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Curtin University
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John Curtin Medallists

Emeritus Professor Jo Barker (2012)

Emeritus Professor Jo Barker - 2012 John Curtin Medal recipient Emeritus Professor Jo Barker - 2012 John Curtin Medal recipient

Emeritus Professor Jo Barker makes a difference in almost everything she does. Her leadership in helping people and the community she lives in has been a hallmark of her life and career.

Professor Barker has enjoyed a successful and much lauded career in academia and allied health. She discovered her chosen career of occupational therapy as a 17-year-old living in New Zealand, falling in love with the profession's goal of helping people to regain their independence. She completed her university qualification in 1963, working initially with people who were recovering from strokes.

After making the move from New Zealand to Western Australia in 1969, Professor Barker worked within the mental health field, helping hospital outpatients to regain daily living skills. The diversity of her profession has brought her enormous joy throughout her long and distinguished career.

Professor Barker joined Curtin University in 1979, instantly stepping into the role of Head of Occupational Therapy, a position she held until 1993. She embraced the word of academia, becoming the first occupational therapist in Australia to complete a PhD in 1988. Her doctorate researched fairer ways to assess occupational therapy students on clinical placements, leading to very real changes in how students were assessed. She achieved this remarkable feat while single-handedly bringing up her son Andrew and working full-time.

Throughout her career, Professor Barker fearlessly pushed her vision to have occupational therapy recognised as a field of major importance in the health sector, and has never lacked the courage to take on new and challenging roles. Demonstrating her outstanding leadership, she was the first female board member of Perth's Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and subsequently its first female Chair. She was also the first Australian President of the World Federation of Occupational Therapists.

After retiring in 2001, she and her husband David - who she met at Curtin, and married 21 years ago - settled in Mandurah. But for Professor Barker, retirement was never going to be about slowing down.

For a decade, she served as Chair of the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre, using her exceptional leadership and interpersonal skills to restructure the board, recruiting members with the necessary financial, governance and strategic abilities to raise the public profile of the Centre and create a much more stable management environment.

She also steered the creation of a new vision for the Centre, oversaw the recruitment of an experienced Festival Director to develop its programming activities and helped reorganise the Centre's volunteer team, which today is more than 480-strong. She effectively drove the transformation of the under-utilised landmark building into a cultural hub for the region, a major drawcard for visitors and a provider of performance training for the local community.

She was presented with an Honorary Life Membership in recognition of this major community contribution and, in 2008, was awarded the Chamber of Commerce and Industry's Alcoa Business Excellence Award for Enterprising Women for the leadership role she played in supporting cultural change in Mandurah.

She has now moved her attention to public education, chairing the board that is working towards the amalgamation of two separate schools in the area - Mandurah High School and Mandurah Senior College. To be known as the John Tonkin College, this new educational entity aims to set a new direction for public education in Mandurah. Again, she has committed significant personal time and energy, in her supposed 'retirement years', to guiding and articulating a vision for this college.

In addition to all her voluntary work within the Mandurah community, Professor Barker has been an active mentor, coaching and developing skills in others so they too can become successful leaders.

Professor Barker has a remarkable aptitude for recognising and realising opportunities for community growth and development, and for nurturing the skills and potential of those she works alongside. Her commitment to the field of occupational therapy and the community she lives in make her a most worthy recipient of the 2012 John Curtin Medal.

Work undertaken since receiving the John Curtin Medal

Since receiving the John Curtin medal in 2012, Jo Barker has been involved in active service to the community.

She chaired the Independent Public Schools (IPS) board for John Tonkin College between 2012 and 2015 – the first high school in Mandurah to have gained IPS status. Jo then went on to assist other schools in the region to establish business-based IPS boards.

Between 2014 and 2017, she was an Ambassador for the Patrons Program at the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre. The program was initiated to create a base for art-minded people to meet, and to financially support the centre.

Since 2016, Jo has been an advocate for Alzheimer's WA, where she undertakes public speaking roles for students and community groups with her husband to dispel the myths and stigma attached to the dementia diagnosis.

She has raised $67,000 to establish a sensory garden at a care home for dementia clients in Mandurah and assists in making Mandurah, and the City of Mandurah, a dementia-friendly community.