From health worker to chief executive officer, Noeleen Selke’s career is interwoven with one common thread — the holistic wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.

“The wellbeing and struggle for equality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been my constant throughout my career,” she said.

“I’ve always held positions that provided me with the capacity to establish comparable opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: federally, state, local and in the corporate world.”

Noeleen’s new role as the Chief Executive Officer of the Northern Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Alliance (NATSIHA) is the pinnacle of a fascinating and varied career.

A proud Kaurareg woman with an ambitious outlook for First Nations’ peoples, Noeleen brings with her a wealth of experience and knowledge. Noeleen is well versed in the challenges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face, having leadership roles in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, housing, child protection and human services sectors over her career.

“As the new CEO of NATSIHA, my goal is to grow the organisation through strong regional representation at a state and federal level,” she said.

“I also aim to enhance and build on the existing structural foundation for the organisation so we can efficiently and sustainably help our members coordinate, plan and deliver primary care services for their communities and the people who live there.”

Born and raised in Cairns, Noeleen grew up with her mother, father and three brothers. Her life was centred around family and community. Noeleen’s family connections are from the village of Kubin on Mua Island with extended family connections across Cairns, The Torres Strait Islands and Cape York.

She is proud of coming from a long line of social justice and community control advocates.

Noeleen playing with the 1982 Queensland women’s state basketball team. Photo supplied.

Noeleen’s parents were instrumental in the establishment of the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander housing cooperative in Cairns, which continues to operate to this day. Her grandmother Jumula Dubbins helped find shelter for the homeless both before and after World War II for the people of the Torres Strait Islands. Jumula vocally opposed discrimination in the church, community and in the courts. In recognition of her tireless work for her community, the Jumula Dubbins Hostel on Thursday Island was named in her honour.

“My family were passionate about advocating for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — it’s something that has been instilled in me from a very young age,” she said.

“I didn’t know any different. I’ve always believed that we all deserve absolute fairness and equality.”

As a young woman, Noeleen discovered she had an aptitude and passion for sports. She played soccer, squash, indoor cricket and AFL in her later years. Her first love, however, was basketball.

“When I was young, I was too busy playing basketball and having fun to be overly concerned with a working career,” she said. “I represented Queensland over several years at national titles.”

After school finished, Noeleen’s first job was as one of the first Aboriginal Health Workers at Wuchopperen Health Service in Cairns in the early 1980s. She has fond memories of the time.

Noeleen (tallest in back) with the 1982 Queensland women’s basketball team. Photo supplied.

“We worked out of a house, a two-storey Queenslander, which was slightly modified for the provision of clinical services,” she recalled.

“The medical service was located a few blocks from town back then, it was the epitome of a community-controlled organisation. People would come up the driveway and stroll in, generally with a cake or scones in hand, for a cuppa and a yarn and always the biggest laugh would come from the back area. When the doctor was ready, they would come out to call their patients, and at times would join in on the banter.

“We had some good times back then; we provided services to all community members from young to old, we also provided outreach services to Mossman Gorge where we would visit people in their homes and at Innisfail where we provided services from a makeshift clinic at the Chjowai Hall.

“We had impromptu aerobics classes on a Friday morning which was provided by one of our more colourful patients, both young and old joined in. We also had kids from the boarding school come for check-ups and screening and I recall also monitoring babies’ Apgar score.”

Basketball came calling again and Noeleen landed a contract with the South Adelaide Panthers. She played with the Panthers for several seasons before returning to Cairns to start a family.

Her family have been the driving force in her life. “I have been blessed with four wonderful children whom I am extremely proud of, plus three grandchildren and another grandchild gracing us with her presence this year in June. I also have some remarkable nephews and nieces who I keep close to my heart,” she said.

On her return to the workforce, Noeleen took up a role at Social Security/Centrelink, now known as Services Australia. Noeleen said that she “absolutely enjoyed” every minute of working there.

“I was in a fortunate position to help community and those less fortunate,” she recalled. “I thrived during my time at Centrelink as it was very customer-focussed, I had some customers who followed me across the region. I even had kids named after me!”

Noeleen remained with Centrelink for 15 years. During this time, she developed her managerial skills which provided her with the basis to perform in leadership roles. Those roles included managing the FNQ Foster and Kinship Care service, which she later transitioned back to the community sector, now known as Culturally Appropriate Foster and Kinship Care Service (CAFAKCS), located at Wuchopperen.

Noeleen also delivered the National Partnership Agreement for Remote Indigenous Housing (NPARIH) and was involved in the development of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Housing Action Plan in Queensland.

Noeleen then took on roles at Manager and Director level across Child Safety, DATSIP, Housing and Public Works; before stepping back into the ACCHO sector with CEO roles at Apunipima Cape York Health Council, and the Mamu Health Service.

After a brief stint as Manager of First Nations and Diversity at North Queensland Airports and Executive Director, Corporate Services — Torres Strait Island Regional Council, Noeleen made the decision to return to the community controlled health sector.

“Being appointed CEO of NATSIHA has reignited my passion for community-controlled health” she said.

Noeleen with her family. Photo supplied.

“…of the people, by the people, for the people…”

Abraham Lincoln