Brooke Pao Stanley, 37, runs Auckland Action Against Poverty. (Photo: Fliss Thompson)

Brooke Pao Stanley and her five siblings either didn’t know that Joe Stanley, their dad, was an All Black in the ‘80s and ‘90s — or they knew but didn’t make a big deal of it. For a start, that was Joe’s style. And it wasn’t as if the kids didn’t have other interests anyway.

As a teenager, Brooke became more and more concerned about issues of social justice, and that’s led her on to her job now as the co-ordinator of Auckland Action Against Poverty, a largely volunteer group. They take direct action where they can through pickets, demonstrations, street theatre and occupations. 

And they also do what they can to spread the word that those people who are on benefits should get enough to live with dignity. Dale often chats with her on Radio Waatea about this kaupapa — and here they are in another of their conversations.


Talofa, Brooke. I know you as Brooke Pao Stanley. But maybe you have another name too.

Yeah. It’s Fiafia. My name on all my docs is Brooke Fiafia Stanley, but I wanted to start honouring my mum and her family and acknowledge how much they’ve sown into me. So I’ve chucked in Pao as well. That’s Mum’s maiden name.

I’m trying to get everyone used to Brooke Pao Stanley now. I feel like I’ve finally arrived.

Where did the Fiafia name come from??

Oh, that got in there through my nana’s dad’s mum who was known as Fiafia. Nan was Niuean and Sāmoan. She was born in Sāmoa but, as a baby, she was given as a whāngai to her dad’s Niuean family. She was raised by her dad’s parents — and I was gifted with that name. It means happy.

Kia ora. Have you been up to Niue?

We went there for the first time a few years ago for my mum Evelyn’s 60th birthday. And it’s beautiful. Very different from the other islands because it’s a big rock. They don’t really have beaches. It’s more like rock pools and cave pools, and it felt ancient and precious to be there, especially because we were there honouring Mum’s birthday.

All of us kids went up with her. Our kids and Nan, too. Nan (Eveligi, but known as Ligi) left us for another realm last December, but she’d been living with us for the previous couple of years. So it was special for all of us to share that time together.

Grandmother, Eveligi, and daughter, Taliealofa, in Niue. (Photo supplied)

Did your nan play a big role in helping shape you as a person? 

Definitely. She helped shape all of us. She was quite fierce and protective and very open. And loving and non-judging. She’d come to Aotearoa at a time when it was very challenging, and then she lost our granddad in an accident after they came.

She never talked about those things though, and we always saw her as a haven. All of us cousins kind of grew up at Nan’s where she would feed us fish and taro and where we’d play in her garden. We’d have our annual fireworks get-togethers there too.

She loved to drink and dance and party. And we all felt free to be who we were.

I’m thankful for that because it means we don’t ever feel out of place when we go anywhere. We feel strong in our identity even though we don’t know a lot about our genealogy. But we know that our genealogy knows us, and that’s enough to keep us solid in who we are.

In Niue, celebrating her mum Evelyn’s 60th with Nan, siblings and nieces and nephews. (Photo supplied)

Your dad, Joe Stanley, was especially famous in his All Black days from 1987 to 1991. But, clearly, he didn’t want his sporting fame to affect your life unduly. It seems that your mum and dad preferred you to grow up under your own steam rather than in someone else’s shadow.

Yeah. I always frame my parents as incredible gardeners. They created the loving soil from which we could grow.

As a kid, I didn’t know that Dad was famous — and I didn’t realise how big he was until a few years ago when I watched the documentary about the “Baby Blacks”, the new crop of All Blacks in 1987.

He never made a big deal in our household of his status as an All Black. Neither did Mum. And the first time I became aware of it, I was maybe 13 and at Epsom Girls’ Grammar. One of the girls came up to me and said: “My father told me to be friends with you because your dad is Joe Stanley.” And I was like: “What does that mean?”

I wasn’t interested in rugby when I was growing up. And none of us three young ones had an awareness of who Dad was or what he was up to. We were just like: “Oh, it’s Dad.” But it did mean that we were privy to some quite privileged spaces and occasions. Because Mum’s approach was to take us everywhere with her.

So, we’d go along to after-match functions and to flash houses and places. But we were very grounded. Dad and especially Mum always stressed the importance of looking after one another.

The core of our family is that we’re fiercely loyal and we’re protective of each other. We take that into our work spaces. We carry it everywhere we go.

I have that too — the way that I advocate for the things that I believe in and value is because of what I’ve been taught and have practised within our own family space.

Dad Joe, sister Ashley and brother Jeremy. Christmas 2021 (Photo supplied)

In most PI families, the church is all, isn’t it? It’s the cornerstone. Perhaps it wasn’t quite the same for you, but it’s allowed a freedom to develop in your own way. Have you reflected on that?

Yeah, church is an incredible space for the community and a place to honour our creator. But I think there are also some aspects about it that can be challenging for many of our communities.

It’s not common to be a PI and not be connected to church. We did go to church for a little bit when we were young, but then Mum and Dad were staunch about us making up our own minds about that.

I remember going to church every Sunday. We started off with all my cousins and siblings going together as a crew — and then, one by one, they stopped.

At one point, it was just me and Mum. She was driving me, and I said: “How come I’m the only one that’s going? Where’s everyone else?” And she said: “Well, it’s up to you. You don’t have to.” And my response was: “Well, I don’t want to go, if no one else is going.”

But, as you say, it allowed us to explore our creator and love in a different way. And, of course, God and the church are such a huge part of our communities. My girl Taliealofa is at a Catholic school, so we sit and unpack religion together all the time. And I’m really firm about religion coming back to love.

Despite not being closely connected to church, our family does have a strong sense of how we honour each other and our communities. We’re all involved, directly and indirectly, with care work.

I’m working with Auckland Action Against Poverty. My mum, Evelyn, was always involved in community work with the Pacific Education Centre and then AUT. All of us at some stage have worked at AUT, and I have one brother who’s a surgeon and another brother who’s a builder.

That, I believe, is connected to a belief in the idea of being in service to something bigger than ourselves. But we’ve all been allowed to come to that on our own terms — and I’m grateful for that.

My cousins and siblings and I have been fortunate to have grown up in a family where we’re loved for who we are. That’s allowed all of us to go out into the world and be our best selves.

Brooke and her mum Evelyn. (Photo supplied)

Brooke, I understand that you grew up in Glen Innes, a pretty down-home suburb in eastern Auckland.

Actually, we grew up next door in Panmure, and I went to school on the border of Panmure and Glen Innes. I went to Tamaki Intermediate but we grew up in Japan as well because, when I was about six, Dad was coaching a rugby team there.

We used to come back every year during the Japanese school holidays. But, during that time, Mum would make us go to Panmure Bridge School just down the road.

There’s a lot of love and solidarity in those suburbs and all through Glen Innes, but there’s hardship as well. At the time, I didn’t see that because I was young. I saw that only as I got older, but it’s given me a strong sense of justice. And I have fond memories of my friends from that time.

And, for me, growing up in a privileged family and having access to so many other choices, it set me thinking — and I’m grateful for that.

I was growing up in a space where you’d see kids who didn’t have as much as you. But then, especially later when I was at Epsom Girls’, I was going into spaces where you’re like: “Whoa, this person lives in a five-storey house.” And I’d wonder why there was such a difference.

Why did some people struggle to afford the basic necessities and opportunities that I and my siblings got? Why do these things have to come at the expense of other people and other communities? Why can’t we all thrive and share and be well together?

Family Christmas, 2021, at Brooke’s mother’s house. (Photo supplied)

Who has influenced your commitment to fight for societal change?

I read a lot when I was young and, through books, I learned about injustice and inequality and racism and violence. Reading about it, as opposed to it being my experience, was a privileged way to learn.

For instance, I picked up The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. I probably shouldn’t have read that at 11, but I became accustomed to these ideologies quite young. Then, in my late teens and early 20s, when I was with my mates, we started talking about power. Asking who has power and why we feel so powerless. Like on an individual level, then exploring it at a family, community and societal level.

I became clear about how the Crown here has done so much damage and should be accountable — and how it has developed this system based on violence and colonisation.

So I started going along to protests, sometimes on my own, as a way of exploring my own innate power. One of the first protests I went to was about the 2007 Tūhoe Raids. After that it was protests against mining and against selling public assets.

Then I began learning more about our own family history and Mum’s connection with the Polynesian Panthers — and I realised that I’ve had uncles and other relatives in this space before, so maybe that’s where I get it from too.

I must acknowledge my Uncle Nigel Bhana too. He was whāngai-ed into our family as a young person and was in the youth wing for the Polynesian Panthers. I like to think that I get a lot of my drive, passion, commitment and love from him.

Then there’s been the influence of my mum, even though she wasn’t an activist in the same way that I am. But the way she raised us was a form of activism.

Taliealofa, my daughter, is 13 now, and she’s strong in her own being. She felt passionate about Ihumātao, and she came with me to support the reclamation there. We were there most weekends. We did the hikoi from Ihumātao to Jacinda Ardern’s office a few years ago, and we’d show up on Sundays for whakamoemiti. I’m really proud of her for that.

I’ve been inspired by and draw courage and love from my family, my siblings and cousins, my beautiful partner and close friends who are all epic in their own right. So, I have a strong village from which I can keep drawing support from for my work. I feel committed to doing it well, because I think that what we’re doing is important.

With Hazar. (Photo supplied)

Siblings and cousins celebrating sister Ashley’s graduation. (Photo supplied)

How did you come to be working for Auckland Action Against Poverty?

I started volunteering there in 2019 after I quit my job at AUT (where I’d been working at the Office of Pacific Advancement) because I wanted to be more involved in grassroots political spaces — and I wanted to give myself the independence to do that.

Then, in 2020, when Ricardo Menéndez March got into parliament for the Greens, I took over his job and became the co-ordinator for AAAP. For years, I’d been going along to protests, to meetings for the Mana movement, trying to create my own political spaces with friends but never quite getting them off the ground. But I kept persisting and finally landed here.

I chose AAAP because I wanted to dedicate my time and privilege to a cause that helped Pacific and Māori communities in particular. But I’ve found that not having what we need to be well affects so many more of us too. Especially our migrant and refugee family, our families with disabilities, our queer family, and those in low-wage work.

The disconnect between those who are comfortable and those who aren’t is a growing divide.

Do you think that you have to forgo most privileges if you’re going to fight for the collective good and lead the action against poverty?

I do have a lot of privilege. When I became the co-ordinator that first year, it was so hard because I couldn’t quite connect my own personal reality to the realities that I was being confronted with during work hours.

People, families, were coming in, through no fault of their own, because they’d been declined food, or needed support with rent arrears, car repairs, or their power bill. Or they were trying to get on the Supported Living Payment.

There’s so much need in this space because of the way this colonial capitalist house has been built, and it’s not right.

I want to use my privilege to serve something that’s bigger than me. It’s about the communities that I care about — but more than that, it’s about all of us. And I want to use my voice to highlight that some of us have so much, and we don’t realise that it’s at the expense of other people and communities and also of Papatūānuku.

We need to wake up. There are many of us who need to look deep within ourselves.

I want to remind people that there’s internal work that we need to do — within ourselves, and in our own homes and our own families, as well as all this work that we’re doing together in our communities. The Crown also has so much work they need to do too.

I move between feeling uncomfortable about my privilege to using my privilege for something that’s for all of us, and especially for the communities that I love and come from.

The Auckland Action Against Poverty family in Onehunga, around 2020. All, except the co-ordinator, are volunteers.(Photo supplied)

Ranginui Walker says it’s a struggle with no end — and the mahi to right the wrongs of yesteryear’s injustice is ongoing. Should it be that we must fight for societal change, irrespective of ethnicity?

I believe that what needs to happen at the Crown level is constitutional transformation, and that we should embrace the idea and practice of Matike Mai. We should focus on looking after each other, on honouring Papatūānuku, honouring mana whenua, and honouring all of us who are here.

And there are ways in which we can all do that work. Even having a conversation with your own family about these things.

The movement has heaps of different lanes. There’s education, there’s protest, there’s doing this work in your families, although, ultimately, the hardest thing is getting people to change their hearts, their minds. To recognise that we have our own inherent power.

(Photo: Fliss Thompson)

There’s a saying that we, as Māori, don’t get anywhere without protest. And, sadly, there’s been a perception in recent times that many of our young people are too self-centred and preoccupied with their own lives to take up causes. But I suspect that you, having stood shoulder to shoulder with many principled young people along the way, would see that as an unfair assessment. 

I think young people are great even though they get such a bad rap.

To me, young people are the GOATs. They’re my favourite people on the planet. Our young people are incredible. They’re clever. They’re funny. And they know what’s going on.

And so, I’m here for them. Much of what I do is because of my daughter, my nieces and nephews, and our babies and children everywhere.

And, although there are so many hard parts about the work I’m involved in, I love the AAAP family who I work with and support, and the communities that I’ve been privileged to enter and work alongside. They have a love and solidarity that’s epic.

We see that all the time in these communities who often don’t have much in terms of material wealth. But they’re resourceful and adaptable, and they have a really strong sense of love and sharing that I don’t see in other spaces.

AAAP is just a small, activist organisation where I’m the only person who gets paid. Everybody else who supports us is a volunteer. Most of them are on benefits themselves. And we don’t take any government money either because we want to remain an independent and critical voice for the communities that we serve.

Do you have any political ambitions? Like putting your name forward or for the council?

I’m going to be running for the Māngere seat at this year’s general election as an independent. So we’ll see how that goes.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2023

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