WAAC CEO Lisa Dobrin talks leadership, COVID-19 and the future

The WA AIDS Council (WAAC) announced in March that Lisa Dobrin had been appointed as the new CEO of the health organisation supporting people living with HIV and the LGBTIQ+ commnity.

Stepping up to replace former CEO David Kernohan after his resignation in November last year, Dobrin brings an extensive resume in the community sector including Mission Australia, Identity WA, the City of Belmont and Richmond Wellbeing.

Dobrin will be taking the reins on WAAC’s diverse portfolio of support programs which currently includes support for people living with HIV, counselling and mental health resources, needle exchange services, as well as the management of the sexual health centre M Clinic and local LGBTIQ+ youth service Freedom Centre.

Speaking to OUTinPerth about her appointment, Dobrin says her past relationship with WAAC while working at Mission Australia was part of the reason she decided to put her hand up for the role.

“I loved what WAAC stood for. They had a really great reputation, really experienced, knowledgeable staff and a great service delivery component that they offered to community,” Dobrin said.

“Over the last few years my sense of what’s happened at WAAC has changed. That perception and the reputation around how WAAC operates had changed and I was really intrigued to know what that was about.”

“I’d also got to a point in my career where I was just finishing an MBA, I’d been in my last role for seven years, and I felt like the middle management that I’d been in I’d given what I felt I could give and I felt like I’d learned what I needed to learn.”

Citing leadership role models like Anita Roddick, Herb Kelleher and Jacinda Ardern, Dobrin says she had a sense that the organisation needed a different kind of leadership.

“I’d call it paradoxical leadership… it was this notion of being able to use power with humility and strength with vulnerability. You can be decisive, but you can collaborate, and you can be honest and it’s not career-limiting. You can be authentic and you don’t have to fear that authenticity. You can be accountable and be human.”

“I wasn’t seeing that in some of the places that I was working within and working in partnership with, and I felt like maybe WAAC was ready for a new leader with some new ideas.”

Ahead of Dobrin’s appointment, WAAC had already begun the exploratory process of a potential name change and re-brand of the organisation. Certainly not an uncommon step in current times for AIDS Councils whose services which span far beyond the HIV/AIDS sector.

“One of the key reasons for the re-brand was that our consumers, our partners, our people in our communities had grown and so had our services. They’ve evolved over time, and the way that WAAC was presenting itself… the community wanted that to reflect those changes in the organisation.”

“We facilitated two extensive perception surveys around sexual health topics and general sexual health knowledge. The other one was around the actual brand and the perception of it, the relatability to it, what it means to people – and ultimately whether people were attached to the WA AIDS Council and, if not, what they would like to see changed.”

“Almost 70% of the respondents in those surveys agreed that a name change is a great idea, and that they felt that the word AIDS was no longer contemporary or seen as necessary or representative like it once used to. Though we must never forget the importance and legacy of where we’ve come from and our roots.”

“As for where to from here; in the month that I’ve been here we’ve been in a couple of meetings, including with the board, talking about the direction of the re-branding and I can just tell you to watch this space.”

Dobrin has also been faced with the unique challenge of leading WAAC through the uncertainly of COVID-19, which not only adds pressure to existing services, but has seen the spread of misinformation regarding the effects of PrEP on COVID-19 and panic-buying of HIV medications.

“COVID offers some unique challenges for all people in the community, but particularly for the people we work with, serve and support. Our essential services throughout the pandemic are being adapted and shifted as seamlessly as we can to ensure that people in the community get their needs met, the emerging needs are met, and that we respond and are agile to meeting those emerging needs.”

“[PrEP] is not a preventative or prophylactic for COVID. There is no HIV medication that has been proven to be a prophylactic or work, at the moment, for COVID either. We strongly encourage physical distancing, hand-washing, all the stuff that you’re hearing from the government WAAC absolutely 100% supports and encourages.”

The additional effects of COVID-19 on the communities served by WAAC has also seen the organisation increase and adapt their services for people living with HIV and the LGBTIQ+ community.

“Our counselling services have been ramped up, so we’ve brought in a second and third counsellor. We’ve brought in a counsellor who is LGBTIQ+ young people specific, and we’re looking at bringing in a second peer educator.”

“Also counselling has gone online, you can phone us, you can Facetime us, you can Whatsapp us, you can video link us, you can Zoom us. There’s multiple platforms and levels that we are offering while people are in home isolation.”

“We just want to say that physical distancing does not mean complete social isolation, and we really urge people to stay connected and not just with their family and friends but also with the organisations that they access, and not to forget that we are here for them, and we are here with them, and we are not going anywhere soon.”

Though the organisation sounded the alarm in 2019, with then CEO David Kernohan warning that WAAC funding had been “left in limbo” when the Department of Health chose not to renew multiple year funding. When asked if the community should be concerned about the future of the organisation, Dobrin had a simple answer.

“Absolutely not!”

“I can assure you that all three of our funders from the Mental Health Commission to the Department of Education, but particularly our core funder in the Department of Health, have been nothing but overwhelmingly supportive of myself as the new leader and of the direction that the board and the staff and myself are hoping to lead towards.

“I meet with the Department of Health on a weekly basis, and we are working through operational plans and other documents that are going to help us to have a framework and a pathway and steps to be able to achieve all the things that, not only our funders want, but for our communities.

“Our job here is to go back to our roots. We’re here for our communities. We’re here to ensure that they get their emerging and changing needs met. As the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS changes, and the landscape changes, we want to be able to respond and be flexible and adapt to those changing needs.

“The Health Department are nothing but supportive, aligned, and wanting to work in true collaboration and partnership on that journey. In the conversations that are being held between ourselves and the Department of Health, they have outlined the steps that we would like to take together to ensure that when the tender is released again that we have the utmost support, encouragement and opportunity to succeed in securing funding moving forward.”

You can connect with the WA AIDS Council at waaids.com

Leigh Andrew Hill

Image:- Luke Riley Creative

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