Vivien Sutherland-Bridgwater

Like so many New Zealanders, Vivien has a Pākehā mum and a Māori dad. In the early 1990s, she hit on the idea of a commercial Māori radio station that combined and celebrated both worlds for teenagers and young adults.

That was Mai FM, which struck a chord with young Kiwi with all sorts of whakapapa through its unmistakably Māori presentation of music and fun.

In this interview, Vivien and Dale are looking back on those early years — and at the part that the Mai venture has played in helping more non-Māori and Māori become a little more at ease with each other’s worlds.


Kia ora, Vivien. You’re Vivien Bridgwater, aren’t you — although it’s not as straightforward as that, is it?

I actually call myself Vivien Sutherland Bridgwater because Sutherland was my father’s name. He was George Henare Sutherland. I was adopted at a very young age by my stepfather — that’s where the Bridgwater comes from.

My mum, Suzanne Leary, was only 17 when she got pregnant with me. And, as my uncle described it, at that time that was considered a “trauma” in the family. My mother’s family actually left Napier, where they were living, because they didn’t want people to know she was having a baby. They came up to Auckland and Mum was put into an unmarried mother’s home.

Then, when I was born, I was taken from my mother and given to a couple. But, after three or four months, Mum still wouldn’t sign the adoption papers, and they finally said to her: “If you don’t sign the papers, you’ve got to have the baby back.”

So I was returned to my Pākehā mother, and we lived with my Pākehā grandparents for a couple of years until my mother married John Bridgwater. And that meant I had two half-brothers, Barry and Grant.

That’s the Bridgwater side?

Yes. And I didn’t meet my father until I was in my late 20s, early 30s. Through the years, I’d come across a number of people who went: “What’s your dad’s name? You’re Ngāti Whātua? I know your dad.”

And I’m like: “Really?” Because I had no concept of Māoridom. No concept of iwi. Where I grew up in Glen Eden, in West Auckland, there was only one other brown kid in the primary school. Of course, it’s not like that anymore, but, in those days, there were a lot of immigrant English families who’d bought cheap land out there.

So, for me, growing up as a young woman was also a journey of identity. And a lot of my motivation for helping create Mai FM in the 1990s was deeply personal. I was ashamed of being brown. My stepbrothers had blond hair and I always felt like I didn’t fit, because I didn’t.

I didn’t fit in at primary school. Got to secondary school, which was Auckland Girls’ Grammar at first, was put in the top classes. But there were no brown girls there. I didn’t fit. And I had no concept of a tribal group or a hapū or whānau group where I felt comfortable and where I belonged. So, a lot of my work has been around supporting and encouraging young people to find their identity.

I thank you for sharing that kōrero, Vivien. Some people who’ve been adopted, haven’t quite pieced it all together. It’s so personal they keep it to themselves. But, by you being open about it, I’m sure it resonates with many others who’ve been in a similar position. When was it that you went searching? And how did you handle this in your early teens?

I was a mess. Self-destructive. Did all the things that I shouldn’t have. And, when I look back, it’s amazing that I survived. But the universe brought me a couple of women teachers when I did a sixth form year at Lynfield College.

And they went: No, no, no. You don’t have to be this person. You can recreate your life. You don’t have to be lost.

But that search for identity can be really hard. Dad wasn’t alive when we started Mai FM, but I remember going to see him once when I’d been in a difficult conversation with a Māori activist.

I’d been attempting to create a trust that would support young people to go to university. I had a philanthropist wanting to do some work in that area. This was at the beginning of the moves to create Māori wānanga, and this activist was very critical of me.

So, I went round to see my father, although I didn’t really know him very well. I was so upset that I was crying. I remember walking up and down in front of him. And he just sat there. Said nothing. I finally turned around and said: “I’ve come to you. Can’t you say something?” And he said: “You’re Ngāti Whātua. Tell her to go home.”

And I thought: “What? Is that it?” Of course, it took me years to understand what was in that small statement. There was so much. There was just so much. But even at my age now, when I’m in my 60s — when I understand a Māori worldview and I hold it deeply in my heart — on this other level, I’m still brought up in a Pākehā world and have more skills in the Pākehā world than in the Māori world.

I think there are still lots of young people like I was. Lots and lots of young people who’ve come to the big city and lost all their whānau connections.

Obviously, you’ve been through some tumultuous periods in your life. But how reassuring was it to get that kōrero from your dad? That you’re Ngāti Whātua. That you’re entitled to tell her to go home. As you say, it says such a lot. Has that comforted you?

As I went through my journey, it has. Absolutely. Like, when I finished at Mai FM, I took one of the young on-air hosts, Mike Haru, and we went up to the marae at Ōrākei to say thank you and goodbye to Ngāti Whātua.

I asked Mike to do a haka for me as a farewell. He was very nervous about that. But he did it. And all of the old men stood up and responded. And, in that moment, I had a sense of: “Yes. I’m part of this. I belong. And my children do as well.”

I think it’s a completely normal thing for a young person to search for identity — if you’ve been given it at an early age, it’s a great strength. But there are many of us who weren’t given it and we’ve had to go on the journey to search for it.

And it changes. It changes when you start having children. It changes when you have relationships. It changes because of your work. And also what you do spiritually. It shifts as you live your life.

So, I’m sitting here looking back at that journey and seeing the stages of that and watching my children on their journey as well. My daughter can introduce herself in Māori, but she still has to find her sense of it — if she chooses.

By the time that moment came when you and Mike went to say farewell and to thank Ngāti Whātua, you’d already done some pretty amazing work, along with Taura Eruera, in establishing Mai FM, because, all of a sudden, here was a tribal entity running a very successful radio station in a very busy radio market.

Commercially successful, too. And Pākehā were listening to it. The kaupapa was a combination of Taura’s sense of being Māori and my sense of being Māori. It was magic.

They were awesome times, weren’t they? But it didn’t come without critics. Although it was a proud Māori-run station, some would’ve said that youth-oriented hip hop was doing little to instil Māori pride. How did you respond to that type of criticism?

I’d been brought up in a Pākehā world, so I knew how some Pākehā were afraid of brown people — how they’d cross the road to avoid brown people. How one of my sons, in later years, was treated by the police for being brown. I have experiences on both sides of that issue, and I saw what we needed to do.

In effect, we needed to rebrand Māori in a Pākehā world. We needed to say: “You know what? We’re part of this society. And we can do things that you’ll want to be part of.” So, while the percentage of reo Māori on air was small, a big number of people listened to the station and heard the reo.

And, when I watch breakfast television these days, I can hear pronunciation that’s pretty correct and I can hear simple greetings in Māori — and I know that Mai FM was part of that journey of normalising it, although it’s never really been fully credited for the part it’s played in that process.

It was transformational. There were some years, particularly the first four or five, where kids in schools had a different attitude towards it. They had a different attitude towards Māori. We had a programme called Tama Toa, where the on-air announcers would go to schools and, basically, just promote the radio station.

Robbie Rakete was with us at that time. So it was Robbie and Mike. They’d do this show for 30 minutes — and the schoolgirls mobbed them. Pākehā schoolgirls. It was shifting the dimensions of Māori in New Zealand just as, in other ways, it’s happening today. We’re still on that journey. And it’ll go on for the rest of our lifetime.

Which prompts me to ask about the role of the Māori media in our overall Māori development. Some would say that our leadership hasn’t really cottoned on to the influence the media has in shaping the Pākehã and Māori perceptions of Māori.

Well, I think what the media does is critical. And, although what we’ve been doing in the media is amazing by the standards of other indigenous peoples, we’re still not utilising the resources we have. Too many of our media people don’t see the big picture and don’t see what could be done if we were to work together rather than compete and fight.

There are a number of ways to encourage the Māori voice. Our approach with Mai FM was one way, and I believe that we were very brave in taking on commercial radio the way we did. But it’s important as well to work within the mainstream.

Is that what you did when you linked up with AUT?

After Mai FM, I spent some years trying to infiltrate the advertising agency industry, because marketing and advertising on television, and even on radio, has such power through all their images and voices, and even their pronunciation.

Then, in my mainstream role at AUT, I had the budget and staff to have a significant influence on how that institution was able to market itself — and how it could attract Māori and Pasifika students. If you are the only Māori or Pacific Islander on a board or a committee in a Pākehā organisation, your influence is limited and it’s really tough.

It’s still hard, but different when you’re a part of the executive holding a mainstream role. We need to recognise the value of working from the inside and using different approaches.

I imagine that, in the course of your years at AUT, there were some really satisfying moments.

Well, when I went there, I had a recruitment team that were predominantly female, middle-aged, and Pākehā. And we spent years working to change that, so that, when our team went into schools, we’d have more chance of attracting different kinds of people, especially Māori and Pasifika students.

And we succeeded. We assembled a recruitment team of young, edgy, cool staff, including Māori and Pasifika — all of them with degrees. And soon the numbers of Māori and Pasifika heading into the university were climbing. That was a highlight for me. And another major achievement was helping establish the AUT South Campus. As with broadcasting, it’s all part of the kaupapa to find the resilience to keep working away at building our future.

Congratulations. But let’s turn to Ngāti Whātua, who deserve congratulations, too, for the progress they’ve made with their savvy investments and their papakāinga housing and health-focused initiatives, and so forth. Have you taken some pride in how all of that has been unfolding over the years?

I think that’s what we’ve all done. Years ago, I talked with Hugh Kawharu about this. He was acknowledging that we need to “play the Pākehā game” and focus on creating great communicators and having our own talent in the business and health sectors, and so on. And some of that focus has to be on getting people who aren’t Māori to understand our frameworks and our constructs.

And one of the ways to do that is to be at the table. Be in the boardroom. Be on the executive team. So, when I look at the success of Ngāti Whātua, I feel that’s what they’ve been doing. I look at their partnerships and investments, and they’re at the table.

Judging by the 14 years you worked at AUT, you give education a high priority. Especially tertiary education.

I absolutely believe in the empowerment of education. It’s a building block. It’s an essential foundation.

But another foundation, one that’s sometimes overlooked, is hope. We have thousands of families and kids in situations that aren’t at all hopeful. So the question is, how can we bring hope? How can we make hope happen?

Being on Radio Waatea each morning, Dale, means you’re an important part of that. The stories you bring and the interviews you do are a part of creating hope. A big part. The brand of hope.

Speaking of brand, after AUT, you spent some time with ATEED, the Auckland Tourism Events and Economic Development team. And you led some research into how the city might best brand itself. We keep hearing of Auckland, the “City of Sails”. But you’ve been keen to do better than that. Perhaps weave Māori concepts into the marketing, even though not everyone embraces taha Māori and there are many who don’t have much interaction with Māori in the course of their lives.

I felt, and feel still, that the city needs a brand. But the city is still growing up. It’s like a teenager trying on different outfits. I did a lot of work looking at city nation building around the world and I believe that’s what Auckland needs.

But it’s a city still maturing into understanding what it’s like having to compete with cities around the world. How do you persuade people to get on a plane for 24 hours and come to Auckland?

Well, you’ve got to tell them our story. And the story of Tāmaki Makaurau is a wonderful story. It includes the land, the harbours, the forests, and the volcanic cones. But there’s us as tangata whenua and, as well, we’re the biggest Polynesian capital in the world. And our research confirmed that people everywhere already have a sense of Māori being a significant part of Auckland’s story.

There’s a host of other aspects of your work, over the last 40 odd years, that deserve attention, including your years with Save the Children. But let’s turn back, finally, to the legacy of your pioneering with Mai FM. It must’ve been difficult to let go of the baby you’d dreamed of and nurtured. But there must be huge satisfaction in what you accomplished there — and what you set in motion.

The reality is that life moves on and you have to let go, even though it can be painful. But the beauty of Mai FM is that we were able to pass on the values and the vision we had. I keep meeting people who ask if I remember them. We would’ve crossed paths in the early years of the station in the 1990s.

And they’re all carrying on with the kaupapa, one way or another. They’re all doing stuff with the same strong sense of mission and values that we had at the beginning. It’s rewarding to know that.


© E-Tangata, 2018

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