In the foot­steps of giants

The Timaru Herald - - National Portrait - Words: Stu Hunt Image: Braden Fastier

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.’’

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