four Aboriginal nurses graduating today and three of those are our cadets, very proud they’re like my other children.
Midwifery has provided so many opportunities for me and in 2012 I was so blessed to support my daughter while she gave birth to her first child my beautiful grandson Raymond James. Being able to say that I caught my grandson was a truly unbelievable experience and it’s also confirmation yet again that what I did was the right thing. And as you can guess I have a particular interest in increasing our midwifery workforce as we have just over 200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander midwives across the country.
Although I’m not working clinically I’m still involved in midwifery. I’m the Co-chair of the Rhodanthe Lipsett Midwifery Trust Fund. The trust was established by the Australian College of Midwives back in 2012. Rhodanthe is an 83 year old midwife who’s been a lifelong advocate for our people in increasing our workforce. We’re still building our trust up, we offer scholarships to Aboriginal people undertaking midwifery studies last year we were able to offer five students scholarships.
I’m also the Chair of the Australian College of Midwives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Advisory Committee. Amongst these amazing opportunities that I’ve had, last year I was supported by the NSW’s Chief Nurse and Midwife Susan Pearce to go to Prague. The College asked myself and another Aboriginal midwife that’s on the board if we would design a piece of art to go on a pashmina as part of the Australian costume so there are over 250 different countries represented at the conference and they asked me to be the flag bearer, it’s one of the most amazing and proud days of my life, because I carried the Australian Flag and I draped the Aboriginal flag on my left shoulder and the Torres Strait islander on my right shoulder. But the funniest thing I remember is sitting in the hotel room on my own after a lot of people had put photos up on Facebook and I got all these wonderful comments from my community and they were just saying how proud they were, so that was a really fantastic moment. And yet again I’m walking out with the flags going “don’t trip, don’t trip, don’t trip”.
To top up an amazing 2014 yet another very proud achievement, I was honoured to receive the UTS Alumni Award for excellence for the Faculty of Health. And again me who did not think that I could make a difference, I think that I am making a difference and I really do believe that one person can make a difference. So finally I would like to say, what an amazing journey I’ve been on and since taking that leap of faith and challenging myself to create a better future for my children and myself I believe that I have made a difference. You may not change the world but you can make a difference in somebody’s world so whilst you’re out there on the wards I really encourage you to make every encounter matter. Thank you for the opportunity to share my journey I wish you every success in your career and again congratulations.