Hope is a Shape Shifter - Helen Leahy, Pouarahi

When the Town Hall was officially reopened on 23 February local band Shape-Shifter was selected to play. It couldn’t have been more apt.  Shape-shifters occupy the world of magic and miracles.   They transform from one state to another, breathing new life into old.

As we walked in here yesterday, Sista reminded us of cherished memories of graduation balls, the flamboyance of Rock Quest, the passionate performance of cultural festivals – you might recognize in this prestigious front row : David Kidwell, Chevy Allen, Huata Arahanga, Nathan Tau, Chris Hillock.

 We have become re-acquainted with the royal red carpeted stairs, the white marble, history preserved. It appears the same – but it’s not.

We will never be the same.

But while we never forget the harrowing years of post-earthquake Ōtautahi; like the phoenix rising from the ashes, a new design has shaped our city, a landscape loved into being to proudly remind the world that Ngāi Tūāhuriri is welcoming us to their space. Through the influence of Matapopore a sequence of whariki have been designed, representing the process of pōwhiri; a symbolic challenge to a city that used to boast of a past dominated by the first four ships of the colonizer.

Hope is such a shape-shifter.  

A city rebuilt on the legacy of Pita Te Hori to permeate our conscience: Kia atawhai ki te iwi: care for your people.   A fitting mantra for Whānau Ora!

We chose this venue deliberately to reflect the resilience that comes out of adversity: a reflection of the tightrope that whānau dance upon between conflict and calm; crisis and peace.  Puao te Rā, uramai te rā: a restoration project that like the Daybreak report of 1988 – Puao te ata tu has given light to new opportunities; opened the door to hope.

 Little did we know that on 15th March this year our faith would be sorely tested through the devastation of lives, the destruction of innocence that came through the assault of a terrorist driven on a philosophy of white supremacy.

But yet into that tornado of hate, hope rose again through the words of the Imam; Gamal Fouda of Al Noor mosque, who urged us to let the world see in us an example of love and unity.

He talked directly to the families of the victims telling them Their blood has watered the seeds of hope. Through them, the world will see the beauty of Islam and the beauty of our unity

What we learnt over the last few weeks about whakapono, tūmanako, whanaungatanga resonates with the every-day experiences that speak to us of moments that change our lives.

When I was 36 I was classified as having a geriatric pregnancy.  It had been my lifetime dream to bring a child into the world but the dream took some time to materialize.  It wasn’t until I suspended my disbelief that indeed a miracle occurred.. 

18 months later we clung onto faith again – this time to fly above our fears, a faith that gave us strength as our second daughter lay in ICU with chronic pneumonia.

Sometimes we need to find faith in ourselves again – to rebuild hope when all is lost.   When our mother passed away I spent too many years consumed with things not said until I realized I could honour her legacy in the way I lived my life.  Through the blur of my tears it became possible to see more clearly changes I could make, to be the shape-shifter of a new hope that would influence her grandchildren, whether she was with us or not.

Everyday occurrences where hope triumphs over fear; faith wins out over cynicism; examples which remind us to be mana-enhancing in thought and in practice.  These moments become the wellspring from which we draw on for the Whānau Ora approach.   Moments that we all have; in which lifetime memories are made; experiences which cause our resolve to strengthen; remind us of the need for joy in our lives..

That is what our symposium always do for me – they fill my heart to over-flowing with the positivity of people living a life of purpose.

When the crisis of climate-change threatens our wellbeing; when significant weather impacts –catastrophic floods or tinder-dry fields into which a spark of fire becomes lethal – how do we respond when we are tested?  How do we cope with the challenges that we encounter every day?

I came to these questions of the heart, in the aftermath of some depressingly familiar insights from the review of Whānau Ora as reported back to Government this year.   A report which reiterated the pervasive thread of systematic racism; an indifference to innovation revealed through a reluctance to shift from a singular sector-silo focus.

While we are pleased that Government is being urged to be more ambitious; to contribute to the enduring solutions that we know whānau are capable of, it is disappointing that there has not been a more emphatic statement that reinforces the very positive findings that came out in the review.  


Disheartening too – that other than the consistent commitment of Te Karere, Tahu FM and Waatea to tell our stories, all other media appear disinterested in good news, in reporting the warmth of the vibe that surrounds us all in the Whānau Ora space.

Why aren’t we reading statements that shout to the rooftop, Whānau Ora creates the conditions to achieve sustainable change.  

Or seeing headlines that transformation takes time – but it’s worth investing in; that the results of long term trust far exceed the gains of a transactional relationship.

That investing in whānau – being accountable to and driven by whānau – by its very nature is bound for success because whānau want it to work- not just for them but for their mokopuna after them.

This symposium is absolutely motivated by our recognition – and celebration – of an incredible first five years of enterprise, energy and expertise demonstrated by whānau champions throughout Te Waipounamu.   In doing so, our whānau have shown us a new dawn; you have created new horizons for our hope.

170 entities over eight waves of investment : a pipeline of possibility which has exceeded all expectations.  

I acknowledge the vision, the intellectual vigour and the brave spirit that characterized our establishment:

  • the pioneering optimism of our nine iwi who have carried the banner for Whānau Ora from the very onset;

  • ·the dedication and determination of our General Partner Limited Board to construct an enduring waka that would carry us through;

  • ·the remarkable architecture designed by Sacha, Cazna, Diane, and the initial team  

  • .the invigorating magic and talents of Ariki Creative, Māui Studios, Mokowhiti, Tū Maia and Ihi evaluation who have enabled the light to be shone across our grandest plans.

I am extremely proud and privileged that their leadership continues to be felt as we evolve;

But more than anything, our collective future is being shaped by whānau in multiple and miraculous ways. 

There was the story of a little girl, Indy Arbuckle, who fell in love with a dress at the Warehouse and was heartset on buying that dress for her 5th birthday.   Through the initiative of Whakaruruhau in South Dunedin, week by week, Indy put a 50 cent deposit on the dress.   Early steps in financial planning; having to pay off her debts to her siblings before she could complete the transaction.

Bold steps to reconnect all our rangatahi with the essence of the place they call home; initiatives like Te Ataarangi ki te Tauihu, which give expression to te reo rangatira; inspiring whānau to grow confidence in their own image.

Our Nav Nation – singled out internationally by Jostle for the vital importance of their relationships with each other; working together as the ultimate shape-shifter; travelling from crisis to aspiration; establishing a mindset shift which creates opportunity for whānau to take charge

We know through the 23 + consultation hui of Tū Pono: Te Mana kaha o te whānau – that a collective will is essential to the groundswell of change.

 A mode of thinking which tells us that whānau live in different and interesting circumstances; but that if you place faith in our families and their abilities to address their own challenges, if change is whānau determined and whānau actioned, then progress is far more likely. 

That is where Te Punanga Haumaru – the sites of safety – and the role of our Whānau Ora Connectors and our Navigators have literally moved mountains; taking bold shifts towards aspirational goals.

And this comes back to my preoccupation with staying true to our narratives; being firmly fixed on solutions and strategies within our making.   We know that being agile – being able to adapt – to be flexible to circumstance is crucial.   We have to be prepared to follow the lead of whānau.

One of the most persistent disappointments in our first five years has been the lack of respectful resourcing to support the aspirations of whānau.

 There are exceptions – and I want to single out Oranga Tamariki; the Ministry of Social Development; Pharmac; Te Pūtea Whakatupu; Te Rau Matatini and our principal funder Te Puni Kokiri for being brave enough, and bold enough, to back us.  

 Some of these funders also stand out in the crowd for being able to step out behind the driving wheel, and invest in intention rather than drill deep into detail, undermining any hope of a relationship of trust.

Some of our team have recently returned from Inaia Tonu Nei – where over 150 tangata whenua gathered to deconstruct the limitations of a justice system that is failing Māori.  The theme was “We lead, you follow” – and that the state needs to be responsive to the ingenuity associated with indigeneity : to trust in a different discourse than that written on the serviettes on Lambton Quay.

It troubles me greatly when we put more effort into identifying who has done us wrong, in serving to constrain or control them; to erase them from our records; to expel, suspend, evict, ostracize rather than focus on all we can do that is right for creating conversations that matter amongst the rest of us.

We all need to take a leaf out of the book of Bros for Change : believe in ourselves; trust in the indigenous instinct; don’t get distracted by personality politics; by speculation or distrust; make the effort to do what is right – and do it now.   Be the dawn, the light, the care, the compassion.

We need to take our own wellness seriously; to refuse to let the disease of deficit thinking erode our confidence; to stand as tall and strong in collective solidarity as the magnificent banners that wear the names of our iwi with pride.

We need to be resolute that not one more child will be hurt or harmed; that we will break the silence over violence; that we will not speak in terms of despair or defeat; of ourselves or of others.  That we open our eyes to the harm of toxic or polluted masculinity; that we awaken the spirit within.

That we will uphold the proud legacy Irihapeti Ramsden engineered in cultural competency; that we will foster culturacy; that we will know of the faces of racism – personal, cultural and institutional – and take urgent steps to dismantle it.

I am relentlessly inspired by the effort our navigators demonstrate to shape up, step up, speak up about the things that matter – the record numbers enrolled in the Whānau Ora Certificate and diploma qualifications; the effort made to make the tablet your best friend; to acquire new steps in support for those confronting addiction; to respond to the powers of te hunga wairua; to focus on wellness and wellbeing as our purpose.

So where to now, what will be our next new dawn?  We are thrilled to have two new directors appointed on to the GPL Board of the calibre of Taua Sally Pitama and Tā Mark Solomon.

We join in love with our whānau as they welcome new life into their homes; as they establish a brand new – first ever – kura in Wairau.

There is something profoundly powerful about seeing the world through the magic of mokopuna eyes – and doing what we can to keep our sights firmly fixed on hope.

We mourn for all those whom leave behind poignant memories, particularly those who have left us over this last year and occupy our thoughts.

Whether it is the hundreds of rangatahi who came to Manawa to find new ways of resilience; or the reflections of our team at the Wakefield fires or in the context of the Oranga Tamariki changes, one thing is clear; the pathways of whānau; the interpretation of the Whānau Ora approach and the momentum of the project of collective transformation has captured all our hearts.

We are so grateful to have our Minister for Māori Development here as well as the Minister for Whānau Ora – this is a massive endorsement in Whānau Ora that means so much to us all.  Your presence lifts our spirits; your support for the kaupapa is appreciated.

Finally, I think of the words of Maya Angelou :

Light and shadow are opposite sides of the same coin.   We can illuminate our paths or darken our way.   It is a matter of choice.

I choose hope. 

I choose to place faith in our whānau; to believe they are born of greatness. 

I want to acknowledge those champions like our Whānau Enterprise Coaches who do so much to keep our spirits high.

And I ask you how we can improve; how we can respond better; how we can do more, be more.

There are two groups that I want to particularly mention.    

The ambassadors of enthusiasm who form our staff – who work late into the night and weekend to process reports, to administer applications, to interpret survey monkey results; to take random calls; to work through too many emails.   Working in a team driven by passion always involves sacrifice – and I take this moment to acknowledge their dedication; their loyalty; and their over-riding love for whānau.  

The other group is actually all of our whānau – my whānau and yours – who constantly wait; who have to be patient; who miss out on our full attention; who give and give a bit more.   They are as vital to our transformation project as anyone – they give us the fountain of love that enables our energy to flow; they remind us of the magic of having a purpose; they wrap us in love and shield us when we need it most;  our gratitude can never be sufficiently described in words – but we do say thank you.

Finally, I am forever humbled by the gifts of belief; the courage of compassion; and the proof that I feel all around this room, that tells us that now is the time for a new dawn, Puao te Rā; Uramai Te Rā!


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