I have been on the road for the last few weeks as part of my work with the Public Health Association, visiting the regions to deliver training in policy and communications, and having discussions with local health providers about Maori health needs.
The development of Maori media and the proliferation of social media is having a profound impact on Maori workers. Years ago when I delivered media training to Maori organisations, they were innately suspicious of the media, afraid of any contact from them, because of the racist coverage that might follow.
Things have changed, however. Maori Television, Te Karere, Marae Investigates, Te Manukorihi News on Radio New Zealand, iwi radio – these are relatively new channels that are more sympathetic to Maori issues. If you are involved in any type of Maori work, it's highly likely that you will come into contact with Maori media at some stage, and you can expect the interaction to be positive.
Social media is also huge. Maori love Facebook, which has become like a new marae; the place where we gather and catch up with whanau. Many organisations have a Facebook presence, even-though it poses a few challenges and risks. Facebook invites feedback from our audience and for organisations sensitive to criticism, jettisoning themselves into this space can raise a few issues. Some of them do it superbly though, especially when they are confident in their voice, and are fearless.
During the training we spend a bit of time looking at the concept of brand, and people's engagement with brands. Generally punters understand that this is much more than a logo; that there's an attendant experience or feeling that is generated by a brand. That is easy when we talk about meta-brands like Nike or McDonald's, more challenging when we focus on small community groups and health providers, who have never thought about themselves in that way.
I too have had cause to reflect on my own brand of late. Until this year I had the safety of an organisational brand and structure, through the Maori child advocacy organisation Mana Ririki, to shield myself. In media interviews, I represented the brand, which felt like a safety net.
When the government announced its hardship package for vulnerable families in the Budget, I gave interviews to Maori media as me, Anton Blank, the child-advocate. I am now my brand. Speaking at a post-budget breakfast, I realised I was presenting one singular Maori perspective, and without an organisational mandate, I had to rely on my moral compass to decide what I wanted to say.
So, I said that because poverty had hit Maori and Pasifika hardest over the last three decades, and we had seen an exponential growth in poverty over the time, the new hardship measures would do little to substantively change the situation for poor Maori and Pasifika. I felt isolated, with many child advocates viewing the hardship package as a positive step.
The more important story I wanted to tell, however, was how the body of Maori knowledge about poverty is growing. Dr Carla Houkamou from the University of Auckland has been in the media of late talking about her studies of Maori identity and diversity, which show that particular groups of Maori (those who look distinctly Maori), are more likely to experience discrimination than others.
Her colleague Dr Manuka Henare published the first definitive description of Maori and Pasifika child poverty four years ago, and Mokopuna Ora provider Whakawhetu is now in the process of commissioning narrative interviews with poor Maori whanau. The interviews will explore how these families experience poverty and what resilient factors are present that lift some Maori families out of poverty.
The development of a Maori discourse around poverty is important because we need to be the masters of our own destiny. At the moment our identity is influenced and defined by very depressing health and social profiles served up to us by government statisticians. Carla Houkamou's research shows that as Maori we think about issues like poverty and wealth very differently to other cultures. We need to write our own profiles and re-frame our experience, we need to be in charge of the solutions. Only then can we be truly free.