In the footsteps of giants
On the day Lisa Lawrence was born, Dame Whina Cooper began the Ma¯ori land march from Te Ha¯pua in the Far North to Wellington. She walked 1000 kilometres and gathered 5000 marchers to present a 60,000-signature petition to the prime minister, protesting about Ma¯ori land loss.
That was 1975. For Lawrence, president of the National Council for Women, that still resonates. Cooper has always been one of her primary touchstones.
Lawrence sees her as ‘‘a role model for how to gather people and gain momentum that’s meaningful for ordinary folk, instead of leadership that’s disconnected and out of touch’’.
Another figure with whom she shares an even stronger connection is Kate Sheppard, the suffragist who, in 1896, pioneered the NCW role. That connection is strengthened by the fact that the first signatures on the suffrage petition were collected at Yaldhurst, near Christchurch, just a stone’s throw from where Lawrence was raised.
‘‘All these cool markers are things I’ve leaned on to say I think I’m on a path that’s going to lead to good things.’’
However, Lawrence describes them as big shoes to fill. ‘‘Kate’s story is amazing. It took an incredible amount of endurance to pull together what she did, working for years alongside other women of the time and without any of the facilities we have today.
‘‘No pressure, but I’m not going to be on the $10 note.’’
While Lawrence (Nga¯ti Kahungunu, Nga¯ti Ruapani) was born and raised in Christchurch, her whakapapa is Wairoa – ‘‘the Wild West of the East Coast’’, as she calls it.
Her grandparents left Wairoa to join the army. They had a baby in what seemed like every barracks until there were nine children. The wha¯nau landed in Burnham Army Camp, but it was suggested they might like to find a home off base.
Lawrence recalls a family joke that ‘‘you can’t have that many children at any one time bouncing around and jumping on the tanks’’.
So they moved to the suburb of Hornby. Lawrence’s father was the eldest child, and she was the first grandchild. ‘‘I almost came along at the tail-end of my dad’s line, so there’s only four years between me and my youngest aunty. I was raised in this really big family – 13 or 14 of us in a three-bedroom house in Hornby. I thought it was awesome.’’
Lawrence slept in a bedroom fashioned out of the back of the double garage, and recalls how cold the concrete was in the morning as she ran across to the house for breakfast.
‘‘My first memories were living with Grandmother and what I thought were my siblings. I didn’t realise they were my aunties and uncles until I was much older. I was quite annoyed when my parents got their own home when I was 4 and we moved out.’’
Lawrence says that being raised in a large Ma¯ori family was wonderful, but there was a disconnection from her whenua and culture.
‘‘There was no te reo at home. We were definitely an English-speaking Ma¯ori family. That was just how it was in the 70s and 80s. Ma¯ori and Pasifika cultural identities weren’t acknowledged.’’
She started learning te reo in high school and continued with it at university, but still missed that deeper cultural connection.
‘‘You can learn the language but if you don’t enact the tikanga and the wha¯nau connections to make it meaningful, it would be like me going back to school to learn Latin. I could speak the words, but to whom? The when, where and how make it meaningful, and that’s important to me.’’
Two years into studying for a BA with a double major in Ma¯ori and education, she became pregnant with her son, so she started looking for a place to raise her family. She settled on Nelson because her father lives nearby in Motueka. She then worked her way through roles in St John (including first aid trainer and Safekids presenter), the NZ College of Midwives, family planning and iwi-based health and social services.
After 20 years’ service in the Nelson community, Lawrence has amassed an impressive array of titles. Kaiwhakahaere of the Motueka Community Centre and, within that role, supporting safe families in the region. She is also supporting the co-design and redesign of family violence prevention services for the West Coast, Motueka, Nelson, Blenheim and Kaiko¯ura.
Alongside being president of the NCW, the 45-year-old is the current chair of the community advisory committee for Pharmac, and a member of the NZ Psychology Board, which regulates psychologists.
Aself-confessed introvert, she says some of her most valuable experience early on was in the Family Planning Association, where she took part in a drama troupe that visited high schools to teach teenagers about sex and sexuality.
‘‘I had to repeat the same thing five times a day. It was a good training ground, teaching me to talk about confronting things, but also to practise public speaking and trusting the energy within that.’’
She also credits the influence of mentors such as Dr Sue Bagshaw for steering her in the direction of community service.
‘‘How can you not be massively influenced by that kind of persona and way of negotiating conversations and spaces? Dr Bagshaw was, and is, still a great champion of youth health and wellbeing.’’
Lawrence wasn’t naturally drawn to leadership, and didn’t start putting herself forward for leadership roles until she had what she thought was a decent amount of experience and could back it up with competency. ‘‘I started to realise that I do know what I’m doing, I do know how to do these things. After 10 or 15 similar experiences, you can predict how things might go.’’
Watching senior leaders fall into predictable strategies that didn’t bring good results motivated her to step up and create different outcomes.
She was drawn to the National Council of Women because it was about gender equality. ‘‘I thought I could get on board with that.’’
She doesn’t identify as a feminist, saying Ma¯ori don’t need feminism; it’s not within her cultural construct. ‘‘There’s this assumption that the National Council of Women is about feminism, but it’s not. It’s all about equality, which is far more inclusive.’’
One of the ideals closest to her heart is building resilience. And she has a vision of how to make that happen. In a gap year after school, when teenagers don’t know what they’re doing with their lives, she would like to see a compulsory year’s service with ambulance, fire, coastguard, or army from a civil defence perspective.
‘‘Can you imagine how much more resilient our communities would be from earthquakes, Covid – you name it – environmental as well as self-inflicted scenarios. We would know how to mobilise when we came across any event.
‘‘Having the skills and confidence to tie down your own roof when there’s a tropical storm on the way, knowing how to protect your own kids. How much more resilience would that instil in families? Skill-based community resilience – knowing your crew and that you will mobilise as a crew wherever you are.’’
It could even be iwi-based, with mandated training for youth in their regions. ‘‘I know we have that beautiful No 8 wire mentality, but confidence is not the same as competence.’’
Lawrence describes herself as a lifelong learner. ‘‘There’s always something new to figure out. You just have to go through the process and not be wedded to the outcome.’’
Even though she has been asked if she would ever consider politics, she doesn’t feel she has the personality for it. ‘‘I know the limits of my labour, and I don’t want to participate in spaces that make me hard.’’
She has regular contact with ministers such as Julie Anne Genter and can initiate those conversations about equality and political gains for women. She enjoys the conversations and advocating for change, but feels that being inside the machine makes it a lot harder to throw stones that are provocative, and to move the conversation forward.
‘‘I want to throw the gems that advocate for change and get the leaders who make the wheels turn to shift their trajectory.
‘‘So that’s where I see I can have the most value. I love being connected to the community.’’
‘‘I want to throw the gems that advocate for change and get the leaders who make the wheels turn to shift their trajectory.’’