This past week we here in Victoria witnessed what scholars would call a natural experiment*, the opportunity to test relevant hypotheses because changes take place in the environment that we can observe and analyse.
This particular circumstance was of great relevance to cohealth, an organisation which has as its core the social model of health, that recognises that social conditions play a key role in promoting good health, and that social engagement, inclusion, visibility and identity provide demonstrable health benefits. As the Aboriginal community controlled health sector have said for years the connection to culture has a protective value in building and maintaining health.
This week after an extraordinary lead up, the Western Bulldogs took home the Australian Football League Premiership. It was the culmination of an unimaginable fairy tale come true for a team that last saw Grand Final action as runners up in 1961 and until now had won its only Premiership 62 years ago — well beyond the life experience of most supporters. To appreciate the place of the Bulldogs in the life of the community, one needs to understand the nature of Victoria and the historical place of Footscray within it. Only in relatively recent times have Footscray and the western suburbs of Melbourne become the kind of high real estate value, cosmopolitan inner city locations for which Melbourne is rightly famed. For a long time being ‘a westie’ was a measure of social station, about which one needed to be proud and defiant. Still today a great many suburbs in the west rank highly in all indicators of social disadvantage and related poor health.
We at cohealth have a long history in the west and the Western Bulldogs epitomise the spirit of the community. The club is part of the fabric of the community and we have worked together on many local initiatives and projects over the years. We have also watched the Club welcome new arrivals, reach out to the marginalised and most recently embrace programs promoting men’s health in the #sonsofthewest initiative. Most importantly we understand the place the Western Bulldogs have in the psyche of the community.
If the standing of the club in the league has been precarious over time this has simply served to strengthen the passion and commitment of its supporter and community base. We in the west know about exclusion and defeat, about deprivation and the instability that comes with it. Westies are tenacious, courageous, big hearted and hard working, but not necessarily winners. Our club has suffered many of the same travails its members have and in this way the identity of the club, and that of the community, have been mutually reinforcing. Good fortune is not to be assumed.
So this Grand Final win was about identity and about struggle and triumph over adversity as much as it was about football. It was about a history of marginalisation and exclusion, about perseverance, passion and commitment, and certainly not just about the game. The outpouring across the west and the generous sharing from the broader collective was a reflection of a community rallying in the face of the unimaginable coming to pass. A Grand Final win would perhaps do that anywhere, but I’m not sure the socio-cultural meaning would have been the same.
The more we in healthcare learn about the importance of connectedness, a sense of place and community, the more we can now demonstrate that participation and inclusion are all part of what keep us well. A number of players indicated after the game that the approach to coaching and the passion required to win the match, could be characterised by the phrase ‘why not us’? If that is true, then this result will carry that same message right across the community for some time to come. Given there is good evidence of the role of self efficacy, confidence, hopes, dreams and aspirations in enabling us to value and care for our health, then that’s good news for prevention and health promotion.
At a time where we read reports that talk of the burden of disease and the ‘peril of place’, especially in the west, these positive experiences and powerful messages are sorely needed. Last weekend a community rallied in the face of undreamt of opportunity. Last weekend people sang in the streets, folks chatted to their neighbours, and indeed people they had never met before, masses gathered in joyous celebration. The tears flowed too, dreams were shared and fears expressed amongst young and old and between old timers and newcomers.
We all need healthcare, and most especially so when we are sick or injured, but that which gives rise to health is different. So even if football is not your thing, take heart in the fact that the events of this past weekend has helped contribute to healthier people and the communities they live in. Which also happens to be synonomous with cohealth’s mission.
Congratulations Doggies, the positive health and wellbeing effects of your win on the weekend will be felt for years to come.
*Disclaimer: in this case the ‘experiment’ is a series of general observations for illustrative purposes.