Atlantic Fellowship stories: Marcus Akuhata-Brown

'Finding solutions inside and outside the system'

Marcus Akuhata-Brown

There is a Māori Whakataukī (proverb) that illustrates how Marcus Akuhata-Brown has spent the three years since his year with the Atlantic Fellowship for Social Equity (AFSE): I orea te tuatara ka patu ki waho, a problem is solved by continuing to find solutions.

“At the Fellowship we attempted to understand that a system is what it is and what it does. So if you look at what our system does to Māori, it keeps us dumb, unhealthy, uneducated, dying earlier, out of housing and in poverty. And if you only work on improving the current system without thinking about how it could and should be transformed you run the risk of ‘doing the wrong thing righter’.”

Turning from that well-worn path and finding new solutions to the ongoing issues of social inequity is the bedrock of the AFSE project. What makes it stand out from other similar projects is that it does this by valuing and using Indigenous knowledge and resources, believing it’s here many of the answers to our most complex problems lie.

All applicants to the Fellowship have already explored this to some extent, as their selection includes bringing a history of community work and a social change project to their AFSE year. For Marcus that was working with rangatahi through the Tuia programme he’d set up years beforehand, now one of the largest rangatahi development kaupapa of its kind in Aotearoa.  Designed as an intentional, intergenerational kaupapa to enhance how rangatahi can contribute to their communities, today it has a network of more than 600 who’ve been through wānanga held on marae around the country.

The wānanga are based upon tauparapara, which draws on traditional esoteric knowledge to facilitate learning while moving away from solely ceremonial and oral history into functional learning through practical applications. “Tuia means to weave, and our purpose in the kaupapa is to weave together a takapau of relationships that will evolve and coalesce around what mahi is important to the rangatahi.”

One of those pieces of mahi is the book Te Kai Te Rangatira – Leadership from the Māori World. Launched in November last year, its kaupapa goes back to 2017 when a group of rangitahi who had connected through Tuia came across the work of Te Rangikaheke and Himiona Tikitu, who wrote about the attributes of effective Māori leaders in their respective works: Te Tikanga o Tēnei Mea te Rangatiratanga o te Tangata Māori (1850) and Nga Pumanawa e Waru (1897). These included being able to cultivate kai, provide shelter for those under your care, and resolve conflict.

As they searched for ways to apply these attributes to their work one of them posed the question, ‘What would Dame Tariana Turia say about Māori leadership in today’s context?’ Someone else added, ‘Āe! Actually, Tā Tīmoti Kāretu would have some interesting insights, too. Why don’t we interview one hundred Māori who have a track record of contributing to the lives of others?’ Three years later they had interviewed and filmed over a hundred kaikōrero from a range of backgrounds – marae, iwi, art, education, youth work, social work, politics, business, governance and more. 

Marcus says they bought their own equipment and paid their own travel costs, and that this is just one example of the effect of bringing young Māori together in kaupapa like Tuia’s, that’s designed specifically for them, as opposed to having them participate in something not designed for them. “The relationships and connections rangatahi build through the wananga process shows them how to collectivise their interests and expertise to make these great contributions.”

Like many other AFSE Fellows, this Tuia experience of intense community work made him more than ready for a year of reflection and exploration before his next steps. “As a friend of mine put it, when you’ve been digging in the trenches every now and then you need to climb the maunga to see where you’ve been going and what might lie ahead for you.”

The Fellowship year gave him the opportunity to connect with others driving social change with Indigenous knowledge systems, and to develop problem-solving skills alongside them. “To find out what I could do with this group that I couldn’t have otherwise done.”

A key moment came unexpectedly. The Atlantic Institute encourages its Senior Fellows, programme graduates, to set up Affinity Groups, working together virtually and in person for catalytic change on particular issues. This led to him going on a trip to Jordan with the Displacement Affinity Group, whose theme was the impact of climate change and forced migration on public health.

“I’d had little experience in this area, apart from knowing that historically the huge movement of Māori from their rural communities into the cities and low-wage work had social impacts in public health still being felt significantly today. So that was a reference point I could bring from an Māori perspective into the discussions. But I was still questioning my purpose for being there.”

After a six-hour bus trip back from the Zaatari refugee camp they did an empathy building and reflective workshop on what they’d just experienced, and he was asked to do a ‘state change activity’ before they shared kai. He perfomed a karakia they use in Tuia, and saw that some people had stopped working to watch him. They later came up to say they’d been studying Māori culture for the last two years, its creation stories and relationship to the environment, and had been work-shopping how they could get Māori people to visit and pray in their garden.

“It was one of those moments when being Māori had something in it for others. I said that’s answered one of my questions because I’m wondering why I’m here, and I’ve been dreaming about bringing young Māori to communities like yours for the Rangitahi Fellowship kaupapa I want to create.”

They told him that was their dream too, and they would be privileged to host and take young Māori into the desert to sit with the Bedouin and share stories. After giving them Pounamu he’d brought, he was given prayer beads brought by a man’s grandmother when forced to leave her home. “He told me she’d said one day you’ll meet somebody you’re to give these to as a sign our peoples can work together for peace. To me that’s how the AFSE Fellowship can connect us in unintended ways.”

Marcus later helped pull together an Affinity Group on Criminal Justice Reform, and another on Youth Development. He had been involved in both areas before, through Tuia and having facilitated the Criminal Justice Summit in 2017, at which Māori participants reacted, saying the summit was about them but not with them. This led to the first-ever national Māori Hui on criminal justice reform convened by Māori for Māori.

Out of that Hui came the Ināia Tonu Report, in which participants said that despite 30 years of calls for change through such seminal reports as Puao-te-Ata-tu, He Whaipaanga Hou, and Te Ara Hou by John Rangihau, Dr Moana Jackson, and Sir Clinton Roper respectively, nothing transformative had occurred. ‘The true essence and korero of these reports published more than 30 years ago have not been fully understood or accepted by those in power.’

At that stage Marcus was on the other side of the Crown, with Māori advocating that there needed to be a sharing of power. Since then he’s accepted the role of Pou Whakatere - Deputy Secretary, Māori in Te Tāhū o te Ture (Ministry of Justice). “The challenge I now face is the system’s capacity to partner with Māori more effectively.

“As Moana Jackson says, ‘the arc of history always bends itself towards justice.’ I think you can do a lot more outside the system to have a direct impact on people’s lives like the Tuia Kaupapa, but there are some things you can only do from inside the system. That’s what I’m looking for, but to me it’s not about getting good at what the system does, but staying clear in my purpose for being
in this role. And that’s about staying accountable and committed to my community relationships.”

This means staying involved in rangatahi projects, regularly attending and hosting wananga
with Tuia, and believing that solutions for many of our really complex social issues lie with the next generation. “They continually make me hopeful. We can see the positive effects of Kohanga Reo, Kura Kaupapa, and the resurgence of Waka Ama and so on, these weren’t there when I was young. 

“I liken my generation to that of the understory in restoration planting, the manukau, mahoe and putaputaweta, they don’t live long but they provide an environment for the more substantive legacy trees, the kahikatea, totara and rimu to grow.”

The Atlantic Fellowship for Social Equity programme is 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.