ALOUD: Sandra, could you start by introducing the work you are involved in as a dentist traveling to remote Australia and Nepal?
SANDRA MEIHUBERS: When people think of a dentist, they think of the usual situation with a practice, providing clinical work and making a reasonable living. I have never been interested in that. As a student, I had a chance to go up to the Northern Territory into remote Aboriginal communities. That was a turning point in seeing dentistry differently. The dentistry is the vehicle but one of the main issues is that people in remote areas shouldn’t be marginalized. There are so many people with potential and one of my great delights is to nurture the Aboriginal people who think they have no skill, take them into the job and see them grow. My work is to support them and give them the training to become dental assistants or clinic managers.
ALOUD: How did you get into that field?
SANDRA: I have always been interested in community based work. I spent many years working in Aboriginal health services which are run by Indigenous people for their own community. It used to be that the high level professions were non Aboriginal people but it is changing a bit now. It’s not only about treating diseases, it’s also prevention within a community.
ALOUD: Do you do this sort of work in Sydney?
SANDRA: No, I have no work in Sydney. As far as I am concerned, there are enough people in Sydney to do the work. In remote areas, they struggle to find people to support them so that is where I should be working.
ALOUD: How do you manage to work on many projects at a time?
SANDRA: It’s a juggling act. When I set my mind to things I can be very focused and I always have a set of luggage ready to go. When you enjoy the stimulus, you can make things work. I’ve been working with some of these organizations for many years and they understand the way I work. They can show some patience and understanding.
ALOUD: Are you at the origin of the projects in Nepal and East Timor?
SANDRA: In Nepal, there was a project already going and I started as a volunteer dentist. After a couple years, the political situation became a bit tough with the Maoists causing trouble. The dentistry volunteer teams from Australia stopped so I continued by myself. Since then, I have essentially been a team of 1. We just keep developing projects within our project. With Paul (Pholeros), my husband, we’ve been doing a sanitation project in a village there. We have just completed the construction of 58 toilets in the village. In East Timor, in partnership with another dentist, we established a voluntary dental program. I like to work on a small scale. I work legitimately and legally but I’m not going to be the one to write huge articles about my work and drawing attention to it. I would rather work with local people and make sure they are satisfied, slowly and quietly making things happen.
ALOUD: How do your projects influence each other?
SANDRA: Many of the interactions are similar when you are working on community based projects. You acknowledge every place as being different but the core elements are the same. Working with Aboriginal communities in Australia opens your eyes to another culture, another language, another way of seeing the world without leaving your own country. I could learn about the importance of community and the lesser importance of material wealth there so when you go to “a poorer country”, you see similar structures in place. The other thing is respecting the protocols in each place, whether they are official, social or cultural. You may not know them straightaway but you are aware that they exist.
ALOUD: Does it create a different relationship when you are there to teach a skill rather than giving money?
SANDRA: The key is to find one or two “champions” who will take on the responsibility of running the projects and being my guide through the situations that arise. When you work with people, the relationships go beyond the superficial to quite long-lasting relationships. They have to trust that I won’t let them down and run away, that I’ll train them to do things they thought they would never be able to do, that I am aware of what their limits are and they let me know what my limits are as well.
ALOUD: It’s an exchange.
SANDRA: That’s right and that’s the exciting thing. You know which way you are heading but you know there will be unexpected things as well. One of my main inspirations is the people that I meet who haven’t had the same access to education or services and yet have enormous strength and potential, a thirst to learn, to do something for their own communities almost against the odds. Sometimes, you feel incredibly humble in their presence when you see what they are able to achieve. It’s about getting all the pieces together to give them the chance and confidence in themselves to go on.
ALOUD: Do your projects evolve as they go or do you usually have a clear idea of where things are going, even over the course of a few years?
SANDRA: If a plan can be random, then I probably have a plan. I make things happen. I won’t necessarily have a plan but I’ll think about what could be possible. I am always looking for things that are not working and how to make them work. I work towards making things happen by slowly pulling people in who need to be part of the process. It’s setting targets but then letting a natural process of evolution happen. You need the flexibility to allow for things to come along.
ALOUD: How are your projects funded?
SANDRA: In Australia, some of these programs are already funded and I come in as part of a continuum and try to push the program in another direction. Sometimes, there will just be grants for one-off projects. In Nepal, it’s a bit of begging, borrowing, negotiating but it seems to work. Sometimes I feel like a Buddhist monk walking around hoping people will put food in my bowl to keep the projects going. The process for Australia and Nepal is very similar even if the scale of money is very different.
ALOUD: How do you make important decisions and what could make you say “no” to an attractive offer?
SANDRA: On a personal level, I have no idea how I make important decisions. I think it depends who is making the offer. I think there is some idealism involved in saying “yes” or “no” to offers that might come along. Making sure there is some integrity and honesty around the project. Professionally, I’m lucky because I work with people whom I trust and who trust me. I wouldn’t make an important decision about a project by myself. I have had to change my opinions and respect other people’s judgements because we work as a team.
ALOUD: Is working for yourself an important aspect of what you do?
SANDRA: It is very important because I retain an independence from the organizations. It is probably one of the most important aspects of what I do. It gives me that freedom, that flexibility to go to Nepal when I want to, to plan my own schedule. Having that balance is hugely important.
ALOUD: Is that something you identified fairly early?
SANDRA: If we go back to when I was 18, I just finished high school and I had absolutely no idea of what I wanted to do. I ran into a family friend who had been working as dentist for a couple of years. The thing he said that really struck a chord, was that he really enjoyed the independence in dentistry. Once I started doing the work, I realised that no matter where you are, you are completely tied down by this appointment schedule, working in a very small environment. Finally, with the work I have been doing for the last 15 years, I have achieved this independence through having my own consultancy. I got there in the end.
ALOUD: Do you agree with this quote “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life?”
SANDRA: No (laughs). It’s all a part of the balance. I think that statement is a fairly naive ideal and it puts a negative spin on work. You can never have anything that is absolutely brilliant every day. The best will always have some element of tedium. If you don’t have the down times, how can you appreciate the better times? I have chosen a job I love and I love the work. I think it’s very much a Western notion to want to be free from work.
ALOUD: Do you draw a line between your work and your life?
SANDRA: Not always. I’m lucky that the lines are blurred because I work with inspirational people. Working in a community based sector, you don’t feel like you have to close the door at the end of the day and walk away from work. I respect the people I work with and I’m very happy that these people might welcome me as their friend. It’s very much interconnected.
ALOUD: Traveling very regularly can become less thrilling after a while. Would you want to stop traveling at some point?
SANDRA: The novelty does wear off but what is the choice? You have to have good mechanisms for survival. You learn to become more self-contained, to take the essentials to get you through, the bits of your own world to survive no matter where you are. I love looking at my travel bag and thinking what I need is in there.
ALOUD: How do you promote yourself and your projects?
SANDRA: I do write the occasional article. Dentists sometimes forget that if people are poor and can’t afford toothbrushes, have no running water in their homes, if the kids are sick with diarrhea, then maybe teeth-brushing isn’t very high in their priorities. I like to get people thinking about issues in a broader sense. I also do networking within the dental profession and the Aboriginal health sphere. I am on various committees. I do presentations and conferences. The word gets out a little bit.
ALOUD: If anything, what would you change about your current situation?
SANDRA: This is terrible but I wish I could fly business class (laughs). It’s a bit bourgeois to say but when you are traveling a lot, it doesn’t become a novelty, it becomes a function of survival. Apart from that, the only thing I would change is my frustration with the lack of balance in the world. I wish there was a bit more resource going into areas where it is needed.
ALOUD: Can it be disheartening to do so much work for one village and then look back and see another 1000 villages that need the same attention?
SANDRA: It was supposedly Mother Theresa who said “if you can’t feed a hundred people, then just feed one.” I really believe that. When I have a group of students, I know not all of them will get through but if one or two have enormous breakthroughs and huge changes in their lives, I know they will have more positive effects on the people around them. You are the start of something. I think sometimes, we undervalue the small changes. We need to learn to be content with the smaller gains.
ALOUD: How are you going to take it to the next level?
SANDRA: On a personal level, it would be finally seeing attitudes change about Aboriginal people in Australia. For them not to be constantly seen as a problem but eventually to be seen as people who are living a certain way. It won’t happen before I die, I know that.
ALOUD: What skills or experiences would you like to add to your repertoire?
SANDRA: To be more clever at fundraising. It would be great to see some of these projects moving a little quicker.
ALOUD: Is there such an abundance of organizations doing humanitarian work that it is in some ways spreading the resources too thin?
SANDRA: As more people are traveling and experiencing situations, they are thinking about issues more and wanting to do something about it. That’s a positive but the issue is how we manage that. Sometimes they don’t understand the impact of their short term experience. People think they have to form their own NGO. They want to do it their way and then they’ll be looking for funding and resources. The amount of funding and resources hasn’t necessarily grown at the same rate. In Aboriginal communities, we’ve had structured programs in place for many years. If people are coming in, they still have to respect those structures. They see the problems and think that they have the answers. It’s very easy to be smart instantly but wisdom takes a lot longer to develop.
ALOUD: Is the risk worth the reward?
SANDRA: There is always risk involved because it means you are taking on the hard issues. You can have spectacular failures and one of the things you learn from the failure is that you do move on. That gives you strength to take on the tougher issues again. When you do achieve the results, then, it’s fun. You’ve done it, you got there, you’ve arrived…with others usually.