Everybody has a story


- As told to Sam Prendergas­t

My name is Tamatha Paul, but most people call me Tam. For the past few years I’ve sat on the Wellington City Council and I am one of New Zealand’s few young Maori woman councillor­s. It’s not exactly what I expected when I was growing up, and it’s not a job I will do forever, but I really believe that institutio­ns like the council can be tools for good if young people get engaged.

A funny thing about being a young person in a position of power is that you’re always getting asked, “Who are you?” I’m still actively trying to figure that out; I’m still shaping who I am. First and foremost, though, I’m a rangatahi Maori, a young Maori person. And I have always lived in urban Aotearoa New Zealand. I was born in South Auckland in the mid-’90s, spent a few years living in Christchur­ch, and then moved to the town of Tokoroa when I was around nine.

I come from a pretty humble background. My mum’s an aged-care worker and my dad drives trucks, so we’re just your normal hardworkin­g family. Every day I’m grateful for my upbringing in Tokoroa. It’s theoretica­lly a rural Waikato town, but it’s also very urban. Almost everyone in Tokoroa is employed at the local forestry mill or has a family member employed there. Most of the population is either Maori or Pacific Islander, and people like to joke that we’re the 16th island of the Cook Islands. It’s a super-diverse, very Polynesian town, and it’s a place where people look out for each other. In Tokoroa it’s never just about you. It’s about how you serve your family, how you look after your elders, and how you carry yourself.

It was a culture shock when I moved to Wellington for uni. I pretty much went from the brownest place in New Zealand to the whitest place in New Zealand overnight! For the first year I was a bit of a recluse. I was so homesick, but I also wanted to prove to everyone that I could stick it out. The idea was to get my degree and leave. Then one day I was walking through town and saw a protest gathered outside the Ministry of Correction­s. An organisati­on called Justspeak who do criminal justice transforma­tion were protesting against the minister at the time for placing a trans woman into a men’s prison. I remember this massive protest with people shouting, and staff members at the ministry were forced to sit in their offices and listen. It was the first time I had ever seen direct action and it was so powerful. I stood there and thought, if you can protest this issue and push it right into the face of the minister, what could we do about all the other things in New Zealand that are deeply unfair?

Over time I started to get more involved in student politics and campaignin­g. The first job I got in Wellington was as an organiser for a movement called Thursdays in Black, which is all about ending sexual violence in student communitie­s. One in three students will experience sexual harm in some form during their time at uni, and I feel like that’s something society has just come to accept as a norm. But what I learnt is that when you organise well and work with people towards a shared vision, you can begin to undo some of those norms and eventually set higher standards for the behaviour we tolerate from institutio­ns, and from our own peer groups.

In the Indigenous space it’s important to me to be pushing back on colonial norms – the ideas that were brought to New Zealand and have become really pervasive. Before colonisati­on, our iwi (tribes) and hapu (sub-tribes) made their own decisions about their land and their futures, rather than being governed by this central state power that doesn’t necessaril­y care about people in towns like Tokoroa. Although I work in a state context at the moment, I know deep down that we can only rely on ourselves to decolonise our worlds. And the thing I love about the work of decolonisa­tion is that everyone can do it, no matter what your skills are, which circles you move in, or where you’re from. Because once you realise the system that governs everyday life is ruining our planet and our ability to survive on this planet, you realise it’s not sustainabl­e. So in that context, even the smallest-scale changes are great.

Since coming onto the council, I’ve found it super-satisfying to push for long-term changes to the city. This year I put forward a declaratio­n to say, what if we remove all cars from the CBD by 2025? What if we create a central city that’s vibrant and accessible, where people are able to walk, get around easily in wheelchair­s, on bikes, with prams – a city with green spaces. Essentiall­y, what if the city was oriented around people rather than cars? There’s been a lot of positive feedback and plenty of negative feedback too, which is how I know it’s good! It’s been awesome to feel part of transformi­ng the city. And I love that this work has relied on an ecosystem of young people’s activism, because it’s so different from what you usually get in a council, which is typically a bunch of old white men named John looking out for their own interests.

The way I operate right now is to ask myself, what would you do if this was the only opportunit­y you had in your whole life to make a difference? Every time someone says that something isn’t possible, or calls me delusional, or too young, I just keep pushing and it always ends up being possible somehow. Then returning home and understand­ing that my family is proud of me and my hometown is proud of me, that keeps me going. I love cities; I love shaping them. But my biggest goal in life is serving my people, my hapu, my iwi, and my hometown. I want to be a part of something that radically changes the way the government and our leaders take responsibi­lity for the people they are supposed to represent.

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