Rica Lacey, 22 September, 2021
Director of Indigenous Health at Darling Downs Health, Rica Lacey has built her career by paving her own way. Growing up in a small town and leaving high school early, she hasn't let her past define her.
Now studying her Executive MBA at QUT, Rica shares her exceptional career journey with us and how she wants to inspire others.
“The 8 words that don’t define me”
Young mum. Small town. Leave school early. Labourer.
This was the track my life was heading towards as I hit my teen years. When you grow up in a small town, your life is mapped out for you by what you see around you. They say, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ and this has been true of my career – so I’m paving my own way and bringing everyone along with me.
To look at where I am now, you have to take a look at where I’ve been. I had my first baby at 17 – which is a pretty average age for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to become mums. I ended up having five children and working labouring jobs and at the meatworks to put food on the table.
The daily grind of wake up, get the kids ready for school, get yourself to work, pick up the kids, homework, dinner, bed became my routine. I always wondered if there was more to life, but my priority when my kids were little was making sure we had the basics.
Rica’s first career break
But there’s got to be more right?! So, after I had my youngest daughter I applied for a job at a Aboriginal Medical Service – and got it. I’ll always be grateful for my first career break – it showed me what else was out there and built my passion for improving the health outcomes of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
For someone who didn’t finish high school, I quickly learned the ropes of administration and how the health system works - and I needed to have my qualifications catch up with my career. So, when I joined the health service as a health worker, I studied a number of Aboriginal Health Worker certificates, diplomas, and advanced diplomas.
A health service larger than Tasmania
I probably should give you some background of what I mean when I say health service. Queensland is broken up into hospital and health services that are responsible for the health of their region. The health service I work for is a team of almost 6000 across a geographical distance of one-and-a-half times the size of Tasmania. It’s big, it’s diverse, and there’s lots of work to be done to improve health outcomes for our vulnerable communities. But I’ll get to that soon.
Within the health service, I was able to take on a role within Cultural Capability – which meant I was able to educate our almost 6000 staff on how to provide culturally-appropriate care to our Indigenous communities. And influence everyone in our organisation to value our culture, and to understand how it can impact on care. I was again at a stage in my career where I needed my quals to catch up. I enrolled in the QUT Public Sector Management Program – Graduate Certificate in Business.
Stepping into a leadership role
And then came the opportunity of a lifetime. A newly established Director of Indigenous Health role. A role that could influence the direction of Indigenous health. The opportunity to lead the health service towards improving health outcomes of our communities. With my hands shaking I submitted my application. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I didn’t think I would get the job, but also how much I wanted it.
I got the phone call one afternoon shortly after the interview to say that I had been successful. I spent a few years building the capability of my team as the Director of Indigenous Health and grew my team from 3 to 54 across the region with 23 active Indigenous Health projects. Here I am again – needing my quals to catch up with my career so after finishing QUT’s Graduate Certificate in Business, I’m now doing the QUT Executive Master of Business Administration.
The study I have done so far really has helped me in ‘the real world’. I now have a greater understanding of communicating to influence, leadership and in particular change leadership, problem framing for creative action, and human-centred design. I have the support, mentoring, and encouragement from my peers, but I’ve also been able to lean into the support from my partner and children with workload and study.
Inspiring others to change the world
So, what would I say to that young mum from the small town who thought she’d be working in the meatworks for the rest of her life? Hang in there. Your passion for Aboriginal health will take you outside of your comfort zone and challenge you in ways you could never have imagined. You’ll be the first in your family to go to uni and prove to yourself and everyone around you what you’re made of.
To bring it back to ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ my daughters have already started following in my footsteps – studying mental health and nursing. I don’t acknowledge it much, but I’m incredibly proud of what I’ve achieved, and when I finish my QUT masters, who knows what’s next for me.
What I do know though is that hard work and paving your own way are how you change the world.