Heart Foundation
(Image: Getty/andrei_r)

Lyn Dymier spent nearly two decades working in Indigenous health. For the past eight and a half she was Aboriginal health manager at the Heart Foundation, where she helped develop cultural awareness within the organisation and worked to build relationships with community groups. Then, two weeks ago, Dymier was told without warning that she was being let go. She wasn’t alone. Corey Turner, one of the foundation’s few other Indigenous employees, was also shown the door that day.

“It just felt really strange and strategically stupid that they laid us off like that,” Turner said.

In a statement, the foundation told Crikey the employees were made redundant as part of an organisational review. “The redundancy process considered positions [and] the organisation’s requirements; [it] did not focus on individuals,” the foundation said. But several former Indigenous employees have raised concerns about the organisation generally, arguing its recent history has been marred by an exodus of Aboriginal staff, changes to specialist programs and difficulties meeting reconciliation targets.

Working against ‘cultural blindness’

Every year, the Heart Foundation spends millions on research and public health campaigns around cardiovascular health in Australia. Dymier and Turner’s roles were critical; the foundation’s own website acknowledges that Indigenous Australians are 70% more likely to die from circulatory diseases than non-Indigenous Australians. Heart disease accounts for 12% of deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

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But while heart disease is a huge public health issue for Aboriginal people, past employees say the organisation itself has struggled to engage with Indigenous Australians. When Vicki Wade started working at the Heart Foundation in 2011, she found it jarring that the posters always depicted “Anglo-Celtic, good-looking people”. Wade was determined to change the foundation from within, and during her five years there, she made her mark as manager of its National Aboriginal Health Unit.

Staffed entirely by Aboriginal people, the group developed close ties with Indigenous health bodies across the country, and put proposals directly to the board. Wade also believes the unit’s position within the foundation, and the commitment given to it by then-CEO Lyn Roberts helped change the culture of the whole organisation.

“I changed the organisation from what I thought was one with cultural blindness to a six or seven out of ten,” Wade said.

But then Wade got sick, and had to scale back her leadership responsibilities with the unit. Soon, the group was amalgamated with the equity unit, and eventually the staff were gone and the budget reallocated elsewhere. Daniel James, who worked at the foundation as national Aboriginal health manager until 2017, said the unit hasn’t met since he left.

When asked about the fate of the unit, the foundation did not elaborate on why it was wound down, but told Crikey: “We are currently reviewing our entire approach to achieving maximum outcomes in terms of Indigenous heart health. This includes Indigenous external committees, advisory boards and internal staffing.”

Getting a bad RAP

According to former employees, the Heart Foundation has consistently struggled to meet elements of its Reconciliation Action Plans. The RAPs are a list of targets and policies developed by the organisation, aimed to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation and engagement.

The foundation told Crikey it had met its last two RAPs. But employees like Wade, Turner and James — who all worked on implementing the RAP — claimed the organisation had failed to meet several of its targets. Further, responsibility for many actions in the RAP was placed on the now-dormant unit.

Indigenous employment is an area the organisation has struggled in. A key action in the Heart Foundation’s most recent RAP from 2016-2018 was to investigate opportunities to improve and increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment outcomes within the workplace. But while the foundation employed 11 Indigenous staff in 2016, it now says it has three. Former employees Crikey spoke to for this article disputed this, saying there are currently no Indigenous staff.

When asked about their recent difficulties retaining Indigenous employees, the foundation told Crikey: “We are committed to outcomes in terms of the work we do with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and are currently reviewing our entire approach to achieving maximum outcomes in terms of Indigenous heart health which includes the organisation’s internal staffing.”

The foundation also pointed to memorandums of understanding signed with various community organisations and its Indigenous mentoring program as evidence it was fulfilling obligations in its RAP.

A culture of ‘secrecy and exclusion’

James, who joined the foundation in 2015 to take over from Wade believes many of its problems with retention are cultural. “I started to see a pattern of behaviour emerging, of the organisation basically not taking Aboriginal health seriously,” he said.

James said he encountered a culture of “secrecy and exclusion”, where Aboriginal staff were not consulted on Aboriginal health or how the organisation’s large research budget was allocated, leading him to leave the foundation after just two years.

Corey Turner, who was the organisation’s national Aboriginal engagement officer, and was also abruptly let go this month, told Crikey he encountered a lack of support at the organisation. Brought in to help the foundation meet its RAP after a successful stint doing similar work with the Red Cross, Turner was made permanent and given a pay rise in his first six months, only to be shown the door after only a year.

The Heart Foundation told Crikey they had not received any formal complaints from employees about issues around exclusion and support within the organisation.

Wade believes many of the problems the organisation has faced with Indigenous staff can be traced to the down-scaling of her unit, which robbed the organisation of a strong guiding Aboriginal voice. “If you don’t have that Aboriginal leadership in an organisation, cracks appear,” Wade said. 

“Aboriginal people and health just aren’t sexy”.