Sue Fielding

AIDS Council of Central Australia 1998–2000

    One of the big challenges I found was connecting with the Aboriginal community. There was a sense of there being separate health services, and almost no representation of that community in the AIDS Council ... One of the happiest moments I had was when we established a good connection with an Aboriginal health worker ... It was quite a breakthrough moment ... because the Aboriginal community was quite difficult to engage with ... because of people’s impressions and assumptions that HIV was a gay disease, and that kind of thing.

    I was the manager of ACOCA for two years from 1998 to 2000. I had been in Alice for about five years when I took this job. I had come from Sydney. In the time that I was in Sydney, I was quite affected by HIV/AIDS amongst my friendship group, but also I was involved with Ankali as an emotional support volunteer. I felt like I was somehow knitted into the community and that it was very much a part of what was going on in Sydney at that time.

    When I came up to Alice, the profile of ACOCA was not particularly high. One of the things that I wanted to do when I took the job was to raise the profile of not just the organisation but the issue that it was dealing with. That was a real challenge. What I found was that there just wasn’t a lot of conversation going on about HIV in the health sector, and almost a sense of secrecy. There was no talk of HIV in Aboriginal communities – it was kept quiet. It was a bit like stepping back in time. So I felt that our role, really, was to bring the conversation up into a whole range of areas, and that’s what we tried to do.

    One of the significant issues for ACOCA at that time was to not be subsumed by the NT AIDS Council in Darwin. That was very important to the Board and the local people, people living with HIV, and me, actually. We fought and succeeded to maintain our independence, and consequently it meant that we had to do what we could with fairly small amount of resources.

    We had a youth worker at one time who was trying to engage the community about a needle and syringe exchange operating, and education being offered through that. What I was trying to do was, as I said before, put HIV into the community conversation through inter-agency networks. I felt that there was quite a lot of denial, really. People would go, "Do we have HIV in Central Australia?" And so it was trying to let people know that yes, we do, and ask what does it mean for you? and get those conversations going.

    One of the big issues was connecting with the Aboriginal community. There was a sense of there being separate health services, and almost no representation of that community in the AIDS Council. I’m sure that’s changed a lot now, but back in those days we did make good connections through the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress health service, which was great.

    There was some great people involved. Phil Walcott was involved on the Board. The person that I would say was a standout for me was a guy called Tim. He was incredibly supportive of me. It wasn’t always easy being a woman manager. Even though I’m a lesbian, and the AIDS Council at that time was very much coming out of the gay and lesbian community, it was still a fairly male-dominated and gay male-dominated area. Of course, Alice being Alice, I found that the Board was great and very supportive, so that was okay.

    ACOCA had a good relationship with Clinic 34. That was one of the positive, strong connections that we had. We had Board members from Clinic 34, and we had regular meetings with them, so there was great dialogue.

    The needle and syringe exchange program was a big part of ACOCA’s activities, and so maintaining an open door for those clients was really important. A number of ACOCA clients were living with HIV, and they would come by often. It was a very welcoming and social environment and people dropped in a lot. We were on Gap Road, opposite the Melanka Lodge, right next door to the Gagliardi building.

    We were out and about as much as we could. Any opportunity to get out there and connect with people took place largely around education, letting people know we were there, what we did, advocating for people living with with HIV, and just promoting continued provision of services for people with HIV and Hep C. 

    At the time I worked there, we did not want to join with NTAC. We wanted to remain a separate organisation because of the significant differences between our communities, and the fear of missing out on a fair share of resources – that they will be mostly held up in the Top End. So it was this sense of holding on to that, and we succeeded for the time that I was there. I think there have definitely been benefits in amalgamating the two organisations later on down the track. There wasn’t any negativity between us, and NTAC wasn’t trying to take over; the suggestion was put forward by the funding body. I used to go up to Darwin and the NTAC manager would come down to Alice for meetings with us.

    After I left ACOCA, I maintained contact with people because they were friends, and I saw them around town, but I didn’t really have a close continuing involvement in ACOCA. The person employed by the Board after me, a guy called Eric Michaels, came up from South Australia. I do believe he wasn’t that well, but I also understand that the organisation fell into disarray in this period. I’m not exactly sure of the details of that.

    One of the happiest moments I had was when we established a good connection with an Aboriginal health worker who came in one day to find out more about what we did, and we started working together on disseminating information about safe sex practices for Aboriginal men. That was his interest as a male health worker. It was a breakthrough moment. I count that as one of the most positive things that happened while I was there, because the Aboriginal community was quite difficult to engage because of people’s impressions and assumptions that HIV was a gay disease, and that kind of thing.

    My memory of ACOCA is that it was a really positive sort of environment. People were very committed and worked hard to get out there with information and engage people. The Board was great.