Alison Pask is the executive director of Activity and Nutrition Aotearoa (ANA).
I’ve always loved food and people. I studied nutrition at Otago University and for a while I thought I might want to be a teacher, but I qualified as a New Zealand Registered Dietitian instead. I think I got the best of both worlds and in a way I’ve come full circle – now I do education in a different way through mentoring and professional development. After 30 years, I still have a real passion for nutrition and public health.
My first jobs were in hospitals and I found it hard to stay positive when working with sick people. I thought, ‘there’s got to be a lot more to nutrition than treating people who are sick’. I wanted to be the ambulance at the top of the cliff, not the bottom. My first role in health promotion at the Heart Foundation cemented my desire to work in public health. I could see the return on investment and felt like I’d found my niche.
Since then, my whole life has been dedicated to working in public health, mainly in the NGO sector; it’s values-based work. I’ve got a passion for bringing people together. I’m terribly curious, I always want to know more about people and their passions. I’ve got a lot of patience and an awful lot of persistence. I think that’s important in this work because public health is a long-term game and it’s all about the relationships you have and your circle of influence. I see ANA as an important organisation for connecting and bringing voices together, helping to inspire people to flourish.
I’ve got a really creative streak; I like to try different things and experiment, I like to reframe what we do. I like asking questions. My favourite one is, ‘what’s the purpose?’ I think you have to be really clear about your purpose in public health and what you want to achieve.
It’s never been in my plan to work in a certain place, but if the opportunity is there I’ll give it a go. I’m always keen to embrace change and I’ve challenged myself to move out of my comfort zone a lot in my career. That means being confident and not being afraid to pick up the phone and ask hard questions. When I was at Diabetes New Zealand I picked up the phone and asked Alison Holst if she’d be interested in writing a diabetes cookbook. She was an idol for me – she was a famous TV cook when I was growing up- so asking her was quite a bold thing to do but she was delighted to have the opportunity.
One of the key things that has kept me going is the wonderful mentors I’ve had. I’ve been able to repay that by mentoring others as well. I’m a great supporter of finding someone who can challenge you, who can influence what you do and give you some confidence to take the next step. If you’re starting out in public health, you need to find yourself a mentor. Look for someone who you relate to who can take you to the next level. Surrounding yourself with great advisers is paramount to staying positive in a world where progress can be a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.
I strongly believe the health sector won’t change the health status of Kiwis; we need to re-orient systems outside of health. We can already see that happening with political policies tackling poverty, which will have a greater impact on people’s ability to choose healthy food. Improving access to affordable fruit and vegetables will have a greater long term impact on the most vulnerable populations. It’s important that we have more of an equity focus and that we’re aware of our own privilege.
Being politically savvy is a core skill I’m still developing and I encourage others new to public health to think about how they can be more strategic in seeking change. I’d recommend someone new to public health to think about how they can strengthen their advocacy skills by building strong networks, learning the art of storytelling and finding emotional connections to issues that can sometimes be more powerful than presenting yet more evidence.
More than anything, you need to be able to celebrate successes. Our public health wins might be small, but we’re in this for the long game.
I’ve enjoyed filling up my kete with new tools over my career. I value continuous learning and broadening my skill set has challenged me and given me the guts to do things differently. I love the idea that something is a learning opportunity not a failure. The more experiences you can draw on in this work, the better. I’m inspired by Henry Ford’s quote: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”