By Iulia Leilua (10 minute read)

There’s a lump that wells up in my throat sometimes when I pass certain places in my hometown.  Growing up in Taumarunui with a Samoan father and Māori mother, I wasn’t educated about racism or diversity.  But inequality sat like an invisible blanket over most of the Māori I knew, an uncomfortable truth I only now have the ability to analyse and articulate.

Although my immediate whānau (family) from Taumarunui were working class and uneducated, the biggest asset we had was land passed down through the generations from our tūpuna (ancestors). As a child, I took it for granted that I could roam free across these lands, play with my cousins in our trees, pick watercress from our spring fed creek and eat plums, pears and apples from our massive communal gardens.

Looking towards Taranaki from the summit on Kururau Road near Taumarunui.

We’d spend hours looking for eels in the Pongahuru Stream, climb the dangerous cliffs overlooking the Whanganui River – with no adults around of course – or go swimming in the river. It was comforting sitting in the long grass on our land that no Pākehā (European) had ever owned, listening to the cicadas and watching the sun set over the Kururau hills. When it was time for tea, I’d hear my Mum in the distance calling for me to go home.

It sounds like a carefree childhood right?  Well it was mostly, but unfortunately it didn’t last long.  In fact things soon took a turn for the worst.

The day they locked the gates on us.

At the entrance to our old traditional gardens.

One day when I was ten, we were told we weren’t allowed to play on our lands anymore.  The reasons weren’t clear to me at the time but rates arrears, ignorance about council processes, family dysfunction and squabbles about how to deal with the situation saw our lands pass into the borough council’s ownership.

The whānau orchard and gardens that fed our people at Te Peka Pā became a pony club.  Our lands above and below Taumarunui Hospital were subdivided and in some cases, my cousins started renting from the new owners.

Corner of River Rd and Kururau Rd where more of our former land has been subdivided.

Other local Māori families managed to hold onto their lands because of educated or visionary family members who were good leaders, but we weren’t so lucky.

As I watched fences being built around our whenua (land) and gates locking us out, I realised an important lesson – knowing the system and having a united whānau vision on how to deal with that system is crucial.

Unpacking the impacts of colonisation.

Let me elaborate, I’m not looking for pity.  However that experience shaped my adulthood.  It’s the reason I became the secretary for our tribal trust for twelve years, to learn about the Resource Management Act, the Ture Whenua Māori Act etc, and the systematic alienation of Māori land and water rights.  You learn a lot sitting through hui (meetings) with our people and with crown agents, watching the arguments, peoples’ styles of leadership and dealing with the treaty settlement process.

The main street of Taumarunui.

We have amazing, resilient, hardworking and proud whānau, hapū and iwi, but the most frustrating thing is our inability to agree and unite under a common vision.   Why is that?  Firstly, a lack of good leadership and succession planning.  Secondly there are gate keepers of important knowledge or access to the decision making table and the other big issues are different interpretations of whakapapa and history, poor communications, distrust and nepotism.

Waitangi Tribunal being welcomed onto Ngāpuwaiwaha Marae in Taumarunui for Whanganui District Inquiry Hearings in 2008.

It didn’t help that there was a high turnover of people that we were dealing with from the Office of Treaty Settlements, DOC, the Crown Forestry Rental Trust, local government and other crown agencies. This made it difficult to form long term relationships with people, and don’t get me started on the amount of paper work that gets sent to us.  It’s not easy for a small iwi trust to deal with three or four resource consents at a time which require you to download, print and sometimes read several hundred pages of dense scientific, legal or historic data.  That’s not including the treaty settlement papers and all the meetings and submissions you have to tend to.

It is entirely possible to function within this stressful, demanding, reactive arena but it takes fortitude and a healthy, positive foundation outside of this system to act as a counterbalance.  Eventually I got tired of being in grievance mode, the internal dynamics and fighting over the past. The constant reminders of our land losses made me angry or sad all the time.  It was time to change tack.

Seeing the bigger picture.

Giving myself permission to let go of iwi politics for a while, I thought, “Where can I work in a kaupapa Māori space that won’t be boring or filled with drama?”  It was during an Auckland shopping trip in 2009 that I saw an opportunity when I met a heavily pregnant reporter who worked for Native Affairs, the current affairs show at Māori Television.

Knowing she was about to go on maternity leave, I rang the show’s then producer, Sharon Hawke, for a job and was hired immediately.

It wasn’t a boring job but being TV, of course there was plenty of workplace drama.  After nine years of producing more than 100 Māori current affairs stories, I think you’ll agree with me that I gained a deeper understanding of the Māori world.

The stories that I was drawn to were land and environmental issues and local government engagement with Māori. It was a revelation being able to talk with Māori up and down the country who had similar experiences to my family.  I understood why my family were the way they were and how we became tenants in our own lands.

It was liberating uncovering injustices against Māori but there was just one problem with this.  Railing against the system without finding lasting solutions from the people I interviewed started to feel like grievance mode again.  How do I know?  Year after year, the injustices were the same and the system was the same, just with different iwi and whānau around the country.  Many of them weren’t plugged in to the corporate iwi structures or sitting at board and executive levels.

After seeing such a massive scale of missed opportunities for cross cultural engagement and productivity, an idea started forming.  Why not come up with a business solution to help bridge the cultural divide I was seeing?

Turning injustice and grievance into a mission driven business.

Here’s what happened.  In August last year I decided to step out on the water like St Peter did in the Bible and launched a two-day Māori and Pacific Cultural Engagement Masterclass at Ōrākei Marae.

My biggest challenge was knowing how to sell the idea to the Pakeha (European) people who needed it but weren’t looking for my product.  Many organisations were happy to remain at the shallow end of diversity and inclusion without wanting to dive in deeper.  I was also surprised at the level of interest from Māori and Pacific peoples.

It was at my CulturePRO 2017 Masterclass that I first heard the term ‘business activist’ by my guest speaker, economist and thought leader Shamubeel Eaqub; and I heard the term ‘cultural intelligence’ from other guest speakers such as Sina Moore, CEO of Leadership NZ.  These aren’t new concepts, but they were things I could frame my ideas, knowledge and experiences around.

With Shamubeel Eaqub and Te Arahi Bryers from Taiaha Connect at my CulturePRO 2017 Masterclass.

Since then I’ve been developing an online academy and am about to launch a new five week Māori and Pacific cultural intelligence programme.  I’ve also taken the leap from journalism to working full time on my business.

For a person who’s worked full time in media and communications for 30 years, it’s been a scary process.  In media, you work in an organisation supported by funding, and although you personally don’t own the copyright for your creations, you have a platform to speak and get famous, grow thousands of social media followers and position yourself as an expert.  They pay for you to travel, buy clothes, make-up or equipment.  Away from the funding and corporate support, many former broadcasters or print journalists struggle to find their own platform to speak.

Pushing the boat out further.

So what does this all mean?

Being a business activist for me means being an agent for positive cultural and social change while making a sustainable income.  I serve premium and mid-tier clients (from $10,000 to $30,000+) but I also make time to serve grassroots people at community rates.  I believe one of the biggest skills needed for poverty reversal is communications, confidence and the ability to articulate yourself.  It underpins your education, helps you get a job, form relationships and express yourself.  It’s the skill I know many of my whānau needed all those years ago when we lost our land and suffered the consequences.

Cultural intelligence isn’t just for Pakeha but for Māori and Pacific peoples as well.  I only wish my whānau knew back then what I know now.

Beyond grievance mode.

That sadness I feel when I pass our old whānau lands will always be there because I remember our old people walking those lands too.  I hate to think how it was for my tūpuna in the 1860s onwards when they suffered huge land losses through colonisation and government laws. Inequality and inequity still affects most of my whānau, it’s just much more subtle and institutionalised.

It’s due to my Christian faith that I’ve gotten past living in grievance mode.  And if there’s one thing that I pray for it’s this: I hope my people will not be slaves to the same system when I’m a kuia – on the benefit, renting, lacking in education, unable to express themselves and disconnected.  I also hope we can unite under a common vision and agree on solutions that empower us and our mokopuna to have greater economic, social and cultural autonomy.