EEO Commissioner, Saunoamaali’i Dr Karanina Sumeo.

It’s easy to get the feeling that we’ll be hearing plenty from Karanina Sumeo now that she’s the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission. She has the academic background, including a PhD, and a range of experiences that have given her a special insight into why so many New Zealanders are having to cope with so many disadvantages.

And, thanks to developing a formidable command of English — initially as a 10-year-old learning the language through Tintin comics — she’s a forthright speaker.

Here she is chatting Dale Husband about her background and a few of the issues that have her attention.


Talofa, Karanina. Or perhaps I should be addressing you as Saunoamaali’i. That’s a Sāmoan title, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s a chiefly title that was bestowed upon me by grandmother’s family, from the village of Fusi, Safata, in Upolu. It means “speaking with chiefs.” In the ceremony of bestowal, I was the only female in a group of 50 or so recipients, so it’s quite an honour for my family. By taking on the title, I’ve taken on other responsibilities for my whānau.

Can you tell us a little bit about your clan, your village, your mum, your dad, and maybe describe your upbringing for us?

I was born in Sāmoa, in the village of Vailima. My parents weren’t together, so I was raised by my mum and her family, and I remain close to them. I was brought to New Zealand by my grandparents when I was 10 years old, and attended Richmond Road Primary in Ponsonby, then Auckland Girls’ Grammar.

From there, to Auckland University, where my first degree was in chemistry. Later, I did a master’s degree and then a PhD. It was on land and empowerment of urban women, fa’afafine, and fakaleitī in Sāmoa and Tonga.

I’ve been really privileged. Something I was thinking about just this morning was a day at Ponsonby Intermediate when a teacher, Mrs Watkins, confronted me about the raincoat I was wearing. I wore this raincoat every day, rain or shine, winter or summer. I wore it because it was the only warm thing I had, which is a reflection of the hardships that many migrant families from the Pacific faced.

Anyway, Mrs Watkins made me a librarian, and in the library, they had Tintin comics. I used those comics to teach myself English. You had the pictures, and then you had the captions. So that’s how I learned how to speak English. So, I’m very thankful to Mrs Watkins for making me a librarian while everybody else was playing outside.

Another early memory was of my grandfather walking me to school. He had a limp, but he walked with me to make sure I reached school safely. Those things are important to me now that I have my own kids, and my parents have both passed away.

I have three children. My two girls are starting at university, my son is still at school. Their father is Pākehā-Irish. They’ve learned to navigate the spaces of the different cultures very well. I speak to them in Sāmoan. I text them in Sāmoan. And on their Pālagi side, they can have cheese and crackers and so forth.

They’re very lucky to have the balance of both worlds. In some ways they’re privileged kids, and I remind them about the things that they have, compared to some of our families who don’t have those privileges.

I like the way you describe Pākehā culture as consisting of crackers and cheese. That’s fair.

And salad.

When you were growing up in Ponsonby there was a wonderful Pasifika culture that existed there. But it still must have been pretty tough for a 10-year-old to arrive here with very little English. At that time, I guess, a lot of Kiwi kids were calling PI kids “freshies” and all that stuff. How did your peers make you feel when you were literally “fresh off the boat”?

Well, I was pretty fresh. One of the memories I had when I was going to school up at Ponsonby Road Primary was that I wanted to play with the kids, but I didn’t know what to say. So, I said to my grandma: “What do I say?” She said: “You say: Can I play? Just say those three words and see what they do.”

So I practised that, and sometimes the kids would say yes and sometimes no.

The other thing I did, which sounds a bit weird, is that I went into the boys’ toilet, because in the school in Sāmoa there was just one toilet, which everybody used. I didn’t know that in this country there were separate toilets for boys and girls. That’s how fresh I was.

I suppose the only time I felt really different was one day when I found myself cornered by all these boys. I quickly got the drift that they were going to beat me up. One boy stepped up to me and said: “Fight.” I understood that word, so I punched him in the face and he got a bleeding nose. And the boys quickly disbanded.

Maybe they thought I was just a girl, and I was small. But I am a Sāmoan girl.

I come from a family of preachers, teachers and communicators, so it was never in my mind that I would not succeed. I didn’t worry what other people were thinking or whether they had low expectations of me. The expectation I had to meet was that of my grandparents and of my mum.

This is something I tell my children. “Yes, you may stumble, but you keep your eye on your goal. I believe in you and you believe in yourself. So go for it.”

I know that not all of our children have had good role models or the opportunities I’ve had. But I remind my children to appreciate the family they’ve grown up in, and the love and support around them. And, really, there’s no excuse for them not to succeed and to achieve the things that they’ve set for themselves.

Ka pai, Karanina. I wonder how your decision to go to varsity has influenced those who followed in your footsteps — nieces, nephews, sons and daughters. And why science?

I enjoyed maths and science at school. Those were my favourite subjects. My first job was as a lab chemist for a company in Avondale. Now and then my grandmother would say: “So, what did you do today?” because she had no understanding of what chemistry was. She kept expecting me to get a real job. A real job in Grandma’s eyes was an office job.

And then she used to worry because most of the workforce was men. So there were those different perceptions in our whānau about where our girls and our women should be. Our elders and perhaps our parents had to navigate themselves into the different space of what was changing. That was a journey that I had to go through with my grandmother.

I have some whānau who can’t afford to go to university. Even now, they’re second-generation Kiwis, but they still can’t afford to send their kids. Having the first year of tertiary study free has been quite significant for a number of Pacific families and their rangatahi.

I encourage them to go to university, but it’s not the only pathway. You encourage your kids, identify their gifts, help them as much as you can to do the things they’re passionate about. And if they change their mind, it’s not the end of the world.

I’m interested that your masters study and your PhD looked at aspects of physical and sexual violence within the Sāmoan context. That’s a very big kaupapa to take on. I guess you ran the risk of uncovering some uncomfortable realities. Why did you choose that as your thesis, and what were you trying to do with it?

I discovered social work when I was working in my second job as an industrial chemist. I was reading this article in the lab. It was about a part-Sāmoan toddler who was a victim of child abuse and had died. That changed my life. I’d never heard of social workers before, or of child abuse. That was the reason I went back to university, to look at statutory and traditional concepts in Sāmoa to deal with child abuse.

It was definitely confronting. I think it was the first time anyone had dared to look into those things that we don’t talk about at home. But we have to. I’m very proud of our culture, but I believe there are some things that we do need to talk about.

We shouldn’t feel ashamed about it, because it happens in every culture and every community. But sometimes we shut the conversation down because we want to put up this perfect projection of our culture. And it silences the victims — our women and our children especially.

I’d also like to see more attention on our boys, because they also suffer these abuses — and, again, they’re not talked about. I’m very passionate about having more discussion around family violence and the protection of women and children.

We know that the strength of whānau is so often the wāhine. But we, Māori and Sāmoan people, live in a patriarchal society for the most part. It would be fair to say that violence was commonplace in the 1960s and ‘70s, but hopefully less so now. Are you confident that both here and back home we’re heading in the right direction?

I think we are, but I believe we need to go much faster. It’s not something where we want to wait another generation to eradicate. We have the knowledge, we have the expertise now to put a stop to it. I think it’s one of those things that, if we decide to change, we can change. We don’t need the laws to change and we don’t need to wait for resources.

If I’m a perpetrator, it’s completely within my control, right now, not to do the thing that I’m about to do. If I’ve got a habit of using my strength to beat my wife or girlfriend or children because I don’t know anything else, I have the power to stop that right now and seek some help.

This is what I mean by us escalating the pace of change. I believe we can eradicate it in this generation, right now. But we need to take collective responsibility for that to happen.

There’s the new law that’s coming on the 1st of April that will require businesses to grant 10 days extra leave to victims of violence. So, businesses are taking this on board. But I think safety begins at home. The respect for dignity begins at home.

We talk about a patriarchal culture, but it’s no excuse. There’s nothing in the Bible that tells people to beat their children or their wives. If someone can find a verse that says so, send it to me. But I’ve never seen it.

Let’s be brave about this. Let’s get some support around it. Especially our men. How are we raising our boys from day one? Are we raising them with respect and dignity for their sisters, for their mothers, for their fathers?

In the Sāmoan culture and a lot of Pacific cultures, we have protocols of respect, upholding the dignity between a brother and a sister. How does that translate into a protocol of respect in a partnership relationship?

In Pacific cultures, the sister is a star in the eyes of the brother. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a similar expectation of respect and dignity between the brother and the partner? Whether the partner is a male or female, doesn’t matter. You should exercise the same respect.

I do think that’s something that we have to work on as Sāmoans. I really want us to work together to eliminate this victimisation of our women and our children.

Step us through Oranga Tamariki, if you will. It’s copped a bit of flak. We’re obviously concerned about the welfare of kids, but placement has become an issue. While it’s preferable to be put with whānau, sometimes it’s the whānau that are the problem. Although it sounds like a kaupapa with merit, it can sometimes make life even more difficult. What do you make of this?

It is difficult. The child has a right to their family, to their hapū, to their iwi. It is the right of the child to have that. But I hear what you say, and having been a social worker for over 10 years on the frontline, I know that some of our families have their own history of trauma, and you can’t expect to give them a child and expect everything to be okay. Those families need time and support for their own recoveries before we can expect them to take on a child.

But I do think there’s no excuse to bypass whānau, to bypass iwi. It’s the child’s right to stay connected to their kin. That’s something I believe in as a mother and as a Pacific woman. It’s a responsibility we have to take on.

Māori have a different journey to Pasifika here. Māori have had that enormous traumatic generation of suffering at the hands of the state in terms of the stolen generation and so forth.

Pasifika haven’t had that. And I think in some ways we’re very fortunate. We have our churches, our mosques, as our support network. We’re still quite tightly associated around our faiths, so that’s a strength that we have.

But, fundamentally, children have a right to stay connected and to reclaim their whakapapa if the state has severed those links. The state must take responsibility for helping that child retrace their roots back to where they belong.

May I say, you’re very articulate and I’m tempted to go and buy some Tintin comics.

I’m glad it’s making sense to you. When I recall my Tintin days, when I was trying to string sentences together, I suspect that’s the reason I liked maths. With Tintin and maths, you don’t have to use words.

Can we talk about your Human Rights Commission work? Obviously, we have high hopes for the Commission for the very reason that’s stated in its name. But you’re looking particularly at equal employment opportunities. I wonder whether you might share some kōrero about this, and also, since we’ve just been celebrating 125 years of women’s suffrage, about the issues women face in the workplace. What attracted you most about a role at the Human Rights Commission?

I think it goes back to my roots. As I said, I was raised by preachers and teachers. I should probably add police officers in there as well. So, I grew up with a strong sense of social justice, and I’ve been lucky to have been raised by people who could look beyond the benefits for them and look at benefits for others.

I guess it was a natural thing for me to apply for this role because I am passionate about the wellbeing of women and children. In Sāmoa, we can live off the land and still survive. In this country, if you don’t have a job, you, your family and your children will suffer.

The gender pay gap is about 9 percent between male and female, but if you add race into the picture, it gets a lot worse. A Māori woman, on average, makes about $13,000 less each year than a Pākehā man. For a Pacific woman, it’s about $14,000 less.

Imagine that over someone’s entire working life. If Māori and Pacific women got paid the same as a Pākehā man, we could get ourselves a home, we could have some money to build a business, we wouldn’t have to continually worry where the money is going to come from. We could stand at the checkout at Pak’nSave and not worry that there’s not going to be enough money on the card. All those simple realities. If we need to go to the doctor, we shouldn’t have to sacrifice breakfast to afford to do so.

Equal employment, pay equity and fair pay are all related fundamentally to the quality of life and our people being able to hold their heads up and live in dignity.

It’s not being Māori, Pacific, disabled, or rainbow that’s the disadvantage. It’s the discrimination in the system that disadvantages us and treads on our dignity.

The Human Rights Commission is the system’s moral compass, and my role is to uphold the dignity of our people by doing what I can to change the system.

The problem at the moment is that we don’t have a lot of Māori and Pacific people talking to us. So, suggestions on child rights, dignity, and equality are coming more from the mainstream perspective.

But what do our people think that should look like? What does “quality of life” mean to them? What does “wellbeing” mean?

We need to have those conversations, and I’m hoping my presence on the Commission will encourage Māori and Pacific people to feel like there’s someone they can talk to. And they don’t have to try and translate or re-word things — I’ll get it. That way we can shorten the journey between the conversations and then shaping the policy response.

There is a hesitancy, of course, to go to a forum when there are problems with tenancies or work issues or the like. But there are many other areas where the Human Rights Commission can help, and I’m sure that having you there will result in more of our people making contact.

Our women are full of potential when given opportunities, and I get the feeling that many Māori women are going back to study after they’ve had a couple of kids. I don’t have any hard data but anecdotal kōrero suggests that they go back in their late 20s and pass all of their exams at the tertiary level. What do you make of some of our people’s penchant for later study, rather than in their teenage years?

It figures. You make plans for yourself and then life happens, eh? For example, some of our young people fall pregnant when they’re teenagers. It takes time to raise your baby and children before you can go back and study. The important thing is to make sure that, in their case, we create those opportunities to go back to study.

Also, it takes a while to figure out what you want to do with your life. A lot of people get a degree and then don’t end up working in that field. In some ways, they’re starting again, similar to the ones who are going to study for the first time. It’s really important that those tertiary pathways are accessible for our people.

Sometimes the opportunities are there, but it’s not affordable. For people in rural settings, they might have to travel a couple of hours to get to the closest polytech. Those are the practical realities. I suppose our initial responsibility is to make sure that the opportunities are available for everybody.

Another challenge is with our older generations. As factory jobs get replaced by technology, I worry about where our older generation of workers will find work. They might think they’re too old to study, though I would encourage them to try.

We’re living longer, we want to be around for our grandchildren, and if you live in Auckland, you’re probably going to be paying a mortgage until you’re 65. So we need to think long-term about work.

Tertiary study for young people and older people is really, really important. You must study, otherwise you’re going to struggle. We don’t all have to go to university. Take up a trade instead — and before you know it, a few years after you’ve completed your apprenticeship, you can start your own business and earn more than someone working in an office.

We’ve got to promote all the options to match the different talents of our people.

Part of the E-Tangata kaupapa is to tell neat stories about good people. For a long time, we’ve been reading, hearing, seeing the deficit sides of our cultures. This is trying to be something of an antidote to that. How important do you think these stories of success are?

I think it’s really important. And I think there’s enough of us at senior levels to tell our own stories and write our own history. This is our time. There’s no shame in talking about our challenges, but there’s a difference when we talk about our challenges, and when others are pointing the finger and talking about us.

What E-Tangata does is essential because you’re telling our stories and honouring our people. That doesn’t always happen when the mainstream media interview our people. There is a way of talking with our people that is respectful and upholds our dignity, and you still get to talk about the challenges. And this kōrero is exactly that.

There’s no shame in believing that we’re worthy of more than what the mainstream media prescribe for us. It’s really important that we believe in our worth, that we believe in our aspirations, and that we believe we are creators of opportunities in the future.

We are not silent stakeholders. We should be creating the opportunities, rewriting our histories, and speaking for ourselves.


© E-Tangata, 2019

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