Suffrage 125: Dare to dream

Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath, one of the University’s leading Pacific academics, has seen at first hand the struggles of many women in New Zealand today. On the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, she talks about some of the factors that have contributed to her success, including her grandmother, pictured with her below.

Jemaima Tiatia-Seath with her grandmother Suresa. Photo: Dean Carruthers

In 1952, 25-year-old Suresa Siapai Falaniko Mauava was put on a seaplane in transit from Samoa, and told by her father to go to New Zealand and find new opportunities.

Suresa arrived at Mechanics Bay in Auckland, alone, with no job or place to stay. However, she soon found her way to the YWCA in Queen Street and, within a week, one of the supervisors at the hostel had connected her to the Oakley psychiatric hospital in Point Chevalier.

Suresa stayed at the hospital’s nurses’ home and worked as a nurse-aide with psychiatric patients. A year later, she met her Samoan husband, Masuigamalie Vaialua George Gavet.

Now more than 60 years later, Suresa’s granddaughter Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath sits in the meeting room at the University’s Centre for Pacific Studies pushing the plunger down for her morning coffee. “My biggest role model is my nanny (grandmother),” she says. “She’s 92 now and it gives her huge satisfaction to see how far her grandchildren have come.”

It’s a quiet morning for Jemaima in what is proving to be a high-profile and busy year. She is one of six panellists on the Government’s Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry, as well as juggling academic roles as acting Co-Head of the University’s Te Wananga o Waipapa, School of Maori Studies and Pacific Studies, and as Head of Pacific Studies.

Not that she doesn’t look like she is taking it all in her stride.

“My nanny always said ‘never be confined by any type of walls: invisible or visible’,” Jemaima continues. “That’s the thing that has completely enabled me to be empowered... there’s always been this unspoken challenge from her and my mother that we should ‘dare to dream’. There’s this scripture in the Bible that says cast your bread upon the waters and what it is saying is ‘be adventurous, take risks’.

“How will we ever be transformative? How will we ever flourish if we’re not willing to take risks?”

Jemaima puts down her coffee cup and stands up, turning round to show me the writing on the back of the orange hoodie she is wearing. It is from her sister Mary’s urban street brand DMRP (Don’t Let Your Mind Rob Your Potential).

“See, this is our family, the environment we have created. I come from a line of strong women and we’re smashing through glass ceilings.”

For those who have smashed through glass ceilings you look at what's around them.

I had come to talk to Jemaima about Pacific women, and how she thought they were doing in New Zealand. It is soon clear her own story embodies the best of what she has to say.

“Like everything, we are products of our environment and how that has been set up. For those who have smashed through glass ceilings you look at what is around them: supportive families, inspiring role models, people willing to take a punt and see them for who they are and not where they have come from.”

It’s not about building resilience though. “I don’t like that term,” she says, “it’s nurturing what’s already there.” In terms of leadership, Pacific women are doing well, Jemaima says, turning to my question. “Four Pacific MPs in Parliament, two women, and we’ve got more Pacific females coming into University (there were 3,659 Pacific students for 2017, 2,405 female) and here at Pacific Studies we provide a safe thriving space for them to do really well.

“But for many young Pacific females out there, it’s a completely different story; the reality is, there is still significant inequity. For most Pacific women we’re not doing too good. We’re still the lowest paid: New Zealand European, Asian women, Māori and then Pacific. We’re occupying the lowest tier.

“There are lots of identity challenges for our young Pacific peoples. You ask the younger generation how they identify and some will say ‘I am Kiwi’ and maybe Tongan or Samoan second.

Everyone needs a sense of belonging regardless of ethnicity, but as a society, whose connectedness are we privileging most? And when we do that, who are we side-lining? For obvious reasons it’s mainstream … yes there is unconscious bias in New Zealand. I would go one step further and call it out for what it is, and that is institutionalised racism. You see it everywhere.”

Over the last six to eight months, Jemaima and the other five members of the inquiry panel have travelled up and down the country and been exposed to “some very dark and painful stories”.

“There are so many issues out there,” she says. “We need to see a paradigm shift and the talanoa or conversation has to change. We’re seeing the exposure of sexual violence among families in general, eating disorders, misdiagnosis of mental health issues. Māori and Pacific are more likely to come under the compulsory treatment order, to be  incarcerated. Drug addiction is massive. Lots of fetal alcohol syndrome. Mothers drinking while pregnant. Young mothers not receiving support. Services out there are not equipped to deal with cultural diversity to serve our communities well. All of this impacts upon our statistics.”

For her Masters of Arts, Jemaima looked at why young Pacific peoples were leaving traditional churches; that led to a book Caught between Cultures. For her PhD she then looked at suicide and mental health and wellbeing in the Samoan community. As a result she is very strong on the need for culturally appropriate support, not just for Pacific women but for all Māori and Pacific in New Zealand.

“Society is set up in such a way that it’s not whanau-centred. We need to shift that. In Pacific cultures you don’t deal with the individual, it’s not an individual issue. It’s a family issue. It’s a village issue. It’s whanau, ‘aiga. We need to deal to all needs, whether in health, education or justice, from a whanau-centered approach.

“There’s a lot of cultural incompetence with services that are out there. They don’t have the cultural nuances, sometimes unconsciously. People can believe they are acting right, but it could be racist or inappropriate and ultimately, detrimental.

“We need to move away from a deficit model for Pacific and move more towards a strengths-based approach. Find out what works for us and elevate our strengths and successes. We need to be supported to bring positive stories to the fore, whether it’s by institutions or by allowing communities to come up with solutions.”

As the Inquiry has moved around the country, with a presence at some 250 to 300 meetings, Jemaima has been amazed at the numbers of women showing an interest.

She knows from her own experience, and from Samoan culture, that acknowledging the strength of women in the community is key, and will be important going into the future.

“You can look in from the outside at Pacific women playing what one may think is a subservient role to the men in our culture, but Pacific women are the back-bone of families. That’s how it’s been constructed. We need to reclaim that, because our leadership has been our strength. From a young age, Pacific girls look after babies and we know it’s looking after the community, the collective. In Pacific families this is distinctive.

“It’s what keeps us together.”

By Tess Redgrave

Ingenio: Spring 2018  

This article appears in the Spring 2018 edition of Ingenio, the print magazine for alumni and friends of the University of Auckland.

View more articles from Ingenio