February 15, 2017

Courage best answer to intolerance

Published in the NZ Herald

The Herald this week marks the launch of Super Diverse Women — a new organisation dedicated to championing the rights and achievements of women from indigenous and migrant backgrounds. Today, we talk to Charmeyne Te Nana-Williams of What Ever it Takes, a home-based rehabilitation and support services organisation.

Describe your ethnic or cultural background and how this has shaped the way you view yourself and the world.

I am Maori, Pakeha. My father is of Ngapuhi descent and comes from a family of 16. He is from a little coastal village called Rawhiti on the east coast of Russell where it was predominantly Maori. Tikanga and Taha Maori alongside Te Reo were an everyday part of their lives.

His grandfather Himi Clendon was the illegitimate child of Captain James Reddy Clendon who was the then United States Consul. My dad’s grandmother married a Te Nana and he bought Himi up as his son. Half the whanau took the Clendon name and the other half the Te Nana name.

In comparison – my mum’s whanau are from Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa, Kai Tahu and Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairarapa. Their whanau is small with just four tamariki so I only have two first cousins on my mum’s side. My grandparents on my mum’s side’s philosophy was that you needed to learn the Pakeha way of life to become successful.

Both my parents were sent to Maori boarding schools and myself and my siblings also attended Maori boarding schools in Hawkes Bay – Hukarere Maori Girls College and Te Aute College. This shaped my life in the sense that I had the absolute privilege to grow up in and have access to te Ao Maori and the Pakeha world. It’s given me the ability to adapt and not feel intimidated in either setting.

When I was about 6 our best friends were Scottish and one of the kids called me a burnt cookie! I didn’t know what he meant by that but it stayed with me. I really wasn’t aware that I was Maori or different in colour to my other friends until I was in my early 20s and into my second job.

During a Treaty of Waitangi workshop a Pakeha colleague got up to speak and talked about how all Maori were dirty and poor and his opinion was based on his Maori neighbours who used to throw rubbish into their backyard as kids. He professed to be a staunch Christian. He looked me straight in the eye and said “but you are a different Maori”. That really impacted me and in a sense rocked my world that people would think that way. I was quite devastated.

What benefits does society garner from more gender and ethnic diversity?

Well diversity brings the opportunity for people to learn tolerance, acceptance and appreciation. As Tangata Whenua our role is to manaaki and awhi our visitors and as manuhiri we are respectful visitors to our hosts and to the whenua. The history of Aotearoa has come out of bi-culturalism and with that foundation we have become multi-cultural.

From a business perspective it brings many economic opportunities as we open ourselves up to the rest of the world and local communities and our knowledge increases through the exposure to those diverse cultures. As a Maori business our practice model is tikanga-based and so this resonates with many indigenous groups around the world and that is an opportunity for growth for us.

Many New Zealanders like to think they are part of an increasingly tolerant society. Is this fact or fiction?

We like to think we are a tolerant society but I don’t think this is really the case. Many of those attitudes come from generations gone and my hope is that our tamariki will lead the way. It is cool to korero Maori now whereas it was shameful for my father’s generation and then my generation lost the ability to korero.

I think as we have more cross-cultural relationships tolerance will increase. My children are Maori, Pakeha, Samoan, German. My nieces Maori, Pakeha, Fijian, English. My responsibility as a parent is to give my children the confidence to have a voice, be courageous and be clear about who they are and where they come from.

What I think we as indigenous people do well at is support the movements of other indigenous groups – the protests at Standing Rock and the Dakota pipeline is a great example of people coming together to support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to protect their whenua and water from corporate America.

Outside of New Zealand, do you think the world is becoming a more tolerant place? If so, why and if not why not?

Well I think the election of President Donald Trump is a clear indicator of the lack of tolerance that currently exists in [America’s] societies which will have and is having an impact across the world. If our leaders remain strong and steadfast about who we are as a nation hopefully this won’t have too much of an impact on us. I was in Times Square during the election and then across the States – the fear from the African American and Muslim societies was very evident. However, as I’ve mentioned previously I think indigenous cultures come together well and certainly our business opportunities with these communities has given us groups of allies and supporters not just in business but also in the development of our young people and the way we engage and share knowledge.

Have you faced discrimination, as a woman and/or as a member of a migrant community or ethnic minority? Where did this take place and how did or does it affect you?

Because of the nature of our mahi – supporting high needs, complex, acquired disability, accident-related, mainly Maori and Pacific whanau – the discrimination I see is mainly institutionalised. As an example Maori are over-represented when it comes to Serious Injury at around 23 per cent and yet the services that Maori have to access are only mainstream.

What advice do you have to others who face it?

Don’t give in and be courageous! Dame Tariana Turia has been my mentor in many ways when addressing issues of disparity.

Debates around creating more equal workplaces have been dominated by the gender pay gap and gender diversity on boards or in executive teams. In your experience do members of migrant communities or ethnic minorities also face discrimination in the workplace?

We have many migrants who work with us and I would say that the gender and ethnic disparities across all levels that we are involved in has not been an issue as outlined by the media.

If so, do women from such backgrounds face double discrimination? Do efforts to tackle discrimination adequately reflect this?

I have had subtle experiences of discrimination as a female and then being Maori as well. However I am very clear about my strengths and they are in developing relationships with key people and organisations. In fact I see it as a strength in my favour when this attitude plays out as they underestimate me and often it is to their detriment. It is a great position to be in!

What are your views of quotas as a way of ensuring more diversity?

I am not really a supporter of quotas however the advantage that we have as tangata whenua of Aotearoa are the envy of the world. It’s important that we retain the kaitiakitanga of this land and are able to work in partnership with all groups to understand, respect and treat Aotearoa with the mana it deserves. This also includes an accurate understanding of the principles of the Treaty. I would never expect to go and live in Samoa and receive the same benefits and advantages of the Samoan people even though my husband and children are Samoan.

What are other strategies you think could be effective in creating more diverse workplaces or social institutions?

Our organisation has people from a wide range of ethnic groups who we employ and work alongside. What is most critical for us is an alignment of our core principles through our Pou Te Aho Takitoru so as an example – Mauri Ihu – Who do you represent and what do you stand for. Tapu – what are the non-negotiables for you. Tumanako – what are your goals and aspirations. Pono, Tika, Aroha – being honest, in the right way and with the best intentions. In fact our pou resonates with our employees who are mainly, Pasifika and Filipino.

How can the media do a better job of reflecting New Zealand’s growing diversity?

Focus on the positive aspects and the richness that each culture brings to Aotearoa. At Waitangi the media almost always has such a negative spin on the event. I’m from there, I go there every year. By and large it is a very whanau-focused weekend and is really beautiful. It is also a time of protest for some – that should be embraced as well.

Someone asked one of the kaumatua why does the ceremony happen at dawn and his response was because that is the time when night meets day and beautiful things happen. This whole debacle about Bill English not speaking – it’s what is tapu to the marae, you are guests there (manuhiri), respect the kawa (rules) of the marae – they apply to everyone! However the way this is reported creates disharmony and resentment. It is no different to the kawa at my whare (house) – take your shoes off – it’s just respectful, plain and simple so report it accordingly.


Click here to watch the interview with Charmeyne Te Nana-Williams