“It’s personal” Derby-born Lynn Henderson Yates discusses the highs and lows of her time as DAHS CEO

Published on Wednesday, 15 December 2021 at 5:04:49 AM

“It’s a bit jelly-like, it’s moving constantly and you have to keep the jelly together”  


DAHS CEO Lynn Henderson-Yates discusses the Aboriginal health service on the eve of her exit 

For Derby born and raised Dr Lynette Henderson-Yates, returning to Derby as the CEO of Derby Aboriginal Health Service seven years ago was coming full circle. 

“You get to a certain point in life where you feel you have some skills, some knowledge to give back to your own community,” says Henderson-Yates, speaking to the Shire on her last day in the DAHS office. 

“For me it’s not about how high you can go, it’s about how positions can contribute to work I am passionate about. I have never planned my work life, it sort of evolves itself.” 

It was studying for two years as a teenager in Perth that gave Henderson-Yates “a taste” of the racism directed against Aboriginal people in mainstream Australia. 

Learning about Indigenous people living under colonial rule around the globe in teacher’s college set her on a varied career of more than 40 years working in Aboriginal affairs and education. 

 A non-Aboriginal student who predicted she’d fail to complete her degree because of her race and background also spurred her on, despite having two young children and feeling close to burn-out. 

“When I started Aboriginal studies, I thought “What, this happened to us?” I nearly fell off my seat I was so shocked. Because in Derby we all just live together, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. I didn’t think about anything more broadly and it shattered that comfortable fish-bowel thing.” 

“We are very happy in this community, but to learn this you couldn’t not do anything with it because it changes you forever. Once you’ve learnt it you realise you’ve got to be part of the solution... you actually have no choice.” 

Henderson-Yates illustrious career included a position as deputy vice-chancellor of Notre Dame university; the first Aboriginal person to hold that title at any Australian university. 

“I couldn’t walk away, living a comfortable life, knowing that all these things have happened and all these injustices are continuing, and not be a part of the solution,” she says, of choosing to apply for the role of CEO at DAHS.  

“So I am not focused on my career perse, it’s never been a “career” in that sense – it's been my passion and my mission in life.” 

In Henderson-Yates seven years at DAHS she has learnt that it is the holistic care of clients that has the biggest potential to make lasting impact. 

“If you’re not strong socially, mentally and emotionally it impacts on us physically, it impacts on our family, and it impacts on our children. Social and emotional well-being is the crux of Aboriginal health,” she says. 

“You’ve got to have a job - the men especially need employment - but so do women. You need to be able to feed your family on a regular basis. Your children need to go to school regularly, and you have to feel you have a voice in your community – to feel that respect.”  

Next year DAHS is expanding its social and well-being unit with five to seven new hires, and has plans to expand its successful art therapy programme to include music as well.  

“It’s very complex, if even one of those areas breaks down – employment, schooling, food, respect – it affects the whole family. And on top of that you’ve got inter-generational trauma," says Henderson-Yates. 

“You can’t escape the weight of what happened in previous generations. I have lived it with my own family and it remains with us in the present. So how do we really get our teeth into that in a meaningful way?” 

“Social and emotional well-being is the crux of Aboriginal health”   

At DAHS Henderson-Yates has found empowering the autonomy and independence of her staff helps the medical body function across the board. 

DAHS drivers are often discreetly assessing clients in the community and encouraging them to hop in the van and get a lift to the clinic if they spot issues of concern. Nurses could do a side-hustle as detectives, Henderson- Yates reckons, as they head out every day to find and treat their clients, using the time to medically assess anyone who crosses their path (“The sexual health nurse is often scanning family members for ulcers or skin trouble, there’s no silos in Aboriginal health”). 

“Everybody in this organisation is a leader in different ways, it’s a ‘we’ thing,” says Henderson-Yates. 

“I know nothing about infectious control in terms of cleaning, so I will go to the cleaners, the experts, and say “ok tell me, advise me, help me” and that applies to everything here.” 

As a long-term local, the crime issues in Derby feel personal and “heart-breaking” to Henderson-Yates. She believes only a small group of juveniles are responsible, and the problems are not confined to the Kimberley. 

“I think what is challenging Derby and the world more generally is a loss of community,” she says. 

“What does it mean to be part of a community? It means care, it means looking out of one another, and that is challenged by social media, and challenged by the speed of technology, which the human brain cannot keep up with. So everything is out of whack.”  

Henderson Yates says to get on top of crime issues in Derby, something “as exciting, as fun” as crime needs to be found to occupy the affected children. 

“Otherwise they’re not going to give up, unless the community comes up with something that gives them equal endorphins.”  

After DAHS Henderson-Yates will be heading down to Bunbury, but returning every few months to Derby, where her mother – and roots – remain deep.  

At 64, some family members are asking her to slow down, but for a self-confessed “workaholic” it’s likely another meaty job will be on the horizon eventually. 

“It’s a bit jelly-like,” Henderson-Yates concludes, of her time at the helm of Derby Aboriginal Health. “It’s moving constantly and you have to keep the jelly together...”

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