Public Health Champion 2021

26 Nov, 2021
Public Health Champion 2021

Associate Professor Heather Came has been named this year’s Kāhui Hauora Tūmatanui Public Health Champion.

The lifetime achievement award bestowed by the Public Health Association of New Zealand recognises her outstanding contribution to public health action. Last year, the award went to Professor Michael Baker.

“It feels like a victory for every person who has stood beside me. It makes me think about the people we have lost and those who have taught me things along the way. They have all chipped into my development and this outcome. And it’s pretty special to receive this award in the time of COVID-19, when much of the focus of public health is on the pandemic,” said Came.

With a background in social justice activism Came began her career in health promotion in Taranaki in the 1990s, co-designing community-centric sexual and mental health promotion programmes that challenged stigma and fostered connection.

In 1993, Came was appointed HIV/AIDS Co-ordinator and Sexuality Educator at Taranaki Area Heath Board. It was so political that the role was sponsored by three senior managers because of ‘the complexity’. The fact that the role had even been created was news in itself. “I was interviewed by media on arrival and talked about gay rights. I didn’t know that you didn’t talk about gay rights in Taranaki, so it ended up on the front page of the newspaper.”

“That’s how I started my public health career, on the fringe, because I didn’t realise that indeed my life as a bisexual feminist was on the  margins. I just thought it was ordinary. In hindsight I had been living in a bubble. I worked to establish myself in that community and do public health work for the next 10 years before moving on,” she said.

Came, who was among New Zealand’s first AIDS workers, recalls the climate of fear that existed in the 1990s. “People knew so little and were so terrified. There was this story when I arrived about a plumbing issue at the hospital and none of the plumbers would work on it as they knew that someone in the hospital had HIV and thought they might catch it from the plumbing.”

From there, she worked with the Health Promotion Forum before leading a large health promotion team in the Waikato – finally moving into Māori health and witnessing institutional racism, before making the transition to academic life.

Following a master’s in political science, Came graduated from Waikato Management School in 2012 with a PhD that pioneered a new way of mapping racism and enabled targeted anti-racism interventions. The following year she founded STIR: Stop Institutional Racism, a growing social movement committed to ending racism in the public health sector.

Came is currently head of the Public Health Department at the AUT School of Public Health and Interdisciplinary Studies, where she continues to publish prolifically on institutional racism, anti-racism, critical policy analysis, and the application of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, as well as delivering practical teaching and training in these areas. She is also a co-principal investigator on Marsden Fund research about re-imagining anti-racism for the health sector.

Came has presented expert evidence to the Waitangi Tribunal, and coordinated and presented shadow reports to United Nations human rights committees. Her learning has contributed to the recognition of institutional racism as a modifiable determinant of health and her advocacy efforts have contributed to the development of a forthcoming national action plan on racism.

In 2020, she and colleagues published Critical Tiriti Analysis – a new methodology to assess Te Tiriti compliance. This public health framework is being used, both prospectively and retrospectively, widely within the health, public, and research sectors.

“I’ve been blessed to learn about Te Tiriti and racism as an apprentice over many years. There is no shortcut in this work, it is about embracing reflective practice and being guided, and observing. I am learning all the time and have a long way to go, but I value the time of observing others for years and years. I think there is more to being anti-racist than reading White Fragility,” said Came.

“Anti-racism isn’t a feeling, it’s a verb, it’s a doing word. It’s about having the courage to have a go and reflect, and have another go. And it’s extraordinary where that approach can take you.”

Came is a proactive member of the public health community. She has organised countless seminars and conferences. She co-created Te Tiriti-based Futures and Anti-Racism 2020 – an open access webinar series that attracted 15,000 registrations. She is currently planning the 2022 series.

After stepping down from the Public Health Association Executive, she founded the AUT branch of the PHA, now the largest and most active in Aotearoa. She has championed remits to address bullying and supported the PHA’s movement to becoming a Te Tiriti-based organisation. She actively mentors colleagues and is teaching the next generation of critical public health practitioners at AUT.

Came celebrated the Public Health Champion Award with her public health village of 30 years, deliberating reaching out to people from every chapter to ‘talk public health’ and celebrate the discipline online.

“We used to do stuff that was a bit provocative for some people, like issuing a sexual health warrant of fitness that was valid until midnight, because after that we couldn’t be responsible for them. There are a hundred stories of the things we would get up to and the things we’ve learnt about engaging with communities and moving forward issues, advocacy and equity,” she says.

“Public health practice has a really broad scope. It’s the art and science of supporting communities to take control of their own health. And health is much broader than managing diabetes and whether you smoke. Health is about wellbeing in the fullest sense.”

Previous recipients of the Public Health Champion Award include Paratene Ngata, George Salmond, Papaarangi Reid, Catherine Healy, John Raeburn, and Cindy Kiro, who is now Governor-General of New Zealand.

PHA CEO Grant Berghan, also a previous recipient, presented Came with the award this year.

“Heather is an exceptional human being, and she works tirelessly to make this world a better place for us all. He Rangatira ia.”

Came is committed to the kaupapa of advancing public health and racial justice. She is Tangata Tiriti – a person of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

“It’s a privilege to do anti-racist mahi, but there is no shortcut. Trust takes a long time to build and every time you make a new connection you start from the beginning. It’s not a badge, it’s a dynamic process and you can backslide, so you need to keep focused on your own practice,” said Came.

“There’s lots of folk to learn from, and lots to learn. I’ll be learning until the end of my days.”