My life as a child advocate
Altruism was instilled in me from childhood. My parents were deeply concerned about issues like education, racism, and the status of Maori and Pasifika children. Teaching firstly in remote Maori schools, when we moved to Auckland they both had stints teaching in Ponsonby, during very different periods.
My father Pius taught at Beresford St Primary during the 1970s, when inner city suburbs were the domains of brown families. Arapera taught there at the start of the second millennium. Ponsonby had become gentrified and Beresford St Primary swallowed up by Auckland Girls Grammar (AGGS). Arapera taught English and te reo Maori at AGGS and was affectionately known as 'Ma Blank' to the Maori students.
My parents had the same high educational expectations of their students as they did of their own children. We were all expected to achieve to the best of our ability and transition onto tertiary study.
Following my parents' career path was never an option. Being good at English I fancied myself as a journalist. Social Work was another option. I liked the radicalism associated with it, influenced as I was by two outspoken parents.
I started as a youth worker in West Auckland when I was 20. I wasn't street-wise and the young people ran rings around me. They drove into my car and knifed my tyres. It gave me the experience I needed, however, to nail a job with Social Welfare. I was 23 and living in Dannevirke when I started as a social worker. I would work for Social Welfare, which morphed into Child, Youth and Family (CYF) for the next thirteen years.
Over 50% of CYF clients were Maori, a figure that has remained largely unchanged. I worked in Maori teams in South, West and Central Auckland. I saw terrible things. Shaken babies, sexual abuse, children beaten senseless, adolescent girls up on murder charges. An Otara teenager I sent to camp tried to cut his foreskin off with a knife. CYF is a conveyor belt of damaged Maori children and young people, relentless and desperately sad.
For the last 20 years my work has been a blend of an old (social work) and a new career (public relations and communications). I have tried to explore other areas of work but I am always drawn back to Maori issues.
When Nia Glassie died I proposed to my uncle, Dr Hone Kaa, that we convene a hui of Maori to develop a plan to eliminate Maori child abuse. The hui took place over two days during November 2007 and gave birth to the organisation Mana Ririki, which I lead until the end of last year. We occupied the media space persistently, drawing attention to the plight of Maori children and young people, advocating kaupapa Maori solutions. The media is our new marae, the place where issues are debated and resolved.
60% of New Zealand children living in poverty are Maori and Pasifika, and in ten years these two groups will constitute 40% of all New Zealand children. The tyranny of democracy demands that we talk about child poverty as shared, everyone's problem, no one group deserving more attention than another. Looking at the data, this is an absurd approach.
Working independently now, my partners are of a similar disposition to me. Middle-aged, educated and freethinking, we are concerned with the disproportionate spread of poverty. As Maori and Pasifika populations swell, the need for action becomes more urgent. Evidence for the development of solutions, which support linguistic and cultural development, is clear. Diversity within these groups is increasing though, so solutions must also be multiple. A cookie cutter approach will not work.
If we get it right for Maori and Pasifika, we will be better equipped to deal with the complexities of an increasingly ethnically diverse Aotearoa. When I travel to Europe I am very aware of an international hyper-diversity, but it is here also.