She may have taken the long way around, but local dietitian Tracy Hardy has finally found her true calling. Recently awarded for her contribution to the nutritional wellbeing of the indigenous community, this 44-year-old Kamilaroi woman is making a real difference in her field, despite facing her own health challenges along the way.
Tracy Hardy is made of strong stuff. Not surprising really when you discover where she came from. Born and raised in St George, a small remote town in South West Queensland, Tracy had a typical Aussie bush upbringing.
“I spent a lot of my childhood on the property,” says Tracy. “As a small child, my best friends were a Blue Heeler and a kangaroo that used to follow me everywhere. I still remember sneaking away and blaming my dog and kangaroo for leading me astray.”
Recalling her childhood as idyllic, Tracy and her parents lived on her grandparent’s property on the Balonne River just outside of town, where she would while away the days on horseback, riding her bike and swimming in the river.
“It was the most amazing way to grow up,” says Tracy. “My nana was an artist and she had a gallery on the property I would visit. We didn’t watch television, we would play outside all day and only come home when we were hungry. I will always be grateful for that.”
And despite being born with a degenerative neurological disease (Charcot Marie Tooth disease), Tracy has never let anything hold her back. In fact, if anything, it has helped to shape the strong woman she has become today.
“It was something I grew up being teased about and I coped by being the class clown I think. If you are loud up here (she says pointing to her face) no one looks down there. My nana and dad had it too, we were always just told we had gammy feet. It wasn’t properly diagnosed until I was 26. Basically, it affects the peripheral nerves of your hands and feet. The muscles don’t get the messages from the brain. It’s a degenerative thing but I’m not crippled I can still walk. People stare but I don’t worry about that. It hasn’t affected my voice.”
Tracy’s resilience was also tested by the cultural challenges she faced growing up. Born in 1973 to a mother of Aboriginal descent and a father of non-indigenous background, sadly, her Aboriginal heritage was not something that was openly discussed or celebrated.
“Unfortunately, there was still an undercurrent that it was something to be ashamed of in that era,” says Tracy. “It was always easier for the older generation to align with some other culture like the Spanish or New Zealanders because it seemed to be more safe and acceptable.
“There was still some intergenerational trauma left over from the threat of having your children stolen and the racism that was placed upon them as well, so I understand that. However, as a result, I didn’t have the privilege of growing up immersed in traditional culture or customs. I knew who I was, it was innately there, so I always felt something was missing and I yearned to have an understanding of it.
“It was difficult because I was a lighter skinned Aboriginal so I was thought to be too light to be black and too black to be white, I never knew where I fit in. I would get a little bit of stick from both sides. I used to deflect that with self-deprecating humour and I think that translated into my later years. I kind of survived childhood that way.”
Although she may not have realised it at the time, Tracy’s life path was always leading her back to food and nutrition and it was through witnessing the impact that food has on people from a cultural and emotional sense first hand that ultimately led her to become a dietitian and use it as a platform to make a difference.
“I remember an auntie saying to me once, ‘Your ancestors have always led you that way, you have probably pushed back because you are stubborn,’” says Tracy.
Tracy’s connection with food started from a very early age. Living solely off the property, she grew up helping her parents on the land and knew where everything on her plate came from.
“Growing up, Mum and Dad didn’t have a whole lot of money and we didn’t have access to take away, everything was paddock to plate. I saw beasts being slaughtered and prepared for food. I would sit with Mum and bag up the meat and put the meat through the big mincer. Mum used to make everything from scratch. I remember eating a store-bought cake once at a friend’s house as a child and spitting it out because I just wasn’t used to the preservatives and additives, it tasted terrible to me.”
But it wasn’t until Tracy’s father was killed in a car accident when she was 19 years old that food became the enemy and would lead to her developing an eating disorder that lasted ten years.
“My father’s death caused a bit of a rift in the family and life was pretty tough at the time. Looking back, food was the only thing I could control.”
It wasn’t until she fell pregnant with her daughter, Sienna, that Tracy finally faced her demons head on and won.
“It was the best thing that could have happened to me because all of a sudden I was responsible for this little person and I had to be a good role model for her, so I revisited my eating behaviours and got healthy again,” says Tracy.
Unfortunately, when Sienna was just three years old, Tracy’s world was turned upside down when she discovered she had renal cancer.
“It was actually diagnosed by accident, so I was very lucky. I had pain in my left side at the time and they just happened to check my other side and found a tumour on my kidney.
“It was a really tough time. I was a single mum, I didn’t have any family close by and I was working in a high pressure job.
“After that I revisited my diet yet again and really looked at what I was putting into my body.
“I stepped back from all the stress and went back to my roots working in beauty.
“Once again I found myself talking about food and nutrition in this role because I would see clients with skin disorders that could be greatly improved or cleared with a change in diet.
“Looking back now, even though I worked in sales, real estate, travel and marketing I always had that calling towards health and nutrition.
“But I think the turning point came when I was having a couple of drinks with friends and I was on my soapbox that Australians seemed to be so willing to put their hands in their pockets for a piece of red string and a sticker as the result of the Kony propaganda, yet no one seemed to be willing to acknowledge the third world conditions faced by our first nation people in Australia.
“My best friend Sarah said, ‘So what are you going to do about it?’. I couldn’t argue with her so I decided to study nutrition and dietetics. I don’t think she realised what an impact she had.”
That was five years ago and boy has Tracy come a long way since then. Not only did this high-achiever graduate with USC’s Chancellor’s Medal – the highest award for a graduating student – she also found her voice as an advocate for the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“I was so honoured to find out that I was the first Aboriginal woman to receive this award,” says Tracy. “It’s awarded to those who have achieved high academic results and made a substantial contribution to the local and broader community.”
But like anything worthwhile, Tracy’s journey has not been without its challenges.
“The past few years have been such a rollercoaster ride,” says Tracy.
“I still remember my first subject was chemistry. I thought I was coming to learn about green smoothies, it was so overwhelming,” she says, laughing at the memory.
“It was hard but I come from tough stock, my mum is a strong, resilient woman who has overcome a lot in her life, as was her mother so not continuing was never an option. I had a lot of sleepless nights. But I got there in the end.”
It was a serendipitous meeting with IAHA (Indigenous Allied Health Australia board), when Tracy nominated as a volunteer in the early stages of her degree that would see her eventually elected to the board as a student director and where she found a platform for her strong social justice lens.
“I took part in IAHA’s Health Team Fusion Challenge where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health students get together in groups of five and are given a case to manage as a multi-disciplinary team to get an insight into the holistic approach to care, which was such a unique opportunity.
“I applied not expecting to get in and got accepted. I still remember feeling terrified and although those residual voices in my head that I heard back in school saying, ‘Who do you think you are, you don’t belong here’ were there, I did it anyway and it led me down the path of coming into my own, with being comfortable in who I am and strong in my identity and I discovered I wasn’t alone and my story was common with many.
“I then discovered they had a national Student Representative Committee (SRC), so I nominated and was lucky enough to be one of eight in Australia to secure a place. We had our first meeting in Canberra, it was all about developing our leadership skills, having a national influence and as part of that we had the opportunity to nominate to be the chairperson of the SRC and I was elected. It was amazing, I met government ministers and people I look up to and I got to talk in front of hundreds of people. It further stoked my social justice fire I always had burning.
“I’ve always had a strong sense of social justice. At uni I was always at the NAIDOC events, I was on the RAP committee, the Indigenous advisory committee, the Student Indigenous Leadership Committee, I had my fingers in a lot of pies.”
Tracy’s proudest achievement during that time was advocating for USC to support more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who wanted to participate in the IAHA Health Team Fusion Challenge.
“That was a legacy I was determined to leave, so more students could have the same opportunities offered to them that I had during my time with IAHA,” says Tracy.
“It was a three-year work-in-progress that took a lot of persistence and determination.”
Tracy now works as a part-time dietitian for the Institute for Urban Indigenous Health and is currently helping to improve the health outcomes of clients with, or at risk of, chronic disease.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience the greatest burden of disease in Australia and a leading cause is nutrition related. Cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes are all things that can be managed or prevented through nutrition.” Tracy is also the founder of Wattleseed Nutrition on the Sunshine Coast and offers individual consultations, design and delivery of tailored cooking demonstrations, group workshops and facilitator manuals, as well as nutrition intervention research and evaluation.
Passionate about bridging the cultural gap, Tracy is also an advocate for boosting the rate of indigenous Australian workers in allied health professions, including dietetics.
“I was speaking at a conference recently to women from Katherine, and other remote areas of Australia. They were so excited because there are so few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dietitians in Australia. Less than a quarter of a per cent actually.
“It’s a very powerful space to be working in. A young girl came up to me after I had spoken at an event recently and asked if she could take a photo with me, and said she wanted to do what I was doing; to inspire someone else like that is fantastic.”
So what’s next for this inspirational high-achiever?
“If you had told me 10 years ago that this would have happened I would have told you you were dreaming. It happened very organically. I really pushed myself out of my comfort zones and challenged myself. I feel like IAHA really helped me find my voice and the confidence to speak up. It just gave me courage. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people don’t have that opportunity enough.”
Gaining a place as a member on the Dietitians Association of Australia board, which is a national leader in dietetics, is something she has firmly in her sights.
“To achieve that goal, I need more experience as a board member, so I’m currently putting my hand up for more voluntary board positions, it’s a long term vision,” says Tracy.
With her rich indigenous ancestry and strong matriarchal history lighting the way, I have no doubt Tracy will continue to follow her destiny to make powerful changes wherever she goes.