Tania Pouwhare (Photo: supplied)

Doting grandparents saw to it that, as a little girl, Tania Pouwhare (Ngāi Tūhoe) got more than her fair share of love and attention. Perhaps that might have led to her having a lifelong appetite for more special favours. But her adult story has been one of a high level pursuit of a fair go for others — like those sheltering in women’s refuges, or the generations of South Auckland families missing out on the benefits that a healthy economy has been bestowing on others by no means any more deserving. Here she is explaining to Dale how her life has been unfolding.


Kia ora, Tania. I understand that, like a good many Māori, you’ve had the warm experience of being brought up by loving grandparents.

Well, my mum and dad were very young when they had me — that was in Mt Vic in Wellington — and their relationship didn’t last. So I was raised by both sets of my grandparents. 

People think that must have been a really disruptive childhood. But it was wonderful. I was the only child with all this adult attention, and I was so spoilt. When I got out of bed, my bath would be run, a full cooked breakfast laid on, and all my clothes ironed. Right up until I left home.

So, I was a very indulged mokopuna. And I’m so, so thankful for having that precious time with my grandparents. They were Jo and Paul Bates on my mum’s side and Rama and Marunui Pouwhare on my dad’s.

Then my kuia Rama moved from Waiohau to Tūrangi because my koroua worked for the Ministry of Works, and I lived with them in Tūrangi. 

Rama was a notorious gambler. She won a load of money on the horses — and, nek minit, she just up and off. And she took me, her mokopuna, to America for three months. My kuia, who could speak hardly any “England”, and me, aged seven. 

It was hilarious. And incredible. Because in all other respects, she was a 1950s housewife. She stopped work the day she got married, and she never drove. And yup, off we went, tiki-touring all around the States. 

We take it for granted, don’t we? But, when we get older, we can reflect on the special relationship between moko and kuia and koroua. 

Oh, I absolutely do. And I feel aroha for my own girl (Lilian) that she didn’t know them. I get mokemoke when I think about that, because they would’ve been over the moon with her. I would’ve been bumped off the list, that’s for sure. 

My father, Barney, has passed, but I make a big effort to ensure that my girl has strong relationships with her kuia and koroua in England, and with my mother, Raewyn, her nanny, who lives here. 

It’s important to me that she has the same kind of precious memories that I do of my grandparents. 

Tania: “I was a very indulged mokopuna.” (Photo supplied)

After doing high school at Hauraki Plains College, you zeroed in on Women’s Studies at Auckland Uni. Was that your next step?

Yeah. I did Women’s Studies — undergrad in feminist theory and my postgrad in Women’s Studies as well. 

So, my master’s degree is in critical theory in gender and how that intersects with race and sexual orientation and patriarchy and things like that. My poor grandmother would lie awake at night worrying: “What kind of job is she going to get, with a Women’s Studies degree?”

But it turned out all right. 

My first job was created for me by the wonderful Edith McNeil, who was the chief executive of Women’s Refuge. She made a job for me as a policy analyst in Women’s Refuge. 

Then I did my OE and, eventually, I landed in London, where I became head of policy and campaigns for the Women’s Resource Centre there. Then, after being in London for over a decade, I came back to New Zealand, and worked with the Auckland City Council. 

Part of my remit was economic development. And because the council builds things — roads, bus stations and libraries, for example — my job was to leverage the money that we were spending to make sure it was of benefit to Māori- and Pasifika-owned businesses, and also creating quality employment opportunities for Māori and Pasifika in the trades. 

And, because of this mahi, Engineering New Zealand made me an honorary fellow. I was nominated by a Māori business that we work with. That was a huge surprise for me, and I felt overwhelmed.

But yeah, that’s the bizarre story of my connection to engineering. 

Along the way, I’m sure you had mentors.

Oh gosh, there are so many. I’m constantly observing other people. For example, how they’re managing a particularly tricky situation. And I’m always soaking up ideas through those observations. Even people who I’ve never met — Merata Mita and Eva Rickard, for example. I’m inspired by their life stories.

And both my Pākehā and Māori grandmothers who, despite being conventional housewives — neither of them drove, and both depended on their husbands for financial support — were absolutely influential for me. 

For example, I think it was important to my grandmothers that I go to university. Because, for them, me having my own career and my own financial independence would mean I wouldn’t get stuck being a conventional housewife. 

I never remember a time where my life wasn’t set out. From a very young age, everyone in my family would say to me: “Right, when you go to university, and blah blah blah”. 

So, I drifted into university because there wasn’t any other option. It was like: “Oh yeah, I finish school and then I go to university.” 

But there’s no one person or mentor who I could credit with being more influential than others. 

All the women who were part of my life at Women’s Refuge had an influence on me as well. And also the women in the United Kingdom where we were able to do amazing political, activist things. 

And right through to my uncle who grew up Māori and gay — I’ve admired his ability to not just survive, but to also thrive. 

At her Auckland University graduation with her grandmothers, Jo Bates and Rama Pouwhare. (Photo supplied)

Could you talk now about your time with the Women’s Refuge? I know you would’ve done policy analysis and planning for them. But what about your personal encounters with women who, sadly, have had to rely on the Refuge in the most difficult of times?

I have a real thing about unfairness. I side with the underdog — and my experience at the Refuge was especially influential. 

It taught me the importance of empathy, and the importance of standing your ground. It taught me to be fearless, to have courage, to stay in the fight for something even though it’s hard and scary and isolating. 

Many of the women that I worked with on policy had come through the refuge movement. They came first as clients — as victims and survivors of intimate partner violence — and they’d worked their way up, through the empowerment of being part of Women’s Refuge. And they became my professional mentors. 

Single mothers have the lowest net worth of any family type, so it’s important to me that I create opportunities to rebalance that. That comes from those early days of working in the movement. And understanding what it takes to change something that feels so entrenched and immovable. 

You can’t stop. You have to keep going. 

You also went through Melbourne Uni under the Atlantic Fellowship and crossed paths with other wāhine with shared goals. 

I was honoured to be chosen as an Atlantic Fellow in 2019. 

The Atlantic Fellowship is an international programme with fellowships looking at race, health, and economic equity. But I was drawn to the programme in Melbourne on social equity because it’s built on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island epistemology, or ways of knowing. 

There were 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island fellows, two of us Māori — Huti Watson from Ngāti Porou, and me — and four non-Indigenous fellows. 

Before that fellowship, I was submerged in the day-to-day. But that year gave me a chance to lift my eyes to the horizon, and to generate new ideas. 

Even with the disruption by Covid, I’ve already done heaps of collaborations in the wake of that experience. 

For me, there is a solidarity — a trans-Tasman, trans-Pacific solidarity, which includes Māori and Pasifika, Aboriginal, and Torres Strait Islanders — and it’s just so ripe with potential. 

One of the big things that came out of my year in Melbourne was seeing how I could combine environmental justice with the economic justice that is required for South and West Aucklanders. 

We now have a massive project on the go that’s part of that Green New Deal that I learned about and was able to develop during my year on the fellowship. 

Those people I studied with in Melbourne are not just fellows to me. They’re lifelong, dear friends. 

Tania’s kuia and koroua – Rama and Maru Pouwhare. (Photo supplied)

Four years ago, you joined the Auckland Council’s Southern Initiative team. How’s that gone for those here on the Southside of the city?

I wasn’t brought up in Auckland, and I’m not mana whenua here. But I feel passionate about the discrimination that has led to generations of South Aucklanders being excluded from the benefits of the economy. 

The Southern Initiative is a social innovation think-and-do tank for the Auckland Council to address some of the tough issues that blight the lives of South Aucklanders. But, also, to point to the amazing, untapped opportunities out there. 

I’m one of New Zealand’s first “intrapreneurs”. My task is to be a change maker inside a big, complex system, and to prototype and test solutions to some of the big-systems-change challenges that we have. 

That’s a mouthful, I know — but basically, my job has been to disrupt where things are failing. And one of the big failures is in the economy. 

In essence, the suburbs of South Auckland were built in the 1950s to support booming South Auckland industry and manufacturing. That growth, in turn, led to the immigration policies we had with the Pacific Islands.

But then, when industry started to contract, there was no thought given to how this would affect what had become the single largest concentration of Polynesians in the world, here in Auckland. And that’s why we have poverty in South Auckland. 

Right up until the early, mid-1970s, we had full employment, right? Then there was an oil shock, and that was just the first of the big economic shocks. And we saw Māori unemployment, for example, go from 2 percent to 17 percent. 

People didn’t just wake up one day and decide not to go to work. We had proud communities. Proud working communities. Those things that have been visited upon South Auckland were out of the control of South Aucklanders.

This has been a slow-burn economic disaster not of our making. And no one — neither the government nor the market — has intervened. 

And my job is to create compelling alternatives to the policy failure and the market failure that continues to keep South Auckland poor. 

One of my bedrock convictions is that there is no mana in the minimum wage.

We have Māori and Pasifika trade training schemes — and we train about 200 people a year. And an important part of that for us is people’s entry into the labour market, their attachment to it, and their progression within it. 

That attachment and progression doesn’t happen when you start people on wages that don’t enable them to live with dignity, in jobs that won’t enhance their mana. 

Our people need to start on the living wage — and then we need to get them up significantly through a career progression path within two years. 

Not 50 years. Two years. 

I recently read a Facebook article by a large employer about this whaea, this pakeke, who’d worked at their place for 30 years. She’d started as a cleaner — and she’d only moved to the kitchen. And I’m like: “That’s not good enough for our people.” 

One of the important things that we challenge is the racism of low aspiration. 

So, we’re only interested in working with others who share our vision of Māori and Pasifika being the designers and the architects of a new economy that’s fair for everybody and that also enhances the mana of our natural world as well. 

We’re not interested in so many of the things that come our way. 

I’m just like: “Nah — there’s no mana in the minimum wage.” 

Social equity is a relatively modern term. What does that mean to you?

To me, it comes back to something that my grandparents modelled — just giving people a fair go. That’s all. Just level the playing field, and then you rise or fall on your own merit. 

But we don’t live in a meritocracy, because we have to level the playing field first. 

When I’ve got a decision to make, I always measure it against the values instilled in me by my grandparents. So, I ask myself: “If I said yes to this, would my grandparents be disappointed in me?” And they’d be ashamed if I made decisions that trapped people in poverty. 

We don’t want to take 50 years to get to the point where Pākehā are now. We want to be the protagonists in the new economy, not the victims, or the labour fodder, or the passive consumers. 

To do that, you gotta build equity. Otherwise, you’re just helping a few people to beat the odds. But what we need to do is change the odds. 

It’s a kaupapa where we need to be united. Men and women.

I always say: “I don’t care who you are. I just want to work with the best.” 

It just so happens that a lot of the best are wāhine. I’m seeing a tidal wave of wāhine who are involved in radical economic development, and I love it. 

I take the view that it’s important that men hold other men to account — for things like abuse of power, or blocking out women, or belittling wāhine. I’m thrilled when I meet tāne who are passionate about this kaupapa and are willing to go above and beyond because they feel as passionate about it as I do. 

There’s a young population out there on the Southside. Rangatahi who have ideas and energy that our pakeke can benefit from.

If I go to one more meeting of middle-aged, home-owning professionals dreaming up schemes for young, brown, unemployed people, I think I’m gonna go crazy. 

I see amazing mahi that young people are doing. Like the Pacific Climate Warriors, Rangatahi Against Racism, the Living Wage Campaign, Auckland Action Against Poverty. 

We just need to back our young people and their ambitions. I heard this phrase from a young woman recently: “Either step up — or get out of the way.” 

That is a great challenge to pakeke like me.

This has been a wonderful kōrero, Tania. But, with a bit of luck, there’s more to your life than just your work. 

Well, I love art. Particularly oil painting. I had this French art teacher in London who taught me all the Renaissance techniques — how to make my own paintbrushes, resin, oil paints, and my own canvases. 

So, I love painting in oils and making things from scratch. I’m not a creative brain. I can never think of the thing to paint. But I love copying techniques. I love to understand and to master how I mix tempera with oil paint to get a certain kind of effect. 

I’ve also become obsessed with house plants, and orchids especially. I’m trying to propagate my own plants, with mixed success. Those are two genteel and solitary activities that enable me to get outside of my brain and do something which nourishes me at the same time. 


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Applications for the 2022 Atlantic Fellowship for Social Equity close on 31 August 2021. It’s a full academic year with the choice of a Masters or Graduate Certificate in Social Change Leadership through the University of Melbourne. Candidates are required to do 38 days in Australia with all costs for this covered. Citizens and permanent residents of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, including those of Pasifika heritage, are eligible to apply for the fellowship here

© E-Tangata, 2021

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