Conversations / Dr Vanessa Lee

“Still, we rise…as black women do, culturally bonded, spiritually empowered, strength and resilience valuable tools, with integrity and generational humbleness, we are the drivers, backbone, visionaries, feelers, healers, leaders, prophetic with degrees in silence-ness”.

Excerpt from As Black Women Do: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Resilience, Dr Vanessa Lee

Published in Us Women, Our Ways, Our World

Dr Vanessa Lee’s long family heritage comes from Meriam people in the Torres Strait and Yupungathi people in Cape York—so she identifies as both an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.  Vanessa grew up between Mossman and Thursday Island enjoying her days fishing, camping, and being a talented sportswoman.  Her immediate family moved to the Douglas Shire from the Torres Strait, so that they could attend school at Mossman Primary School. Vanessa attended Mossman High School until Grade 10.  She completed Grade 11 and 12 in Cairns.

In her youth, Dr Lee never imagined she would have ended up as a teacher, poet, social epidemiologist, cultural connector and public health sciences researcher along the road to fulfilling her grandmother’s request to ‘help our people’.

Your grandmother was a strong influence in your life?

“A lot of my cultural teachings came from my grandmother—the science of our culture is the connection to country, self, family and community.  It’s about understanding how things work around you and knowing that for whatever you take you must give back.”

“Growing up in the Torres Strait—I loved it because that is where my grandmother lived and she taught us that family is culture, culture is family”.

“You’re taught the importance of listening in silence, how to listen to each other and to the land. You’re taught the importance of understanding the water and listening to the wind”.

And it was listening to her grandmother that led Vanessa down the path of research.

Was there a defining moment that made you chose the direction your life has taken or was it a ‘slow evolution’?

“One day whilst listening to a radio program about indigenous children being taken by the government, my grandmother stood up from gardening, looked at me and said ” they, [Western people] don’t know how to look after our people… you teach them.  You learn their language and you teach them our culture in their language”.

At first Vanessa was stunned. She had spent the last ten years as a teacher. She had a house with her two boys around the corner from her grandmother. She went fishing every other day, she participated in triathlons for fun and was enjoying her life.

“Go learn their language”“the only thing I could think of was to go and do research”, Vanessa said.

Therefore, it was listening to her grandmother that led Vanessa down the path of research.

A few years previously, whilst stranded at the Cairns airport, Vanessa had met Dr Melissa Haswell (now Professor)—an epidemiologist from the University of Queensland, who was in the Torres Strait researching diabetes.  It was this chance meeting that got Vanessa first interested in making a difference through Public Health research.

 “I contacted Dr Haswell and asked her how, do I do what you do”? 

Professor Haswell suggested writing a research proposal based on the social change work that she had set up with the Thursday Island community to combat diabetes and obesity in children, and apply for a Master in Public Health Degree at University of Queensland, which is exactly what Vanessa did.

 “From Dr Haswell’s findings we used a community approach to establish healthy lifestyle programs for children on Thursday Island”, Vanessa said.

“From my MPH I decided to do my PhD. Doing my PhD, working full time, leading a national curriculum network and single parenting, was really hard. How I did not stop studying after my Masters I do not know. I was so determined to make change and to do what my grandmother had asked of me”.

“I was getting to the end of my PhD and I was sitting there thinking—have I done what you asked me to do?”

“It dawned on me that I had become the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to graduate with a PhD in medicine from Griffith University. Parallel to my PhD, I was the first Indigenous Vice President of the National Public Health Association of Australia and the Deputy Chair and later Chair of the Public Health Indigenous Leadership in Education Network, where as part of a team, I was involved in developing and later evaluating the integration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander public health core competencies into the  master of public health programs across Australia.”

However, one of Vanessa’s biggest fears about doing a PhD was that she would lose her cultural identity.

“I would often sit and meditate, asking my ancestors for me not to lose my identity—please don’t let me forget who I am or where I come from,” she said.

“Do I think I’ve done what my grandmother asked me to do—yes I think I’ve done it. However, it’s been really hard and I think she would be humbled to think that her belief in me could lead to making change for our people.”

Vanessa’s creative and academic work is directed towards preventative health and linkages to services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Currently, Vanessa works at the University of Sydney on a number of projects. Dr Lee’s latest work focuses on the health and wellness of indigenous people, and the sexuality and gender diverse population. 

“We want to empower communities to develop and build practices based on a strength-based model that we have developed with them.”  Vanessa explained.  

  • Dr Lee began her public health and education career over 24 years ago as a teacher and a Clean Beach co-ordinator. 
  • Vanessa is one of the founding members of the Australian Indigenous data sovereignty network,
  • Dr Lee is the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Independent Director for Suicide Prevention Australia where she advocates for government policies to provide effective services to reduce suicides for all Australians. 
  • As the Chair of RUOK? Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Council, Vanessa was instrumental in the co-designing of ‘Stronger Together’ – a health promotion conversation campaign to reduce suicides in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people/communities.
  • Dr Lee sits on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander steering committee for DVNSW where she is involved in policy review and advocacy. 
  • In 2005, Dr Lee was awarded an Australian Government award for Outstanding Citizen in the Torres Strait for her social change work with the community.
  • In 2020, Dr Lee accepted the portfolio of the Co-Convenor as the first Indigenous Australian to represent Australia, and the Oceania Indigenous people, at ILGA World – the global federation of LGBTI organisations; ILGA conducts work in various United Nations fora.
  • 2016, Dr Lee was the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander PhD female graduate from the Faculty of Medicine, Griffith University. 
  • From 2005 to 2019, Dr Lee was part of the executive board of the Public Health Indigenous Leadership in Education Network as both the Deputy Chair and the Chair.  In this position she contributed to the development of the public health indigenous core competencies and Dr Lee led the evaluation of the implementation of the indigenous core competencies across the Schools of Public Health which resulted in a number of publications and in particular the ‘how’ of the second Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander core competencies document. 
  • Dr Lee was the first indigenous National Vice-President for the Public Health Association of Australia (2013 to 2015 acting and 2013 to 2015 officially) in the portfolio of indigenous health.  In this position, she advocated for indigenous people to be included in the Australian Constitution – an advocacy that continues today.
  • Dr Lee contributes to policy changes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at different levels of government. 
  • As a cultural broker/ connector, Dr Lee facilitates social impact projects to enhance wellbeing and prevent suicides.
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