Billy, Nana Zara and the Best Job in the World: The Glenn Pearson Story

Screen Shot 2018-08-11 at 9.44.02 AM.png

Centralising indigenous issues as a way of reaching wider marginalised peoples,  leaving our community better than we found it.

Wednesday 8.38 am and the cafe is bustling with customers patiently awaiting their coffee. By the line of currently decaffeinated customers stands a man, early 50’s, searching the crowd of sitting bodies for someone. Glenn Pearson is late for his interview, but that doesn’t deter him. He has a good excuse. School run. He checks to make sure he has located the right person. Approaches. Sincerely apologising for his 8-minute tardiness with a hug and a smile. How can you possibly be mad?

Mr Pearson, or Glenn as he prefers to be called (Mr Pearson is his father), is a Noongar man born and raised in the Perth Metropolitan area who has dedicated himself to a lifelong career focusing on the advancement of all peoples – not just his indigenous counterparts.

“Treating aboriginal issues as everyone’s issues leads to the bigger story of how do we go about treating each other in a respectful way.”

But the indigenous struggle perseveres above all.

According to Head of Aboriginal Mental Health and Wellbeing at the Telethon Kids Institute (TKI), Dr Michael Wright, the current marginalisation and disenfranchisement of Aboriginal people is due to the ongoing impact of colonisation. One need only look at the victims of the Stolen Generation. A chapter of the Australian narrative which Glenn has been impacted by due to the trans-generational nature of trauma.

But what makes Glenn exemplary is his strength. His ability to say “it's not good enough to blame white people” and instead choosing to work for the improved wellbeing of indigenous peoples in this State.

Colleague, friend, and researcher, Dr Carrington Shepherd, describes Glenn as a person with “raw honesty” and passion. Focused on the “importance of the work, about getting it right and helping to enact change.” A facet of their work endorsed by Wright as the most important aspect of their cause – “Inviting and facilitating change.”

As Head of the Aboriginal Health Research Focus Area in the TKI Glenn has undertaken five major projects. A monumental task.

When explaining the logistics behind every single scheme his eyes gain a degree of clarity, his voice becomes animated, his coffee and toast are forgotten and he continually reaches for the attention of his audience by referring to them by name.

Five headings encompass the overall scheme: strategic plan for aboriginal health, research stances, aboriginal employment, communication strategies and regional research platforms. The overarching branches of Glenn’s bread and butter.

Dr Roz Walker, Head of Aboriginal Maternal Health and Child Development at the TKI, has worked closely with Glenn for ten years. They are a duo that have never failed to amaze themselves with their capacity to still be ‘true believers’ that they can really make a difference.

Walker describes Glenn’s ideas as “really exciting visionary” concepts, pointing to two stand out plans.

“The Strategic Plan is an important shift in the way we do business at the Telethon Kids – it is the first Aboriginal Health Research Strategic Plan to define the direction and scope our work at this area at the Institute and to hold us all accountable to the agreed indicators of change.”

The second, “more ambitious vision has been establishing a state-wide Aboriginal Health Research Network which involves working with the Aboriginal Health Council of WA and key Aboriginal Medical Services in the regions across WA.”

But reaching his current status as one of the leading minds in the field has been a winding road set in motion by one man. Billy. An illiterate 31-year-old white man who once humbly asked Glenn what was written on his shirt. Nothing important. Probably some company promotion.

“As an aboriginal kid at least I could read… It just stunned me. I changed and did primary school teaching.”

Finishing his degree and thirsty for experience he inadvertently joined the ‘enemy’. The Department of Child Protection – enforcers of the Stolen Generation. Having worked as a field education officers for a decade, he eventually made his way to the Aboriginal-Torres-Strait-Islander Commission managing various portfolios; and transferring to the Commonwealth Health Engagement when the former was abolished. After a month in this position he was offered a job at the TKI by a colleague and friend. An offer made 13 years ago.

A rich history in policy making and research has made Glenn a veteran in his profession, a mentor for others including Shepherd, who boast of Glenn as a man who will listen to new ideas and give his co-workers autonomy and encouragement.

Glenn has the “best job in the world” working for the 90 000 aboriginal people in WA.

By centralising this story, he aims to respond to any family in our community. An especially urgent issue due to the current status of global unsettlement.  

He recognises the issue is not about drawing difference between 'us and others'. "Differences make us powerful". 

This is Glenn’s life philosophy. Do something, be proactive because being an observer is “criminal, unethical and immoral.”

Condensing the story of Glenn Pearson in a few hundred words is difficult. An opinion supported by Shepherd who says “It’s a bit difficult to sum him up in a few words, to be honest – he’s a unique character, intelligent, compassionate, driven.”  Nothing unknown to us by now.

Glenn is a treasured colleague. A respected member of his community. An effective advocate for Aboriginal people. A Docker’s supporter. An Australian. But above all a wise man.

He takes one last sip of coffee, a last bite of toast. Rises from his chair, changes gears to personal conversation. Casually mentions his plans for the coming days – the Melbourne Conference on Aboriginal Suicide Prevention. Walks to the exit, thanks the cafe’s employees and before leaving extends his arms for a parting hug.