Tracey McIntosh

Professor Tracey McIntosh, co-head of Te Wānanga o Waipapa, talks about her journey, her passions and the transformative power of education.


My two main interest areas are: firstly all things Māori and my own research areas around process marginalisation and identity issues with Māori, and secondly my interest in systematic suffering and state crime which has a more international focus.

There has been no grand plan in my journey. It could have taken many different paths, but there are clear consistencies along the way.

I grew up in South Auckland, I have a Māori mother and Pakeha father, and come from a strong working class background. I was very lucky in that my parents embedded in me a very strong sense of politics and work ethic. My parents were proud of where they came from, they were both innovative, and as a family we were very politically engaged. They did have aspirations of me beyond just going into the work force, but not uncommon for that generation, believed there was nobility in work, no matter what work you did. For me, my family opened an inquisitive space.

I entered the University system as an extramural student, and like many Māori students, as a mature student. While I actually quite enjoyed school, in South Auckland in the mid-70s, there was not a big emphasis to carry on to university study. Certainly 6th form was seen as the end of your school career; if you stayed on till 7th form you were almost work-shy, trying to avoid the responsibilities of earning. I felt I had really had enough of school so I went to work, waitressing at the airport.

Still as a teenager, unable to speak French, I headed to France. There was very little forethought in it. As many had done before, I started teaching English as a second language. There I started thinking about the importance of an education but firstly headed off to Burundi as a volunteer becoming involved with an American-funded aid programme looking at alternative energy resourcing. I taught English at a management level to Burundian managers to converse with their American donors, and French to Irish peat experts who needed to work with the Burundian foremen. During that time I also went to Rwanda, which would have an impact later on. This was in the 1980s, prior to the genocide.

On returning to New Zealand, my first child was born and when she was six months we moved to Tonga. I realised then there were things I saw in Burundi that I wanted to make sense of. I recognised the colonial system, recognised that it was different from our own, and wondered how much I actually knew about our own colonisation experience. I was trying to understand a whole range of things about living in a place where death was an everyday experience, where there was high infant mortality, high child mortality and the cultural ways of understanding those sorts of things.

The other thing that really pushed me into tertiary education, apart from wanting to understanding some big issues, was that I came to realise there must be some great satisfaction of knowing anything in depth.

At the beginning I studied extramurally in Tonga and Fiji. I did comparative world religious studies, to understand religious belief systems better. I took English and Māori courses. We left for New Zealand after the second Fijian coup. I had seven papers and if I studied full-time I would have a BA in two years. Auckland did not have Religious Studies so I took Ancient History, which I loved, Ancient Egyptian and other papers. There was absolutely no grand plan. I was now also working full time and now also a single mother.

I took Sociology just as an elective in my second year. It made sense to me immediately. It aligned with my experience and offered a particular analytical framework. Sociology takes power very seriously, it looks at issues around inequality (which was something very dear to me growing up), class, ethnicity. It brought together biography and history in a way that I found very attractive. I took all of my stage two and stage three papers Sociology papers in my final year. It was wonderful for me to have that high level of saturation in the discipline. That, and the fact I was a mature student, had a young family and was a single parent meant failing was not an option. At that time, I got involved in a lot of peer mentoring in a way that would come to look like the Tuākana programme. I ended up doing well in my Sociology and was the Senior Scholar that year. I had achieved my degree and I was very satisfied with that. I would have definitely finished there.

By this time I had a real necessity to meet my children’s needs and to stay on at university would have been highly indulgent. Unexpectedly I was offered a Masters scholarship. I did my masters following my interest around death and the way we respond at both an individual and collective level.

As I had already done quite a bit of teaching in France and in Burundi, the University offered me an Assistant Lectureship which allowed me to concentrate on my studies and gain teaching experience in the tertiary environment. At the same time I became Māori liaison in the department. I was still working, still a single parent.

On completing my masters I returned to Fiji, taking up a position at the University of South Pacific as a lecturer in the Sociology Department for three years. It was a wonderful place which greatly developed my teaching practice. In many ways it was a family decision to come back to New Zealand, I took up a position at the University of Auckland and now really needed to complete that PhD as a requirement of the appointment.

My PhD was on extreme death experience, looking at the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda and everyday violence at a very high systematic level. I was seeking to better understand the types of environments and processes necessary for such violence to happen, to start developing a notion of the sociology of evil, not as a metaphysical term but as a form of social action where we might collectively or individually be involved in action where we know the result will be human suffering of the other.

I have stayed at the University ever since. I was Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts for quite a number of years and was Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor (Equity). I have also been head of the Department of Sociology and Joint-Director of Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga: Māori Centre for Research Excellence, which has a research, capacity-building, and knowledge exchange element. Working with Ngā Pae Co-Director Michael Walker was an incredible experience; we worked in a transformative way to bring together Māori and indigenous research and researchers. I am currently co-head of Te Wānanga o Waipapa with Jemaima Sipaea Tiatia-Seath.

Even now I have no grand plan. Though I find it very difficult to say no to opportunities, however they might be seen, I have always found a rewarding path. I have come to know, and often tell my students, that although very few of us are ever ready for the next step, most of us, rise to the occasion when it presents and bring something valuable to it.