Dr Sarah-Jane Paine, research director for Growing Up in New Zealand, Aotearoa’s largest longitudinal study of child development. (Photo supplied)

The Growing Up in New Zealand study has been rolling along for 12 years now, taking a close look at the lives of more than 6,000 New Zealand kids, aiming to carry on doing that until they’re 21, and publishing the findings as the interviews proceed.

It’s interesting data — and influential, too, because the information and insights are helping shape how we look after the wellbeing of our children.

That national project, conducted by the University of Auckland and directed until recently by Dr Susan Morton — is now led by Dr Sarah-Jane Paine (Tūhoe). 

And one of Sarah-Jane’s commitments is seeing that the study keeps reflecting the reality and the growing awareness among New Zealanders that by no means are we just a western society. Here she is chatting with Dale.


Kia ora, Sarah-Jane. You have whānau connections, so I understand, near and far. Dunedin for instance. And Ruātoki and Wairoa. What can you tell us about those links?

Well, my dad, Clifford Paine, a Pākehā, grew up in and around Dunedin. He met my mum, Agnes Te Mihikore Tihi, from Ngāti Rongo, when he was a shearer and she was a nurse — and they chose Sarah-Jane as my name.

But, when my mum was pregnant with me (her fifth child) and living in Wairoa, a kuia told her that she should call me Te Hereripine, who was a kuia from another line. So, I became Te Hereripine as well as Sarah-Jane.

That’s a lovely name. Do you use it much?

Yeah, I do. When I was little, I never thought much about it. You know, it’s just your name. So, when people asked me my name, I’d say: “Sarah-Jane.” Then, when I went home, my mum would introduce me as Te Hereripine. I was quite happy to switch between my two names. And I still do.

Let’s hear a little more about your mum and dad.

Well, after his shearing days, Dad started working at the Waitaki freezing works. He began on the chain and then went into management. So they moved from Dunedin to Oamaru to Nelson, and then to Wairoa to help look after the freezing works there. I was born in Napier hospital and grew up in Wairoa.

What was your mother doing in Dunedin? 

She was a nurse working at the maternity hospital in Dunedin. My dad has passed away now, but Mum is still alive. She loves her memories of the South Island, although she must’ve been lonely, being far away from her home and her Ruātoki whānau.

But they did keep in touch because a lot of the old people from Ruātoki would go to the South Island for shearing, for example, and they’d have a holiday with my family in Dunedin or Oamaru.

Extended whānau standing outside Rongokarae (the name of the wharenui) at Tauarau Marae, Ruātoki, where Sarah-Jane’s Ngāti Rongo whānau are from. (Photo supplied)

Let’s get on to your school days now.

I grew up knowing that education was important. My mum and dad were strict about me going to school and doing my schoolwork. And my school days in Wairoa were great.

I knew I was Māori, I was happy to be Māori, and I don’t think I even noticed the difference between Māori and Pākehā kids, because our school was little. Everyone did kapa haka, everyone would sing a waiata, and they knew how to speak some te reo Māori. So, it didn’t seem different to be Māori as far as I can remember.

For strategic reasons, but also for educational opportunities, my parents sent me to a boarding school for my secondary schooling. As you know, it’s quite common for whānau Māori to do that. 

I went to Nelson College for Girls, because Nelson was where my parents had been before they moved to Wairoa and my older sister was living there. I imagine they wanted to make sure I would have some whānau in the South Island.

At that time, a lot of the freezing works were being shut down and there were mass redundancies in Hawke’s Bay. I have a feeling that my dad could see what was happening in the community with the loss of jobs — and how the potential of Māori children starting high school wasn’t being fully realised.

That probably played on his mind when I was at school. He and Mum were big advocates for me. They taught me to question everything, to make sure that my being Māori was understood as a strength, and that no one was going to use it against me, at least in an educational setting. 

At Nelson Girls, it was the first time I felt I was in the minority. One of the features of that school, “the Māori classroom”, was separate from all the other classrooms. This is probably common, the Māori classroom.

So, at this beautiful old school, you had to walk all the way down to the bottom of a hill to the Māori classroom, where all the Māori kids would hang out at lunchtime. 

I don’t know if I was switched on enough to see what was going on. But, as you get older, you realise that the physical separation between Māori students and the rest of the school was a barrier. I think about this today. Our physical environments are not always welcoming to Māori students, and they can create barriers and challenges for students who just want to be fully Māori.

Sarah-Jane’s grandfather, Te Kahu Tihi. (Photo supplied)

And her grandmother, Riripeti Rangiaho. (Photo supplied)

Nelson would’ve been quite a change after Wairoa. It gets a bad rap, doesn’t it, Wairoa? Tell us some of the good things about that community.

I’m so grateful to have lived there. When I was growing up, I felt welcome and accepted and supported and I had all the opportunities that a little girl might want in terms of school and culture. 

The town was small, but there were multiple shops, supermarkets, and a hospital. My mother was a maternity nurse, the freezing works was flourishing and the economy was strong. 

But you’re right. Wairoa gets a bad rap. It’s easy for people to look at small New Zealand towns, particularly those where there’s a high proportion of Māori, and come up with stories and myths and legends about unemployment and gang violence.

That’s not always the reality. My back gets up when people look down on Wairoa. It taught me heaps. But those economic reforms of the late ‘80s and ‘90s meant jobs were lost all through the community — in the freezing works, in shearing, and in the hospital. 

That’s a glaring example of how policy decisions can have a terrible impact on small communities, particularly those with a high proportion of Māori.

If policy decisions can almost shut down a town and bring it to its knees, and cast it in a negative light, then imagine what good, equitable policies could do — policies focusing on social justice and a living wage.  

That line of thought helps explain your pathway into epidemiology and public health policy. And much of your research work has been to do with elevating Māori methodology. Can you explain how that differs from traditional or mainstream approaches?

I can probably explain that best by giving examples from my own experience. After I finished high school, my parents encouraged me to go into either medicine or law. They were the two good career pathways that Mum and Dad wanted me to pursue.

I didn’t really know what law was about, so I took up the dream of being a doctor, and I went down to Otago University, where I didn’t know anyone. I remember being told in my first few days there that I’d never get into med school. So, I did a science degree. 

There are aspects of that experience that have helped my overall career. For instance, the methods we use to come up with questions and test our ideas, using information and evidence from other places to understand what we’re seeing and to make conclusions.

That’s what’s called the scientific method — and there are elements of that which I keep bringing into my career today. The point of difference between what I call western science and kaupapa Māori research are in our assumptions.

One of those is that, if you want to be a “good scientist”, you have to be objective. And to be objective you have to be at a distance from the research. You can’t bring in your own ideas. You rely on the data. You hear statements like: “The data speaks for itself. You don’t speak for the data.” 

This idea of objectivity is a key part of western science systems. And it’s not entirely true or even real, because scientists bring their own ideas and beliefs into research every day.

And it felt a little weird to me as a Māori and as an aspiring Māori scientist, because all the things I was interested in were the things that were important to me and my family.

I really struggled with the idea that I needed to come up with science questions that had no special meaning or relevance for me — and so I made the break from lab-based research to public health and to kaupapa Māori research.

I’d been working with Papaarangi Reid and Ricci Harris. And I’d been reading the work of Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Leonie Pihama. When I started reading and working with Māori academics and learning about kaupapa Māori, even though I wasn’t quite brainy enough to understand the theoretical concepts yet, what I realised was that there was a place for me in academia.

There was a place where I could be Māori, where I could ask questions that I thought were important, and where I could bring my experience and my family’s experience into my research.

And, even more important, the outcomes, the things that we produce from the research process, would mean something to whānau. At the time, when I realised what kaupapa Māori research was about, I was like: “Oh, what a relief!” I could use these tools that I learned in the western science system, but I could apply my experience and kaupapa Māori thinking to that.

The other thing I’d add is that the work I’ve done with the Eru Pōmare Māori Health Research Centre and Te Kupenga Hauora Māori in particular is operating at the critical theory end of kaupapa Māori research. 

That means I can ask questions that don’t come up with answers that say that there’s something wrong with Māori people, Māori bodies, Māori ways of thinking.

That goes back to your point about Wairoa. Why is unemployment so high there? Why are health outcomes so poor? 

Critical kaupapa Māori theory says that, if we see that Māori are sicker, more likely to be unemployed and more likely to be poor, then the problem doesn’t sit with Māori bodies or culture. 

Instead, it sits with the relationship with the Crown, who have Treaty responsibilities to ensure equity and to provide good governance and to support self-determination. That’s the additional value that has come through my research and through working with those groups.

Sarah-Jane at her PhD graduation ceremony, Massey University 2008, with her father, Clifford Douglas Paine, and mother, Agnes Te Mihikore Tihi.

In your work, you’ve highlighted many inequities in the health sector, but the shortcomings are in many aspects of society. Most of them are attributable to our colonised past. Some people are dismissive of that post-traumatic trauma that can linger for centuries. What’s your view?

Sometimes when we’re doing kaupapa Māori epidemiology, we’re having to rely on information that’s been collected by the government or, in my case, from within the health system. So, we don’t always have the kind of information that will help us point directly to some experience or trauma or example of racism and colonisation. 

But we know that being Māori in Aotearoa, being indigenous here, brings health risks in what is still a colonial settler society. 

If we think about inter-generational impacts, we can understand the information around inequities in health that tell us that the higher likelihood of Māori living in poverty or being in a low socio-economic position is due to processes of colonisation — such as loss of land, theft of land, and being marginalised within the political system.

We can use our experience and Indigenous scholarship and kaupapa Māori analysis to try and tease out some of those pathways, which point to events that have happened since 1840 — or 1769 actually, when Cook arrived — all the way through to 2022. 

And it’s something that a study like Growing Up in New Zealand can help us ask questions about, such as: How is wellbeing transferred across generations? How are the harms of colonisation being transferred? And what can we do to stop that in its tracks?

We’ve all heard the claim that mātauranga is not really science. At times there tends to be entrenched discrimination in the academic space. So, do you think that, if you and your qualifications had come out of a wānanga like Raukawa, rather than Massey or Otago, you would’ve got the gig running Growing Up in New Zealand? 

Good question. I think you’re right about the hierarchies we see in society. Especially regarding qualifications and wealth. These are replicated in the education system, and there’s definitely a tendency for people to believe that the contributions and scholarship that comes from whare wānanga are less than what’s contributed by mainstream university systems. 

But I reject that, and in fact, I want Growing Up to be a study where Māori research organisations, including whare wānanga, are welcomed and engaged and seen as valuable.

The Growing Up in New Zealand study is 12 years deep now and heading into another decade. Will we see a change in the way that you collate information now that you can embed more whakaaro Māori and kaupapa Māori into the way the study’s conducted?

Yes, for sure. That’s what I led with when I applied for this job — that it was time for a change — and that’s at the top of my to-do list. 

Now that I’m in this research director role, I’m wanting to do it in two ways. 

The first way that I will whakamāori this study is to change the way the study reaches out and connects with whānau Māori and Māori communities who’ve invested in the study.

I want the study to connect with Māori whānau, Māori communities, Māori stakeholders in ways that mean something to Māori. If you’re a participant in the study and you’re Māori, then when you look at us, you know that we see you and you know that we understand what’s important for your family. 

We’re engaging with you in ways that just feel normal and natural, bringing through those tikanga Māori concepts of whanaungatanga, manaakitanga, and expressing aroha to the communities and whānau. 

That’s my priority. I want to make sure that we all understand and are operating in ways that meet the standards and expectations of the Māori academic community. There’s a wealth of information and resource that tells us what good research looks like from a Māori point of view, and what research needs to do if it’s going to achieve equity. 

And that’s the second change — making sure that Māori research and policy questions are being prioritised. And to do that we need to work with Māori and ask: “What is important to us, as Māori, right now?” And then to go away and look at how the study can help answer Māori questions.

I’m fortunate that I don’t have to make up any of this. Kaupapa Māori epidemiology was created by my mentors and their mentors, and it’s all there for us to use. And what I’m doing is just embedding it in the study — but, importantly, prioritising it and being purposeful about it.

But it’s still frustrating, isn’t it, when we see report after report highlighting the disparities we face as a people, but little changing over time?

Yeah, it is frustrating. There’s research that has pointed to the causes of the problem. There’s a whole community of Māori health professionals and Māori health academics who have already identified what good solutions look like. 

And I’ve been able to experience excellent Māori research from when I first started working in Māori health research in 2001. Twenty-odd years have gone by, and still there’s a tendency in some places to pretend that we as a society don’t know what to do, when in fact we do. 

I have a Māori-Tongan mokopuna who’s 12. He’s been in the study since he was born. As grandparents, Karen and I are always hoping for the best for our mokos. That’s what drives us. I’m interested in what you think about the upcoming changes to the history curriculum and the focus on te reo. How will that change the Aotearoa of tomorrow, and affect the world our mokopuna are going to live in?

I believe that it can only lead to positive change. If I think about some of the work I’ve been doing with rangatahi, looking at their experiences of racism in Aotearoa, it’s enriching working with them and humbling at the same time.

I want to see opportunities for young people and for young Māori not only to be taught their history and their reo, but also to contribute to that. Many Māori young people are going to be experts in those classrooms — and be the leaders of a conversation around our histories as a nation and around where things like te reo Māori development should and could be going.

I want to ask these young people what they expect of us. How do they want to be part of this research? What are the questions that are important to them? 

You only have to look in the news to see that rangatahi Māori, in particular, are advocating for climate action, for anti-racism, for change in all parts of our society. If we give them the space and give them some tools, we’ll benefit from that.

With husband Laird Cameron and children Angus Rehua Clifford (8), Piata Olive Te Mihikore (12), and William Te Pika (10). (Photo supplied)

You’re an epidemiologist, your tāne is an oncologist. What do you two make of parentology?

Parentology? Is that the mysterious science of knowing what the heck you’re doing at home with your tamariki and keeping on top of things?

That’s pretty much it. It’s a wonderful taonga to be gifted with tamariki, so we’re all trying to do our best. You’ve got three kids, right? 

Yeah, I’ve got three kids — 12, 10 and 8. I think that they’re a bit bored of all the hype around me and my new job because, to them, you know, I’m still sitting at my laptop, perhaps for slightly longer days than what I’ve been doing over the last couple of years.

But they keep me focused. I’ll bring the experience of being a mum into my research, just like my experience of being wahine Māori, of being Tūhoe, of growing up Wairoa.

I try and say I’m the boss at home, but I think my 12-year-old has something else to say about that.

Thank you for your wonderful kōrero. Now, finally, do you have anything else you’d like to add?

Well, I’d like to do a shout-out to all the whānau and all the participants in Growing Up in New Zealand. I suspect that few of the people who’ve been reading about the research lately will understand the commitment of the 6,500 women and whānau who put their hands up in 2009 to make this contribution to research and policy. 

The majority of them are still hanging in there, so I’m thankful for their contribution. But I also want to shout out to those whānau who we’ve lost along the way. I think we should take responsibility for losing contact with them. 

And so, if in reading about the research, they feel that now might be a good time to rejoin us, I’d love for them to come back. 

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

© E-Tangata, 2022

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