Joanne Bolton: Respect through allyship

Jo Bolton

Joanne Bolton: Respect through allyship

Ms Joanne Bolton is an Interprofessional Education and Practice Development Fellow for the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, and was the recipient of a University Teaching Excellence Award for Indigenous Education 2020.  Joanne's work seeks to support students and staff widely throughout the faculty to develop the behaviours, values and attitudes required for collaborative practice.

How did you come to work in this area?

My current work area in ‘collaborative practice’ is about helping students and staff to work effectively with people receiving care and other healthcare team members.  Within this area of collaborative practice, I am deeply passionate about inclusion and diversity as essential for people learning and working together.

Specifically, being an Indigenous ally is something that I try to be. I don’t hold this as just a word – in fact, I feel uncomfortable calling myself an ‘ally’, rather I use the language ‘I’m trying to be an ally’ as I’m don’t think it’s something that I get to decide that I am.

Before moving to academia 10 years ago, I was a clinical physiotherapist for 11 years.  With this background, it helps me to think of ‘allyship’ perhaps a little like the concept of ‘patient-centred care’; whilst every clinician might like to say that they are patient-centred, it is not you, but your patients who decide if you truly are ‘patient-centred’.  So being an ally is something I work at, and I know that I still have much to learn.  I am very grateful for the support and guidance of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues, friends and community members who so generously share their knowledges with me, and for helping me continue to learn when I get it wrong. I acknowledge the ongoing connections to culture and country of the Traditional Owners of the lands I have lived and worked on in my life including Darumbal, Gadigal and Wurundjeri peoples and I pay respects to all Elders past and present across all First Nations communities.  My learning of ‘trying to be an ally’ has helped me incredibly within my work area of collaborative practice, teaching me about reciprocity, relationships, respect, resilience and deep connections.

Which of the MDHS Faculty values speaks the most to you and why?

Respect and integrity, I think, are two faculty values that underpin the concept of allyship.

Teaching cultural safety practice requires more than just ‘putting content in’ an existing curriculum – the cultural interface1 is a complex and beautiful space but it takes time, reflection and ongoing commitment. It’s critical that the learning is respectfully included, while minimising the burden on our First Nations colleagues to take on more load. In my experience this has required a balance of listening first, and then using your voice to amplify what you’ve heard; learning first, and then contributing with actions that align with your learning.

‘Trying to be an ally’ also implies ongoing action, working with, alongside and guided by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This crosses both within my personal and professional scope of control and influence. In reality, it’s a collection of little, medium and big things throughout the year, every year, that I either actively seek out, or that are already there and just need to be prioritised. I write this at the time leading up to National Reconciliation Action week 2022 with a theme Be brave – make change’, and every action is important in progressing the change our society needs.

In my experience there is no ‘one thing’, rather it’s lots of things, built upon over time. If you are interested in trying to be an Indigenous ally, I urge you to start wherever you are, and build from there.

If you are interested in contributing to change, then something you can do right now is to explore your inner values including your own motives. An Aboriginal activist group in Queensland in the 1970’s collectively framed the often-quoted line “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time; but if you are here because your liberation is tied up with mine, let us work together2.

Are you interested in being an ally to ‘help others’? Whilst I think this is fine as a starting point, and probably most people reading this, by virtue of your professional roles within MDHS, are in some way drawn to ‘helping others’. But you might want to also dig a bit deeper and explore how does being an ally more deeply align with your personal values and beliefs? Like all behaviours, intrinsic motivators that are core to your being are the ones that will keep you going.

For me, trying to be an ally is something that goes deep into my core values about social equity, social justice and deeply wanting to know the truth about the history of this place we call Australia, which I’ve had for as long as I can remember. I want to be a part of more just, fair and healthy society for all.  It’s something I want my kids to know about and care about. Trying to be an ally is something that aligns with the kind of person I want to be in the world, and the kind of world I want to live in.  So, one action you can take is a critical reflection of what does reconciliation and ‘being an ally’ mean to you and your life? To be trying to be an ally is asking yourself the question ‘what does Respect look like in actions, not just words?’

How are you embedding the MDHS Faculty values and standards into your own work?

Being in the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, if we consider that ‘without cultural safety, there is no patient safety for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients3we all need to be braver – and make changes.

Within the Faculty, I’m involved in a number of things that both help me learn more about being an ally, as well as progress teaching and learning in culturally safe practice. I’ve contributed to National Curriculum Frameworks about culturally safe practice, as well as collaboratively leading local teaching and learning areas such as the interprofessional Ways of Knowing program, LINK: ( and Bunjilaka urban cultural immersion activity. This work has respectively engaged with leaders of First Nations communities, helped me learn and helped share the learning.

If you’re reading this and looking for some help to get started in your allyship journey (or extend where you are) did you know we have a faculty two-hour e-module to support staff training “Cultural Safety Toolbox for Health Professionals: Teaching Together in Health Professions Education?” Email me and I’ll happily sort out access for you. Did you know you can come and join the Ways of Knowing program runs in Semester 1 each year?  We have more than 50 tutors across all 10 entry-to-practice disciplines in the faculty participate in this program, which is as much about supporting educators learning as is it students learning because culturally safe practice is everyone’s business.  Talk to your IPEP disciplinary representative if you want to find out more and would like to join!

If you’re also wanting to ‘be an ally’, the reality is that there are lots of things you can do right now. You can start by educating yourself about the issues – read, watch, listen something written, developed, designed, produced by First Nations peoples and communities. You can attend something in your local area – there are multiple events spanning across all sectors all year round – sports, arts, education, dance, film, comedy to name a few.

  • I suggest starting with your natural interests and connect with local communities inclusive of First Nations communities around this. I think allyship is more sustainable when it’s true to your authentic self rather than looking for a ‘experience of allyship’ outside of your usual life. Here’s a useful resource to start the process
  • Whist I don’t think there is a blueprint to how any one person might go about this, Yorta Yorta woman and academic, Dr Summer May Finley,  has written this wonderful 2-page guide of 7 principles to get started of ‘How to be a Good Ally’
  • For those who love nothing more than a good book for learning, Dr Clare Land’s ‘Decolonising Solidarity’ is a must read, and now exists as a super helpful website
  • While you’re learning, you can engage with ‘deep listening’, shared here by Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann AM as ‘dadirri’ in the Ngan’gityemerri language group as a “gift to the nation…Deep Inner Listening and quiet still awareness…helping us all to connect to what is truly important” (a link to a beautiful 3 min video here):

I’ve also heard Deep Listening described along the lines of ‘listening with not just your ears, but your heart as well’ (note here that I’m aware that a similar concept is known by other terms in other languages, and I’m still learning).

Start with a passion you enjoy, and seek music, film, reading, poetry, sport produced by First Nations peoples and communities and enjoy the learning!

Within your work, you can take a critical lens to your Learning and Teaching:

  • Is your curriculum a safe and inclusive setting for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff?
  • Whose perspectives are included and prioritised?
  • Can you raise discussions within Learning and Teaching Committees or other governance systems to support the leadership we are so privileged to have by Indigenous academics?
  • What scope of influence do you have within your profession?

If you are seeking to develop knowledge in your journey of being an ally, this fantastic blog post by Galmilaroi woman Amy Thunig, Associate Lecturer at Macquarie University has a wonderfully curated selection of educator resources “But I’m not Aboriginal, I don’t know how to do this stuff” :

Joanne Bolton is an Interprofessional Education and Practice Development Fellow for the Faculty of MDHS, and was the recipient of a University Teaching Excellence Award for Indigenous Education 2020

  1. Nakata, M (2007) The Cultural Interface. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 36(S1), 7-14, doi:10.1017/S1326011100004646
  2. Keynote Address. Dr Lilla Watson. A Contribution to Change: Cooperation out of conflict conference: Celebrating Difference, Embracing Equality, Hobart: 21-24 September 2004
  3. Australian Health Professions Regulatory Association (AHPRA), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Strategy, 2020.