Witnessing the birth of her niece when she was a teenager planted the seed to Leona McGrath becoming a midwife.
But it wasn’t until years later that she felt confident enough to pursue the profession.
“I just thought how wonderful it would have been if I could have done that but I didn’t think I was smart enough to do it,” she recalls.
A proud Kuku Yalanji, Woppaburra woman, Leona grew up in Brisbane then moved to Redfern in Sydney in 1982 with her mother and siblings, largely due to “brutal” racism.
At the time, the suburb was at the heart of political activism around civil and land rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
It’s also where the Aboriginal Medical Service was established in 1972, the first Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service in Australia, where Leona went on to volunteer as a student midwife and is now a board member.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experienced racism in all forms in public health facilities because they just didn’t feel safe but we had the medical service to come to,” she says.
A single mother of three, Leona had her first daughter when she was 20, an experience that opened up her eyes to gaps in culturally safe care and inspired her to become a midwife to care for women from her community.
“I went into the system and it was an all-white system. I know if there was another black face in that clinic my pregnancy journey would have been a whole different experience.”
At age 36, Leona enrolled in a Bachelor of Midwifery at the University of Technology Sydney.
At the same time, she heard about NSW Health’s Aboriginal Nursing and Midwifery Cadetship program, which provides a study allowance, 12 weeks paid employment in a public hospital, and support from an Aboriginal mentor, with the opportunity to undertake a new graduate position.
“It was about making a difference in our communities because we know that if we can get our pregnant mums and their babies healthy we’re going to make a change in health outcomes between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people,” she says of her motivations.
Leona trained at the Royal Hospital for Women in Randwick, then undertook her graduate year at its specialist Malabar Midwifery Service for Aboriginal families, before obtaining a permanent role at the hospital with another group practice.
There, she was able to demonstrate the importance of having an Aboriginal midwife involved in care and before long many community members began seeking out her services.
A year later, Leona started working at NSW Health as the senior advisor for the Aboriginal Nursing and Midwifery Strategy, running the cadetship program which first gave her a pathway.
“My passion shifted and it was about me supporting and increasing our workforce,” she explains.
Leona was among less than 10 cadets who undertook the program back in 2006.
Last year, the figure increased to almost 200 nursing and midwifery students.
Nevertheless, Leona says numerous barriers persist.
The attrition rate remains high and racism is still a significant problem.
One woman Leona studied with was so traumatised by the racism she experienced in the health system that she was lost to the profession for good.
“It’s making our system a lot more accountable and safer for our people,” Leona says of more Aboriginal nurses and midwives entering the system.
“It’s still really heartbreaking to hear the experiences of some students but that just goes to show how strong and determined and resilient our people are. They’re sticking it out because they know they’re going to make a difference for their community.”
In 2019, Leona took on a new role as Executive Director with the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives (CATSINaM), building on her advocacy.
A large part involves sharing her own story.
“You can’t be it if you can’t see it. It’s imperative that we get out into communities and say ‘yes, we are nurses and midwives’ and be able to show our people that it is possible.”
In 2020, the Year of the Nurse and Midwife, Leona says CATSINaM’s Recognising Our Black Nurses and Midwives taps into truth telling.
“Unfortunately still today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are portrayed in a negative way, that portrait of us in the media is the same old narrative and we want to flip that and start celebrating and highlighting our successes.