Woman Healy, Joan

Community worker, Social activist and Social worker

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Joan Healy was born in Brunswick, Melbourne in 1935, a child of the depression and parents who were deeply affected by it. She grew up a member of a strong, Catholic working family, trained as a teacher, worked amongst poor factory workers in Collingwood and in her mid-20s, inspired by the stories of Mary McKillop's work amongst Melbourne's poor a century beforehand, joined the order of the Sisters of St Joseph. In 2009, in recognition of her significant contributions to social work, particularly in supporting community-based care for children and families in need, both in Australia and overseas, she was awarded Australian Catholic University's (ACU) highest honour, Doctor of the University.

Healy loved reading and remembers 'losing herself in books' as a child (Interview). She enjoyed school and was educated in the Catholic system to the age of sixteen, having received a government scholarship that paid for four years of post-primary education. Once the scholarship ran out, she left school and went to work, so that her father could be free to leave the awful job he was in 'working in a basement' as a plumber for the State Bank of Victoria (Interview). She was employed as an untrained teacher's assistant at East Coburg State School for a year and then enrolled at Melbourne Teacher's College to do a Trained Primary Teacher's Certificate. The teaching community that she mixed was inspiring; they were people who wanted to bring out the potential of children and realised that the best way of doing that was to encourage the potential in each other.

In the meantime, another important community was shaping her world view, the community of the church. Religion was central to her family life and she experienced the interplay of faith, community and development through family involvement in activities that supported both the school and the church. When the local community decided another school was needed in East Coburg, they banded together to convince Archbishop Daniel Mannix to build one. When they decided that a new church needed to be built, they did the same. Healy learned that there was a great deal of fun to be had out of community building. Childhood in her neighbourhood was like living in a small country town, so tightly forged was the community spirit. 'Except,' she adds, 'that is was exclusively Catholic' (Interview). Growing up in Melbourne in the 1940s and 50s it was impossible to avoid the sharp end of sectarianism. But it was not something to which her family subscribed. She mixed with non-Catholic children in the street; her parents were 'tolerant and internationally minded' (Interview).

As a young teacher, barely 20 years old and working in a country school, she had ample opportunity to enjoy an active social life; so much so that her parents decided they would encourage her to move back from Gippsland and into town to get her to settle down. She successfully applied for a position at an experimental school in Brunswick and at the same time, joined the Young Christian Workers (YCW). It was a pivotal shift and, on reflection, she believes it was at this point that she started to conceive how she wanted to 'lead' her life. 'The Young Christian Workers encouraged the development of leadership potential through praxis,' she says. 'See, Judge, Act. Normally action for justice is what came out of it' (Interview).

Her lived experience and observations of injustice worried her so much that she began to think she needed to live amongst the injustice to understand it better. She and a friend moved into rooms in inner Melbourne, working in factories and speaking with people with dreams who were stuck in cycles of poverty. While the extent of poverty in Melbourne distressed and appalled her finding ways to release and realise the potential amongst the poor became her major preoccupation. She asked for leave from teaching so she could do more work in the factories and resigned when it was not granted.

The inner Melbourne experience transformed her life, a process that was accelerated upon her discovery of a book, at age 24, about Mary MacKillop working among the poor. 'Now here's a woman who's so committed, really walking with God, but around these back streets of Melbourne', which I knew very well,' she said in 2010. 'What inspired me was here was a woman of vision and courage and prayer who was not behind a convent wall, but right down on the ground with people who were poor' (Webb). Feeling passionate about social activism she also began to feel passionate about God. The Josephite order was a good fit for her and at 26 she joined recognising her need 'to belong to a grounded community' (Interview).

Since then, her work in Australia and abroad had been conducted within this context. As a teacher and then as a trained social worker her work was premised on an understanding that everyone operates better when they are part of a caring and supportive community. She was influential in the development of community models of child protection that focused on families, helped them to develop their potential and worked on the principle that 'the mother is as needy as the baby' (Interview). A pilot program in Footscray set up on this community care model in the mid 1970s was successful enough to get continuing funding.

Healy thinks that the key to creating sustainable communities is establishing an environment where people believe that they can achieve their potential. True leadership involves identifying that potential and facilitating its development. Effective education is the key, whether the context be a community housing project in Footscray, developing education and leadership programs in a Cambodian refugee camp or empowering Peruvian women as they establish their own craft business; major projects in which Healy has played a leading role.

Although the range of her projects has been diverse, the leadership lessons learned throughout have been remarkably similar. Good leadership is about helping people to develop their potential. It relies on effective development and use of networks, and it involves convincing others to share your dream. Leaders need to be supported, too! Importantly, it involves indentifying the leadership functions required for the particular task at hand and finding the people and personalities required to carry out those functions. To that end, leadership has to be shared. Very few people have all the tools required to lead in every circumstance. Positional leaders need to recognise this and give opportunities to those around them to lead where it's appropriate.

Sister Joan Healy has spent a lifetime as a social activist, in order to empower and protect people, especially women and children. The shared leadership and support organisational model adopted by the Sisters of St Joseph has always made sense to her, because the context is one that recognises that 'leadership is not about status, it's about having the opportunity to make a contribution' (Interview). Headline and status seekers wouldn't recognise what they do as leadership, says Sister Joan. 'People looking for leadership

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Joan Healy interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, 17 August 2011, ORAL TRC 6290/17; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources

See also