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Spotlight on Melena Atkinson

Who are you, and what is your role at GenV?

My name is Melena Atkinson. I am a proud Queer, Yorta Yorta and Torres Strait Islander woman and GenV’s First Nations Engagement Officer. My role is to facilitate relationships with First Nations organisations with the aim of increasing engagement with ACCHO and First Nations’ people’s visibility within GenV.

How did you get involved with working at GenV?

I previously worked on a different project at MCRI looking at population genetics, specifically genomes and tracking genetic illnesses. I enjoyed working with the team, but I sought a challenge that enabled me to hone my skills, connect to my community and work to my strengths. My manager connected me with GenV, and the rest is history! My current role at GenV is similar to my previous role, but it caters more to my skillset and interests.

Why do you think GenV is a worthwhile program?

I am mindful of the harmful effects that some research programs in the past have had on First Nations people. I am aware that if programs include First Nations peoples’ data, they must be guided by First Nations peoples and their values. I believe that GenV has the potential to create positive change in First Nations’ health outcomes and give agency to First Nations people through First Nations-guided research.

In your experience, how have you seen the communities in which you work change in terms of inclusivity?

With the rise of technology, particularly among young people, new avenues for sharing and accessing knowledge have emerged, transforming communities’ awareness of health outcomes and the impact of knowledge on individuals. As a Queer First Nations woman, particularly one who may be perceived as white-passing, I have often felt excluded from diversity and inclusion conversations due to my appearance. However, technology and online engagement have provided a more inclusive platform that diminishes such discriminatory barriers.

Technology has allowed for greater accessibility, sharing and reduced gatekeeping of health knowledge and academic insights. By removing communication barriers, technology has enabled me to connect more effectively with my community. For example, previously, connecting with an Elder required navigating through many social, cultural, and physical obstacles, making it inaccessible for many. The internal and external cultural barriers made inclusivity discourse inaccessible for many, especially those isolated from their communities. Nevertheless, the way we incorporate inclusivity into our lives has transformed thanks to online engagement, and I see this, particularly in my professional work. Although COVID-19 has hindered my ability to physically connect with my Queer communities because my partner is immunocompromised, technology has allowed me to maintain a connection with my First Nations communities and continue my work, offering a lifeline of support during periods of isolation.

What work do you think our communities still need to do? 

In the context of First Nations communities, historical engagement has often revolved around safeguarding knowledge and connections through gatekeeping practices, particularly in research where fear-based responses due to discrimination have prevailed. To move forward, we must rethink our approach to First Nations knowledge custodianship, make knowledge sharing mow accessible and allow emerging leaders to pave the way for community agency, governance, and ownership over their data. Accessibility issues and community ignorance about data, stemming from experiences of disenfranchisement and deficit thinking, have led to self-imposed isolation, slowing or getting in the way of the transfer of knowledge. By emphasizing the creation of leadership opportunities, First Nations communities can shape the future of data governance, embracing the potential power of data and actively deciding its utilization.

Are there any specific calls-to-action that you think allies can take to make workplaces and community spaces more inclusive?

The foundation of inclusivity lies in cultivating awareness rather than treating it as a mere checklist. It is essential to establish a strong understanding of diverse communities, whether they are CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse), disability, First Nations, or LGBTQIA+ communities. Opportunities for inclusivity should always be rooted in this awareness. Without it, there is a risk of placing individuals from disenfranchised communities into teams and positions that do not provide a sense of safety. In recent years, there has been a significant emphasis on representation; however, without adequate support, it becomes ineffective as it leads to burnout among those striving to support already exhausted communities. The focus should be building safe workplace communities that foster opportunities and empower diverse populations to take ownership, effect change, and hold the space accountable. Most importantly, these mindsets must be reflected and held to standard throughout all levels of leadership.

What advice do you have for others looking to do similar work?

After COVID-19, many of us experienced a sense of isolation, particularly from our communities and support systems, which are invaluable and beneficial. Rebuilding these connections is essential for personal and professional growth.

My advice is to take a moment to reflect on the underlying motivations behind your work. Identify others who have similar values and explore possibilities for collaboration.

When entering a workplace that lacks a foundation of inclusivity, it is crucial to remember that you are not simply fulfilling a job role; you are also representing your community. Take the time to figure out what you want for your community and yourself, and consider how your workplace can contribute to that vision. However, be cautious when deciding where to apply your skills and ensure that the organizations you consider share your values.

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I have received is to approach job interviews as an opportunity to determine if the workplace reflects your values and will empower you and your community through your work. Passion, dedication, and resilience alone are insufficient to promote inclusivity; you need the support of your workplace and colleagues, who must share the same passion in achieving common goals. There should be a strong focus on fostering opportunities for individuals from diverse communities.

Saujanya Gumidyala
Article by Saujanya Gumidyala