I always enjoyed being part of the Maori Women's Leadership Development Programme.

It was run over a number of years, usually in Auckland, just before most of the Treaty of Waitangi claims were settled.

That tells you we're going back a few years. They were always oversubscribed by Māori women from all walks of life.

June Jackson, Dame June now, at that time chief executive of the Manukau Urban Māori Authority, sponsored the programme.


She believed leadership is not something you arrive at later in life or when you have a flash job title with a corresponding flash salary.

"Leadership is essentially about character," she would say, "good judgment and courage."

She also stressed to those taking part "you can grow into leadership wherever you are planted right now".

It was a great programme with stirring motivational speakers. Some speakers were challenging and often confrontational but the women took it all in.

If they aspired to leadership it wasn't going to be a popularity contest. The current Māori leadership at that time came under fire.

Those positions were invariably held by men, and the women didn't seem at all impressed with what was on show. They wanted change. They wanted inclusive leadership. Everyone shared their views of leadership.

They may not have known exactly what they thought leadership should be but they were very clear about what they believed leadership was not. It was definitely not self-serving and not just the domain of a chosen few.

They thought it should start in the home. The women left at the end of the day feeling inspired, always wanting to know when there would be a follow up.


When each programme was advertised we would get calls complaining "Why are 'you people' advertising a course for Māori women only? That's discriminatory. Why isn't it open for all women to come along?"

These calls were usually handled by Dame June. "Oh please," she would say. "Since when have they been interested in empowering Māori women? They're not. They're just upset the course is specifically targeting Māori women, catering to their needs."

After talking at length with the callers she would always graciously say: "Please come along if you're interested, you'll be welcome."

On two occasions I recall a couple of Pākehā women did front up. They were gone before lunch. I think it was the whakawhanaungatanga that got them - when everyone briefly introduces themselves, where they are from and their tribal affiliations. I say briefly, you always get one or two who want to go back to the beginning of time, because with 30-plus attendees this can take up a bit of time.

It's always a pleasure to meet someone you are tribally connected to that you haven't met before. For the Pākehā women this must have been a daunting experience. They left before whakawhanaungatanga finished.

The development programme focused on the women's needs. It was put together with the specific intention of helping them achieve their own, and their families', aspirations.

Some aspects of the programme were portable and would apply to any leadership course.

But Māori women have diverse roles not only within their own whanau but within hapu and iwi as well.

Theirs is a multi-faceted job and leadership is one of them. I enjoyed this work and met many women who have moved seamlessly into leadership positions.

So I wasn't surprised at the reaction to Joseph Parker's advertised speaking visit to Whanganui High School next week.

He was initially going to be speaking only to Māori and Pasifika students. But someone should have checked with him first.

Because he has since said he wasn't consulted on that decision. He had no idea at any stage the school planned to limit his visit on the basis of students' race or gender.

Now all the students and their teachers will hear Parker speak. I get that. But what if he had said, "I want to speak to Māori and Pasifika students, and their dads, on their own at the start of my talk. I want to share my story and encourage them to work hard to create a future of their choosing. They need to hear this message, loudly and proudly from one of their own"?

Māori youth are bombarded daily with all the negative stereotypes they have become accustomed to seeing and hearing. Little real work is done to highlight their strengths and potential. Parker could have made it personal.

Those who complained because they thought they were to be excluded from hearing Parker speak wouldn't think to attend a meeting to discuss turning the tide on Māori youth under-achieving in the education system.

But they'll complain if they think Māori might be getting something they're not. Parker should have thought this through. Taken the opportunity to directly target his message to Māori and Pasifika students. Giving them his undivided attention. Re-enforcing their unlimited potential and insisting they don't waste it.

I know Dame June would have handled those complaints, the school board and Parker quite differently.