Leilani Tamu

Relationship Manager Pacific Settlement - Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment.

They say adversity makes us stronger. Fullbright scholar, poet, former diplomat and aspiring politician Leilani Tamu knows plenty about adversity.

A bright student with a rebellious streak, the combination had the potential to be problematic when it came to school.

“I was always naturally curious. Reading had been a big part of my life from an early age so that provided a good foundation for my education. Fortunately, I was lucky to have teachers who saw my potential and believed in me, particularly when it came to my two favourite subjects, history and geography. But equally things could easily have gone the other way.”

In her recent book of poetry there’s a line about her father which begins: "I never really knew you yet, I knew you best.”

It’s a line that sums up a relationship characterised by two extremes in her early life: love and disappointment.

“While my childhood was largely happy, it wasn’t always easy. My father represented New Zealand in rugby league. He was outgoing, the life of the party and had an enquiring mind. But I later discovered he suffered from a compulsive gambling addiction. So my sister and I grew up living between two worlds, the strict, "safe" world of my Samoan grandparents and mum, and the unpredictable, sometimes dangerous, world occupied by our Pakeha dad. In that world we were reckless TAB kids who hung out under the stands at Carlaw Park.

However, despite all his flaws, my dad was always the first to stand up for those in need and for what he believed was right, and my mum is exactly the same.”

It was at university that Leilani finally found the stability and academic challenge she craved.

Gaining a Bachelor of Arts with honours she says it was a formative time in her life that allowed her to prove what she was really capable of achieving.

“The late Prof. Hugh Laracy in the History Department was hands down the best teacher I’ve ever had – not so much because of what he taught me but rather because of the many, many disagreements we had. I remember he once gave me an incredibly valuable book on Pacific history telling me to only to give it back if I wanted to. He was a gifted teacher with a deep sense of commitment to his students – his door was always open. He gave me the space to stand on my own feet and respectfully challenge academia when it comes to Pacific history.

I remember feeling incredibly proud when I finally submitted my Master’s thesis having been given the freedom to push boundaries and shape academic discourse while at the same time knowing everything I’d been through to arrive at that point. I felt it ‘made me’ in lots of ways.”

Applying to MFAT as a graduate recruit and being one of only 25 accepted from more than 500 applicants, and the only Pasifika woman, was another significant personal milestone.

Hoping to secure a role in the Pacific unit, Leilani says she was instead assigned to the Mexican desk which was a challenge as a non-Spanish speaker. After being seconded to the Australian Foreign Affairs Department, the chance to move to Tonga as a NZ diplomat finally eventuated; a role that would extend to more than two years.

“I really enjoyed my posting in Tonga. Of course it wasn’t considered one of the ‘prestigious’ appointments such as Washington or London, but it suited me perfectly and I was very happy there. Tonga is a complex society and working with the Tongan government came with its own set of challenges but I felt I achieved a lot in the role.”

Not one to shy away from a challenge, in 2013, pregnant with her second child, and with her three year old daughter in tow, she took up a once-in-a-lifetime three month scholarship as the Creative-NZ Fulbright Pacific Writer in Residence at the University of Hawai’i.

A decision to stand for the Green Party in New Lynn in the 2017 General Election brought with it a new opportunity to move into the world of politics. Leilani says it’s all part of a career path that continues to evolve.

“My career has definitely gone in a different direction to what I expected. As I reflect on it, one thing I’d note is that in lots of ways since about 2012 my career and the formal work I do haven’t always been one and the same thing.”

These days Leilani is a Relationship Manager – Pacific Settlement at the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment. It’s a role that allows her to apply her diverse skill set to a range of issues that benefit the Pacific. But she is also focused on other new ventures outside of work.

“I’m currently working on a start-up social enterprise that will focus on parents and kids. I’ve got big hopes for it but it’s early days so I don’t want to say too much until things are a little more concrete, but my goal is to make an impact in my lifetime that makes a difference in the lives of others.”

With a goal like that expect those political aspirations to resurface again in the future.