Bringing a First Nations Perspective to the Program




Latest News

Print article
Jan 14, 2020
by Claire Kidwell
Register for our Newsletter and stay up to date
Register now
Bringing a First Nations Perspective to the Program

Cultural practice advisor Louisa Whettam discusses nutrition in First Nations communities Louisa Whettam (right) presents a painting to Salzburg Global Seminar as a gift

“I think that this is the first step in moving forward for First Nations people at a global level,” said Louisa Whettam, a cultural practice advisor for Opportunity Child.

Whettam, a descendant from the Wiradjuri tribe in New South Wales, Australia, said she was honored to represent the First Nations Peoples of Australia at the Salzburg Global Seminar program, Halting the Childhood Obesity Epidemic: Identifying Decisive Interventions in Complex Systems.

She spoke with Salzburg Global just after sharing an emotional and personal anecdote with participants about the impact of colonization on the health of First Nations people, as well as land and food resources.

The colonization of Australia led to many conflicts, deaths, and settlers seizing the land of First Nations people. Whettam said, “[The colonizers] would just gather the people and put them in an area where they now had to live. But then [the First Nations people] also had to work the land for those who now occupied the land. So, that means vegetation was taken away. They had to clear their own vegetation, the food source that they were living off.”

Whettam said First Nations people employed by settlers would be paid with staples of food - often flour and sugar. “So, nutrition then became really terrible for First Nations people.”

The history of forced removals and loss of land and culture have all contributed to intergenerational trauma. The impact of the Stolen Generations, where Aboriginal Australian children were forcibly removed from their homes and put into institutions, has led to a “whole generation of lost adults who have never connected back to their family,” according to Whettam.

In 2017, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare published a report called “A picture of overweight and obesity in Australia.” The report indicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and adolescents were more likely to be overweight or obese than non-indigenous children and adolescents. 

The report said in 2012-13, 30 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 2-14 were living with obesity or overweight, compared with 25 percent of their non-Indigenous counterparts.

In August 2019, ABC reported on the rising trend of children in Australia experiencing malnutrition. The Food Bank of Australia estimated one in five children had gone hungry in the past year. Whettam said the affordability of food was a factor, and people won’t buy food with nutritional value if it is too expensive. Meanwhile, takeaway food from fast-food restaurants and other processed food remains cheap.

In her work at Opportunity Child, Whettam helps ensure Australian children can succeed within their own communities.

The organization provides practical support to backbone teams and community structures; it uses its social innovation hub to help communities find solutions to complex issues; it advocates with “One Voice” to drive systems change.

Whettam said, “If you have children that have obesity or malnutrition, then that is a concern because they are not thriving within their own community.”

Whettam is a respected representative of the Warril Yari-Go Committee and is passionate about systemic change and how it impacts First Nations people. But she’s not sure if she has the answers yet on how to tackle childhood obesity among First Nations people, suggesting other factors have to be taken into account as well.

She said, “How do you fix that? Like, how do you look at the complexity of all the policies that have been made in the government that still continue to oppress a whole culture? How do you turn that around? I don’t know.”

Whettam hopes to find more answers and clarity in Salzburg, which she described as a “fantastic opportunity” to bring her perspective forward and learn from other experts around the world.

She said, “I think this is a great opportunity to make friends, where you can have friends from all around the world that can stand with you when you get back to your country [or] when I go back to my country and challenge and disrupt that system. I think that’s pretty awesome in moving forward.”

A Gift for Salzburg Global

At the end of the program, Whettam presented Salzburg Global a piece of Indigenous art she had created. The painting was a way for her to say “Thank you” for being able to attend and provide a perspective from the First Nations Peoples of Australia. Whettam said she wanted to depict the story of Salzburg Global, the past, present, and future.

In her own words, we asked Whettam to describe what different parts of the painting symbolized. She said, “Salzburg Global Seminar is the big middle piece, and the globe represents all the people coming together… The U-shaped people sitting around that circle represent the people from all different countries coming together and being a part of a [program].

“The footprints represent the journey going there, but also the journey going back… The red dots represent the topic, and they’re red because, as the world, we all need to be looking at this [topic] because it’s an epidemic. I also had the cross-hatching around the globe, representing the complex systems that we’re talking about.

“Then I had other dots representing the conversations that we’re all having together. There are ocean-like… coloured dots going out to the outer circles, and that’s the conversation carrying on outside of the [program]. We're taking back to our country all the warnings and all the knowledge from what's being given to us from other leaders around the world.

“Also, we're cross-pollinating the conversation; we're still having conversations with those who we met there, but they might know some key people who could help us create partnerships or collaborations. That's why you see all those dots crossing…

“You'll see white [dots] that are keeping the conversation in place so that it's not being swallowed up by other conversations. It's protecting that conversation so that you can bring it back and talk about the issue in your own country.

“Then the outer circles represent your country, and the handprint in the middle represents the children. And that's looking at the child in the future, but also the child now…  that's who it's impacting on - future children, children in the present and it has also impacted on past children… Around that hand, I have the red dots and yellow dots representing the hard conversations we're having within complex systems... And then you got cross-hatching around that as well that represents the government or complex systems that you have to deal with around that topic. The different colored outer dots that surround the painting depicts all peoples from around the world.”

Clare Shine, vice president and chief program officer at Salzburg Global, received the painting on the organization’s behalf. Shine said, “It’s fascinating to see how Louisa has used Indigenous Australian art forms to make sense of the complexity and trauma bound up with childhood obesity and depict the long-term impact we hope will radiate from this collaboration. I’m so moved by her generosity in creating this beautiful painting. We look forward to hanging it where as many people as possible can enjoy and learn from it.”

One month on, Whettam is still reflecting on the program she participated in and is still in touch with people she met. Despite feeling out of place at the beginning, the mix of the people in the room left her feeling uplifted.

She said, “I was really inspired by the influence that people had, which they sometimes don't realize that they had in terms of funding, policy, legislation, and decisions that are being made… I don't know if researchers realize this, but they have a massive influence in how that all gets processed. I didn't realize that myself, and I thought that policymakers had the biggest influence. But I now think that researchers have the biggest influence because funders won't give funding unless its evidence-based and the government won't act unless it's evidence-based and all that comes from researchers.

“For me, that is inspiring me to come back to study and become a researcher, especially as a First Nations person, and what influence I can do in the field that will make a better world for future generations of First Nations people in Australia. That has massively influenced me.

“I was also really inspired by the younger people over there. I was blown away by the passion they have. As an older person, the burden is really heavy, especially if you are a First Nations person, from whatever country you're from because of the impact that colonization has had on your people. There is a heavy burden that you carry; you want to see change happening, and you want to see the oppression stop.

“Seeing them and their passion made me realize that they're going to be rising up and they're going to be taking over where you leave off. It's not just about when you finish work, but it's about making sure you're mentoring them, and you're encouraging them and also that they are also encouraging you and mentoring you. It's not just about elders being right and having the power, but we're learning off one another.”

The Salzburg Global Seminar program, Halting the Childhood Obesity Epidemic: Identifying Decisive Interventions in Complex Systems, is part of our Health and Health Care Innovation multi-year series. This program is being held in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.