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A cuppa . . . and a kōrero

Advocate for Maori kaupapa-led and values-driven.

Glenis Philip-Barbara is an advocate for Māori, the community and those who may need a hand. She talks to Diana Dobson about her holistic approach to meeting front-on challenges and problems, and how she takes the sting out of confrontational situations by sharing a cuppa and a kōrero.

Glenis Philip-Barbara is not one to back away from an awkward conversation . . . ever. She's used to challenging situations that call for a calming influence, tricky situations that need a holistic approach, and times when you need to bring together people who would normally not share a table.

Her latest job as the manager of the Tairāwhiti Economic Support Package Redeployment Programme draws on her vast experience that has seen her as chief executive of the Māori Language Commission, associate deputy chief executive for the Ministry of Social Development (Child, Youth & Family) and more recently as the woman who led the Tuia 250 commemorations last year.

Glenis is proud of her heritage, which includes Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Uepohatu and Scottish ancestry, and has been married to her husband Nick for 28 years. Together they have seven children.

She is a staunch advocate for Māori, the community and those who may need a little help, but perhaps more importantly, she is a unifier, and her most “lethal” weapon is a cup of tea.

The Tuia 250 commemorations highlighted the ongoing emotive feelings around the arrival of Captain James Cook and how that history continues to be portrayed.

How Tairāwhiti hosted the commemorations of the first meeting between Māori and European was the subject of international media attention. Everyone had a platform, including iwi, protestors, Cook enthusiasts and more.

There were plenty of politicians in town to witness an emotive and poignant pōhiri.

Mutual respect is a basic human right

In the build-up, detractors of the commemorations who wrote letters to the editor were invited to have a cup of tea and a chat with Glenis.

“It's about listening to other people,” she says.

“Listening to their concerns, understandings and opinions . . . and hopefully they will do the same.”

It is something so simple but that mutual respect is — according to Glenis — a basic human right.

She learned about the importance of respect when she was a youngster. She was a straight A student and the eldest of three girls. Their father's Army career took them all over the country and she attended many schools. Her reports would precede her to each new school. She would turn up at the school to head into the top stream, but her jet-black plaits and milk-chocolate complexion didn't quite match her name and she would be moved to a lower class.

Her Pākehā Dad would duly head to the principal's office to sort it out and, sure enough, Glenis would head back to the top stream, with a quiet reminder from the school that she would need to earn her place up there.

It was her first taste of racism, and while this is a challenge every day of her life, it is something she has learned to navigate reasonably well. It's also what has helped mould her to be a holistic manager of people who understands that every person has a story to tell and a value or experience that drives their behaviour.

“Taking a breath and really listening carefully when dealing with ‘difficult situations' are important skills,” she says.

And she has had a lifetime to work on it in a range of settings.

“My CV tells a story about the vast array of interests in my life, and demonstrates my personal philosophy of work; kaupapa-led and values-driven. The kaupapa or purpose of a project, organisation or programme is key for me, and if I can't see a solid value-add for the community, in particular, for groups of people who struggle or aren't particularly well represented, then it's unlikely to capture my interest.”

Her career spans education, research, project management, business and community development. Her first job was at the old Patutahi Dairy — a place where she first learned about cash-handling and customer service.

The other early influence on her professional life was attending Māori Women's Welfare League meetings with her Nan.

“Nan would ensure that I took notes at pōhiri and at all of the presentations, and would quiz me at night to wānanga (analyse and ask questions about) my notes. I remember being asked by the State Services Commission as a new chief executive where my earliest policy influences came from. I talked at length about my time as a Junior Māori Women's Welfare League member and my Nan.”

Glenis became a mother at 19 and went on to attend Massey University with three young children in tow, giving birth to her fourth child in the mid-semester break of her final year. She earned a degree in Sociology and Māori Studies and went on to Masters study and teaching first-year students in sociology while working on a plan at home with husband Nick to raise all of their children as speakers of te reo Māori.

“I grew up with only English as my language of communication and always felt uncomfortable with the fact that I couldn't speak te reo Māori growing up,” she says.

“Becoming a Mum got me quite focused on doing all that I could to ensure that te reo Māori would be vibrant in the generations to come. This meant I had to learn so I could support my children through kōhanga and kura kaupapa.”

Cultural pride and a strong desire to support the reclamation of Māori language and culture led Glenis to Sir Derek Lardelli's door in 2006 to discuss a moko kauae (adornment of the chin). She was employed as the business development director at Tairāwhiti Polytechnic and had previously spent five years discussing with her wider whānau her wish to carry a moko kauae.

“It was important to me because I had grown up looking at the photographs of the old people in our wharenui (meeting house on the marae) but had no living memory of any of our kuia with a moko kauae. I didn't want my children growing up without women in their lives who carried this legacy of our ancestors with pride. I wanted to ensure that our culture became more and more normalised in their lived lives.”

Since then Glenis's son and daughter have followed suit receiving their own moko kanohi (facial adornment) and moko kauae, while other whānau members talk openly about if and when they might take the same path — testament to her theories around normalising Māori culture.

While Glenis grew up in Gisborne, attending Gisborne Girls' High School in the '80s, work and husband Nick's military career have seen her and the family moving in and out of the region over the years.

After returning in 2017 from Wellington, she was struck by the numbers of people who struggled to meet their day-to-day needs. She cites the New Zealand Deprivation Index (NZDep) as one measure that is a huge cause for concern for our region.

“We are a community of 45,000 or so, and according to the NZDep, 30,000 of us struggle. If we are going to bridge people out of struggle street and into a life where they thrive, then people need an opportunity to work and to be able to access the kind of support that doesn't judge or condemn them.

“It's the reason why I remain committed to working with the community sector, and am passionate about my current role, so that people get a real chance to make their way out of hardship.”

As well as managing the programme, Glenis serves on the boards of SuperGrans, Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival and Veterans' Affairs, a seemingly incongruous mix that has ordinary people at the heart of all that they do.

“SuperGrans is such a gutsy organisation — they work respectfully with people going through tough times, without judgement. I just love them.

“Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival is also an absolute joy. Our community is such a powerhouse of creative talent, and this festival creates a platform to share all that Tairāwhiti goodness right here at home and with the rest of the country.

“Serving Veterans' Affairs is all about offering my perspective as someone who grew up in the military and married a soldier. As a civilian, I have a level of insight that may add value to the work they do and its impact on families.”

Glenis continues to do research work and is in her last year of a Master's degree in professional creative practice through Toihoukura.

“I don't sleep much!” she says.

Glenis loves to write and her art involves looking at how words have been used by artists to convey a story, narrative or evoke emotion. She's already looking at doing her PhD.

Her heart belongs to Reporua, a spot just out of Ruatorea with a tiny resident population of six.

“That is the centre of my universe,” she says.

“There is no cellphone reception and no wi-fi, so when I go back home to the shearers' quarters on the land where my great-grandparents grew up, or to the marae, I'm in heaven. I get to potter around, go fishing, chip thistles, spend the day at the beach or cleaning headstones at the urupā with all the whānau.

“Getting off-grid and reconnected with the land and people who continue to give life to generations of our whānau is really important to me.”

The simplest of actions with potentially the strongest of outcomes . . . Glenis and her cuppa. Photo by The Black Balloon
Glenis Philip-Barbara loves nothing more than spending time at Reporua Marae, near Ruatorea. Picture by Jenn Hussey
The whānau at Christmas 2019 — (from left back) Richard, Khali, Nick, Glenis, Hiria and Jay, (front) Livvy, Jory, Katene and Tane the dog. Picture supplied