By Bernadette Meehan, International Programs
On Friday, March 23rd, President Obama met with a group of 20 Maori women from the Wahine Toa (Women Leaders) network in New Zealand. For those who may not know, Maori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. This network is made up of early and mid-career Maori women throughout the country who hold civic leadership positions and who are giving back to their iwi (tribe) or community in significant ways. They meet regularly for advice, encouragement and professional support. One of the commitments of the Obama Foundation is to engage communities that are often underrepresented or overlooked, which is why we wanted to recognize these women for their leadership by hosting them at a roundtable with President Obama.
One of these women, Gina Rangi, attended our Obama Foundation Summit last year in Chicago and penned the below blog on her reflections six months after the Summit. Gina Rangi was a negotiator for her tribe, Ngati Tuwharetoa, and works for the Rotorua Lakes Council (local government in New Zealand). Please see below her blog for the full list of roundtable participants and their iwis.
Watch President Obama's welcome to New Zealand:
Reflections on community service – six months after the Obama Summit
By Gina Rangi
At a dinner during the 2017 Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago, we were given two questions to answer amongst our table – Who are your people? How did you get your name? I’m a native Maori woman from New Zealand, so the first question is easy - my people are my traditional community (the people of Mokai Marae). Our ancestors were bird hunters, wood carvers, and flax weavers – they lived in the forests and on the shores of our lake. Our traditional meeting house is still the center of tribal and ceremonial activity. It’s the land where my grandmother, and her ancestors, are buried. It’s where I will be buried too.
And like so many native communities around the world, our language and traditions were banned, and our natural resources taken over time. My community saw traditional fishing grounds, geothermal springs, farms, gardens and homes flooded or destroyed by hydro-dam projects on our river. Yet many in our community remained without electricity or other basic services.
These environmental and social changes left our communities impoverished, stressed and often mistrusting of ‘community outsiders’. Our traditional decision-making structures – how we related to each other as communities, the traditional values and ways of talking to each other – were also damaged. I remember going to tribal meetings as a child, hearing the elders debate issues and their deep concern for young people and for our environment. I especially remember the women – intelligent, fearless and outspoken.
These issues underpinned the Obama Summit – ideas of community development, civic leadership and how we talk to each other, especially when we disagree. Listening to President Obama’s opening address to the Summit, I realised immediately why the following two days would be so important. He affirmed two fundamental things that my elders had instilled in me:
The ideas of community development, civic leadership and how we talk to each other, especially when we disagree, carried throughout the Summit, made me reflect on my own personal experience working for my tribe. Seven years ago, my tribe made an historic decision to sit at the same table as our ‘community outsiders’, in this case, our Government, to find common ground. The end goal: enhance my tribe’s self-determination – together. The negotiating process was not easy. It placed immense strain on the tribal community, as we tried to reconcile our different views. At times it felt that we would never agree. But tribes are bound by ancestry and family bonds, so we had to find ways to work through disagreements and maintain a sense of community.
After a tribal vote to support the settlement, in January 2018 the Act to settle our claims was introduced to Parliament. People who had once disagreed now sat next to each other. They remembered our ancestors and celebrated our traditional values. People who once opposed the settlement accepted office in the new tribal governance entity and have thrown their weight behind the settlement process.
While President Obama is in New Zealand, I’m looking forward to introducing him to the ‘Wahine Toa’ network, a group of Maori women from throughout the country who remind me of the women I saw growing up – intelligent, fearless and outspoken. The network of leaders are deeply involved in civic leadership and activism, serving across a range of tribal affiliations and business sectors. In our own communities, we have tried to practice the same values that the Obama Summit was based on – love of community, respect for all views and an immense optimism in the things that can be done through collective action.
The key theme for our discussion will be leadership development. The Obamas have been in leadership at all levels – from neighbourhoods to the international stage. Our meeting will be an opportunity to exchange ideas and I’m sure all of the Maori women leaders will take our discussions home to their own communities and daily work.
As for the second question we were asked over dinner in Chicago, how did I get my name? Apparently, as an infant, I looked like my father. This is a little worrying, because at the time my father had long auburn hair and a moustache, and looked a little bit like the Beast from Beauty and The Beast. His family nickname was Ginger – a doctor (praise his name) suggested that Gina sounded similar, without actually being Ginger.