20 November 2020
Jane Cartwright is Executive Officer at the New Zealand Breastfeeding Alliance. She is a registered dietitian and holds an MBA from Otago University.
“I’ve always been interested in people and what makes them tick. I came from a family that was embedded in community activities and I always had the sense that those things were important. My initial training was in dietetics, but I didn’t come to it in the normal way – I did a science degree first, then post-grad study. I was running large kitchens in hospitals, working with people from a lot of different backgrounds to my own. I learned a lot from doing that; it gave me an understanding of how different things impacted on people’s health and their ability to work.
I moved out of health and worked in local government for three years, where I realised that managing traffic engineers was no different to managing health specialists. In many ways, the questions were the same: how does the environment influence how people access services? What makes a community tick? That connection with community is very important; especially now, as we all get busier. People live in communities, they shop local. You have to be very mindful of resources and placement of things in people’s local communities, because that has an impact on how people organise themselves.
I think people who work in public health have to understand that the population of New Zealand doesn’t look like me. Sometimes that’s a challenge for people at my age and stage; they’re not at the school gate any more so they’re disconnected from the community and they don’t see the make-up of New Zealand as it is today. Forming relationships is a key thing for me. It’s critical if you want to partner on projects and understand different points of view. It takes time and effort, but that’s where trust comes from.
If you want to get into governance, start small. For a lot of people, it’s about building knowledge and skills by being involved with the PTA, or the toy library, or sports groups. Seek out all the training you can at that level. Be aware that governance in New Zealand is not highly paid (often it’s not paid at all!) If you’re serious about getting involved, be up for the work. At all levels, serious governance is about more than just turning up for a meeting, you have to do the work in between meetings too.
I really admire young people working in public health, especially those who have come to it from different career backgrounds. The ones I work with at NZBA are so good at chipping away at things. They’re sucking up all the information and experience they can so they can do a good job. There are so many people in public health who are prepared to invest themselves in their work and who don’t have a 9-5 focus. I think it’s important to give people the freedom to get the work done.
To succeed in public health you have to have a serious interest in community and people, you need to have tenacity and patience. You need communication skills and to understand the importance of relevance and timing. I remember talking to elected council members at a local government meeting about the ageing population. They weren’t interested at all, but the minute we talked about the impact this would have on the rates take, they sat up and listened. That was a huge lesson.
You need to be surrounded by people who can support you professionally and personally. You can’t be individualistic – you need to share the wins – but you also have to look after your own resilience. I was quite impetuous when I started out and I can’t believe some of the things I said when I was young. Now I know that it’s all about playing the long game. Rewards come in many ways.”