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Desmond Ron Smith

For championing equity and cultural safety across education, housing, justice and health and dedication to self-determination.


Respected elder and role model

Uncle Desmond (Des) Ron Smith was born on 12 November 1955 in Melbourne. He is a respected Elder and role model who has dedicated his life to servicing Aboriginal communities and achieving self-determination.

Des is a descendant of the Yorta Yorta and Jaara – Dja Dja Wurrung people through his mother and of Wiradjuri descent from his father’s ancestry. He grew up in Melbourne’s northern suburbs and has lived in Woori Yallock in the Yarra Valley for the past 23 years.

Des has strong recollections of the struggle his parents endured moving from Cummeragunja to Melbourne in the 1950s to seek employment opportunities to provide for their family. This was a time when there was uncertainty of employment, housing and food security. Des is the second youngest of 12 siblings from a blended family.

Family and community connectedness underpin Des’s values. His family were strong and active advocates in Victoria’s 1970s Aboriginal social-political movement, striving to improve the wellbeing of Aboriginal Victorians. He has proud memories of his family’s involvement in lobbying for the development of standalone Aboriginal organisations such as the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service.

Des recalls ‘pestering’ his Elders to hear oral history, cherishing the stories of culture, connection to Country and kinship. "Growing up with my Aunties, Uncles and older brothers provided me with lessons on what it’s like to survive the struggles and to be part of community movement to strive for change. My family’s legacy has inspired me to carry their fight for self-determination, being proud of our Aboriginality and to work in the Aboriginal community at the grassroots level." He has an innate knowledge of family and community stories.

His brothers, Bruce and Joe, played an important role as father figures and mentors. In 1976, Bruce encouraged Des to participate in the Aboriginal Community Awareness course at Swinburne TAFE. Joe’s involvement in music led to Des becoming a drummer with The Wiradjuri Band during the 1970s-80s and they performed at community dances to raise money for the Aboriginal Funeral Fund, set up to enable Aboriginal people to be buried with dignity.

Des commenced work at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service in 1974 and was the first Aboriginal Field Officer in Victoria, which enabled him to travel to Aboriginal communities throughout Victoria and transport families to Melbourne. From 1977 through to 1980, Des worked as the Aboriginal Liaison and Field Officer with the Victorian Aboriginal Dental Service and travelled throughout Victoria and regional centres in South Australia and New South Wales.

From 1979 through to 1983, Des worked with the Victorian Department of Community Welfare supporting youth in detention and in 1983 he worked with Correction Services Victoria and was the first Aboriginal person employed to work in Victorian prisons. From the mid-1980s and 1990s Des worked in educational settings including as Music Coordinator for the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service’s Koori Kollij health worker pilot program, the Victorian Department of Education’s Koorie Education Unit, and the Fitzroy All Stars Youth Club. His roles were at the forefront of developing curricula appropriate for local communities.

In 1996, Des began a major period of work with the new Yarra Valley Aboriginal Health Service at Eastern Health. Des’ programs received NAIDOC and Eastern Health awards recognising his outstanding contribution to Victorian Aboriginal health.

In 2018, Des commenced in the role of Aboriginal Cultural Advisor and Aboriginal Health Facilitator at Ngarrang Gulin-jal Boordup, the Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing team at the Melbourne office of the Eastern Access Community Health (EACH) organisation. Des provides strategic guidance and advice for the further development of EACH Aboriginal service protocols, policy, procedures and service delivery for self-determination for community wellbeing.

Des is valued as a mentor to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and continues to build strong foundations for emerging leaders to work in a culturally transformative way. He openly and honestly promotes understanding of past struggles and raises awareness of the barriers that continue to confront Aboriginal people today. Des’ gift of sharing knowledge is done with humility and humour, engaging qualities embedded in his strong personal and work ethic. He is inspirational in his essence and zest to seek opportunities for lifelong learning and best practice.

Des’ leadership is seen in his innate ability to mentor and guide strategies for social change from grassroots community care, through to systems of healthcare delivery. His collaborative leadership style has been instrumental in educating non-Aboriginal people and government agencies about Aboriginal culture and history, to build a strong future founded on self-determination.

For over 40 years, Des has worked with communities in championing equity and cultural safety across education, housing, justice and health. Des’ community work has been recognised as exemplary for successful program delivery. He is highly regarded for his guidance to services and organisations on protocols and policy for respectful, appropriate and effective programs for Aboriginal people.

Des’ longstanding commitment to working at a grassroots level for community is testament to the loyalty and compassion he holds for Aboriginal community wellbeing. One notable example of his enduring commitment is an initiative he built to support the unique needs of Aboriginal men. In 2011, he initiated the program, Men’s Business, an empowering men’s program that focuses on cultural strengthening, engaging men in dealing with their own health, social and emotional wellbeing, and family and kinship ties.

Des’ generosity of sharing knowledge connects the past to the present and inspires a vibrant legacy for Aboriginal Victorians.

He is a strong and proud Aboriginal man who is deeply devoted to his family and dedicated to the wellbeing of the Victorian Aboriginal Community. A loving father and grandfather, Des exemplifies a man of integrity and values who is highly recognised for his commitment to self-determination.