Indigenous health leader Rachel Atkinson has devoted her life to championing the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
From her early days as a social worker to her rise as the Chief Executive Officer of the Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Health Service (TAIHS) and now Palm Island Community Company (PICC), Rachel Atkinson—a proud Yorta Yorta woman—has dedicated four decades to lifting up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families.
Born into a lineage of tireless activists, Rachel has dedicated her professional life to the empowerment of families and community. She hails from the Atkinson and Charles families and can trace her roots back to legendary Yorta Yorta leaders William Cooper (her great uncle), his nephew Sir Douglas Nicholls, who was appointed the first Indigenous Governor of South Australia in 1976, and the many Yorta Yorta leaders who came before her.
Rachel’s great uncle William Cooper was integral to the Cummeragunja walk off, the first Indigenous mass protest in Australia. In 1939, 200 mostly Yorta Yorta people walked off the Cummeragunja mission in protest of the poor conditions and treatment under the control of the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board.
They crossed the Murray River, leaving the state of New South Wales, and settled on the banks of the Victorian side of the river. Some of the Elders who led the walk-off led the way for the creation of the Rumbalara settlement, in Rachel’s childhood town of Mooroopna, near Shepparton.
“William Cooper, Douglas Nichols, and the many Yorta Yorta warriors—that history still lives with us. I think somewhere it’s given me that strength. Purely because I’m an Aboriginal woman I’ve had to fight. Not alone, but collectively,” Rachel said.
Rachel grew up with her family living in humpies on the banks of the Kaiela River (Goulburn River) near Barmah, Victoria. Her family later moved to Rumbalara reserve.
As a youth living on the Rumbalara reserve, Rachel was rarely exposed to racism. Though she and her family lived simply, the strength of the family and of the community kept her shielded within the reserve. She never realised that she and her community were considered ‘different’.
“Growing up we were oblivious to what was happening in the big space out there. In terms of racism and poverty, we were one group living on a reserve, so we missed that overt racism,” she said.
But that all changed when the family moved into town at Mooroopna, and Rachel was exposed to racial prejudice for the first time.
“Going to school highlighted there was a difference between us and them,” she said. “We were segregated—the Rumbalara kids were all put into a separate class. I must have shown some aptitude because they put me in the mainstream class when I was in year 6.”
Her introduction to ‘mainstream’ education was a rocky one.
“On the first day of Year 6, the teacher welcomed the new students. When the teacher got to me he said, ‘I hope you’re not like the rest of them’.”
Shocked, Rachel acted impulsively.
“I knew that he had a limp, and that he couldn’t run. So, I lifted the lid of the desk and I slammed it down, swore at him and ran away, because I knew he couldn’t catch me. This was my welcome to my class,” she recalled.
The incident was a defining moment for Rachel.
“That could break you or make you; but I think it made me,” she said. “Racism does hurt, but I had strength. My strength
came from my family — the Atkinsons and the Charles’ — and their world.”
Rachel quickly came to realise she needed to be smarter than those in the community who would treat her differently
because of her race.
“I knew I had to do everything twice as good as them, especially in sports and school” she said.
“We were good fighters, we were good at sports, we could run and play basketball. They needed us, even if they didn’t really
want us, and that’s powerful.”
Years later, with the weight of her young children’s futures on her shoulders, Rachel uprooted her family, making a brave move to Townsville. She was determined to carve out a better existence not just for herself, but for her young family as well. She worked hard in a prawn factory and cleaning houses. It was here that Rachel’s journey to the health sector truly began. A friendly person saw a spark of potential in her and encouraged her to go to university.
“One lady asked me ‘why don’t I go to university?’,” Rachel said.
“I said, ‘I can’t even spell university, let alone go to university.’
“But in the early 1980s I completed a Bachelor of Social Work.
“From there I worked for years in government, in child protection, but in the end I thought, ‘this is not for me’.”
Rachel remains influential in the child protection sector through her work as board member of SNAICC (Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care) and founding member of QATSICPP (Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Protection Peak).
In 1996, Rachel successfully applied for the position of CEO of the Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Health Service (TAIHS). For the better part of a decade, Rachel helmed TAIHS, growing the business and eventually moving from a broken-down old building on Flinders Street to the modern building in Garbutt on which TAIHS stands today.
As CEO of an Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (ACCHO), Rachel was positioned to not only help Townsville mob, but to advocate for mob at a state and national level. In 1998 Rachel was elected Board Chair of the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Forum, which would be renamed the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council (QAIHC) in 2004.
“I lasted in the chair for many, many years until I left TAIHS in 2006,” Rachel said.
Rachel’s next foray into the Aboriginal and Islander health space came when she was successful in her application for the job of CEO of the Palm Island Community Company (PICC) —a company that would provide health, social and community services for the people of Palm Island. The current service delivery model in Palm Island was not working and it was hoped PICC would be the solution.
The service was financed on a dual shareholder model where the Queensland Government and Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council would be 50/50 owners of the company. From the beginning of PICC, Rachel worked with its Board and the community to relinquish shareholder control and transition the organisation to full community control.
“The strength behind PICC at the time was that it was a safe bet to go with as there were rules and regulations relating to government owned companies,” Rachel said.
“But what it didn’t have was the concept of community control. From day one, the Board and I recognised that the preferred
model of care would one day be community control. I was lucky that I had really good strong Board members who backed and supported the model of community control.”
Over time, Rachel pushed and prodded governments to grow the health and social service programs on Palm Island. A child family centre was established. There were two small rooms at the child and family centre that PICC turned into a maternal health centre.
“That was the beginning of shifting into medical. We got a doctor, a nurse, then a health worker for maternal health. And then we expanded the service into whole-of-family care,” she said.
At this point, the only medical services available on the Island were through the government-run, Palm Island Hospital. Doctors rotated in and out so there was no continuity of care, there were no specialist services (any complex health conditions called for a flight to the mainland) and some health workers were not culturally aware, all of which provided a disincentive for the people of Palm Island to get timely medical care.
“If you had to see a specialist, you were flown out,” Rachel explained.
“You had to get a flight to Townsville and then get a cab to the hospital. If someone had an emergency health crisis, you had
to get flown to the mainland to visit a doctor. It was a pure state government medical model.”
In April of 2019, a $16.6m primary health centre was opened on Palm Island.
From the outset, Rachel knew the way to ensure the community used the primary health centre was to ensure it ran the centre too. The consultation for the Palm Island Health Action Plan already showed that the community wanted an ACCHO.
“The model could never work as it was initially. It was for the community, but not with the community and certainly not by the community,” Rachel said.
“We knew that, even with our little health medical centre, we were better than Queensland Health for the community’s primary health. While they were building this big building, we were working to take it over.
“We had to lobby government and council to relinquish their stakes in PICC; this happened over many, many hard conversations. It wasn’t an easy process.
“But the strength I had behind me, the Board who believed in what we were doing and the community. That was how
On 30 September 2021, after years of lobbying by Rachel and the Board, the primary health centre transitioned to the care of PICC, and PICC transitioned to community control, making it by far the largest provider of medical services on the island.
From a single employee (i.e., Rachel) in 2007, to around 180 staff today, PICC has grown into the major employer on Palm Island and is a cornerstone of Palm Island community life.
PICC is a place-based organisation, committed to local solutions. This year PICC was proud to open a Telstra Call Centre on Palm Island.
PICC’s focus on the community has resulted in an incredible economic, social and educational lift for the people of Palm Island. And while there are still issues on Palm Island like overcrowding, poverty and the ongoing effects of intergenerational trauma, Rachel is rightly proud of what she, her board, and the community have built with PICC.
“We’ve grown and invested in the community in all our services,” Rachel said.
“We’ve never had trouble getting doctors or nurses. There are a lot of good doctors and good people out there who want to work in our sector, because they believe in what we do.
“We’ve got some really good Registrars who are staying on now – doctors who want to work in ACCHOs.”
Rachel said a reason PICC has been able to employ and maintain doctors was because the organisation had a policy of asking for, then listening to clinicians’ advice on what may or may not be effective.
“If we look at doctors, for example, we respect what they want and encourage them to guide us, to tell us what is going to work. They take the lead, and we invest in our doctors and nurses,” she said.
“These doctors want to work with us. We have a doctor who lives in Brisbane, and he flies up here on Sunday and flies home on Thursday! We value them as part of our team.
“We are constantly investing in local employment. If you look at PICC now, the majority of staff are local Palm Islanders. Many of the people managing our services are local Aboriginal men and women.”
After a lifetime of working toward the good health and wellbeing of mob, Rachel said one of her biggest career achievements was investing in the local economy through PICC.
“We provide equitable wages,” she said, “I think that valuing the skills that we have within our sector and investing in people not only benefits our organisation but also the whole community.
“My proudest PICC achievement is growing the organisation with good people. Palm is a safe, good community, and I’m proud to be working for this community.”
But Rachel’s proudest personal achievement is closer to home.
“My proudest achievement is becoming a grandmother.”
With nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, Rachel’s family stands as another achievement in a life committed to service.
Rachel is a QAIHC Hall of Famer and this is her story. Thanks for sharing Aunty Rachel.