To celebrate International Women's Day on March 8, the Herald and online magazine E-Tangata are telling the video stories of six inspirational Māori and Pasifika women. Tapu Misa explains why it's time we heard their voices.
Thirty years ago, a magazine editor asked me to write my life story.
Of course, I resisted. It seemed a bit premature, to say the least. I was in my twenties, I hadn't lived, or done anything worth writing about. Besides, why would I want people to know about my life — and who even would be interested? Not to mention, in Sāmoan culture, we frown on such blatant self-promotion.
But the editor persisted, and, in the end, I didn't feel like I had a choice. I went home to Wellington and talked to my parents. About why we'd left Sāmoa to come to New Zealand. About what had happened when we got here. How hard it had been, how hard it still was.
And then I wrote.
Somehow, the story that I couldn't see when it was first suggested to me stretched out over 14 pages of magazine when it was published. An Immigrant's Story was the North & South's September 1987 cover story.
It was only after I started getting letters from readers (no email then) that I began to understand the kind of impact that a personal story can have. It really wasn't about me. As one woman wrote, my story was her Sāmoan mother's story, too: "What happened to your family, also happened to our family." By writing about my experience, I had validated theirs. I had given voice to the experiences of an otherwise inaudible and invisible community.
After all these years, I still meet people who tell me they remember that North & South article, and a few who even have a copy of the magazine. I think that speaks to how rare it was to read anything by a Pacific journalist in 1987 — and how much our community was aching to see themselves represented. Wholly, honestly, and in all our complexity.
There's been a lot of academic research on how New Zealand's monocultural media covered brown issues in the '70s and '80s. Bastion Point, for example. Every single Waitangi Day. Suffice to say, as the late Ranginui Walker put it: "Māori news is bad news."
Like Māori, Pasifika weren't visible in any good way. We were overstayers, violent criminals and bludgers. Poor, sick, pathetic, hopeless people who couldn't cope outside our small islands.
Growing up in Porirua in the 1970s, desperate to see or hear something good about people like me in the media, I latched on to All Black Bryan Williams, the only Pacific Islander I knew of who was celebrated on the national stage. Yet I doubt many New Zealanders even knew he was Sāmoan until he was made an "honorary white" in South Africa so he could tour with the All Blacks.
Forty years on, we're still a long way from a nuanced portrayal of Māori and Pasifika communities in the media. Last year, I listened to high school students telling RNZ's Indira Stewart how the mainstream media's portrayal of South Auckland (around 60 percent Māori and Pasifika) hurts them. They wanted to tell their stories to prove to people that they are more than what the media thinks.
There are so many good things that we do, but the media just emphasises the negativity. And that hurts us. They belittle our value and our culture and our families. We are constantly demeaned, constantly discriminated against.
They reminded me of me.
What's arguably worse today is the tendency of mainstream media to highlight our communities' problems and erase its successes.
One student in the RNZ piece pointed out the way some media outlets had characterised Manurewa High School as an "Auckland school" rather than a South Auckland school, when its hip-hop dance crew (or "Kiwi dancers") received online praise from actor Will Smith.
"But when it's something like a school brawl fight, it's South Auckland."
You don't have to be a particularly sensitive person to be profoundly affected by this. How we, as a society, tell stories about ourselves and each other, makes a difference. Our stories create the lens through which we see ourselves and our neighbours and the world around us. Storytelling has the power to shape who and what we are.
I know first-hand the impact that an unrelenting onslaught of bad news and negative stereotypes can have. For me, an immigrant who arrived here at the age of eight, it's meant a sometimes crippling lack of confidence, and a sense of never quite belonging.
I want better for the next generation of Māori and Pasifika women.
Taking control of the narrative has been a key part of the kaupapa at E-Tangata, the online magazine that I run with my longtime friend and mentor Gary Wilson.
The need to lift the voices of our wāhine toa is particularly acute.
It's bad enough that women in general represent such a small proportion of news subjects in New Zealand — 18 percent in 2015, though I imagine it may well have increased in the wake of #MeToo, the 2017 election, and gains in pay equity. But Māori and Pasifika women are even less visible.
And while it's truly great that women occupy the country's top three jobs — prime minister, chief justice and governor-general — it doesn't change the employment reality for many brown women. Māori women continue to have the highest rate of unemployment; Pasifika women the lowest pay.
And yet there are many Māori and Pasifika women who are doing incredible things in their communities every day. If we want the next generation of Māori and Pasifika to thrive, we have to celebrate these women, out loud, with each other and the world.
We at E-Tangata have teamed up with Tawera Productions to bring you Conversations, a six-part web series featuring a few of the Māori and Pasifika women we love and admire, telling us their stories, in their own words, in the lead-up to International Women's Day.
Some of the women are well known, others less so. But, like so many Māori and Pasifika women, every one of them is working for the wellbeing of our communities — and ultimately for a healthier, more united Aotearoa.
• Tapu Misa, a former Herald journalist and columnist, is the co-editor of E-Tangata, a not-for-profit online magazine which specialises in Māori and Pasifika stories and perspectives.
The Herald will publish a video and story each day of the six women in Conversations. They are Selina Tusitala Marsh, the country's trailblazing poet laureate; Moana Maniapoto, singer-songwriter, documentary-maker and writer; Emeline Afeaki-Mafile'o, a social entrepreneur from South Auckland; Pania Newton, the young activist who's leading the fight against the Fletcher development at Ihumātao; Pepe Robertson, who carries a proud legacy from the Women's Mau movement in Sāmoa; Naida Glavish, the staunch matriarch who's been leading cultural change in Aotearoa since the 1980s, when she first made headlines as the "kia ora" lady. You can see all the videos and stories at nzherald.co.nz/suffrage