Informed by her whenua
Rena Kohere (Ngati Porou, Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga a Mahaki, Ngai Tahu) is the manager of the Tairawhiti Environment Centre. She prefers to work behind the scenes to help the community rather than seeking the limelight. Reporter Matai O’Connor wanted to bring her more to the forefront, so sat down and spoke with her.
I have been loving this job, it's an amazing place to work,” Rena Kohere says.
“Sitting in this garden, seeing the tuna mural from Seawalls, the tree mural collaboratively made by local artists — this whole garden tells the story of the Environment Centre.
“It's all made from volunteering time and love, the community who donated things.
“The Tairawhiti Environment Centre is a space that only exists because people believe in it and give their time and energy into making it work,” Rena says.
“This space doesn't belong to the Environment Centre, it is a community space.”
Thousands of Gisborne school students have been through the TEC to learn about waste minimisation, how to grow plants and how to look after the environment through the Enviroschools programme, and through collaborations throughout the community.
“I want to make this space accessible to as many people as possible. I focus on removing barriers to participation in environmental mahi. Some people can see environmental work as a niche interest but when you belong to a community like we do, spaces like the TEC need to be available for the whole community to use.”
Rena spends a lot of time looking and applying for funding to help with TEC ventures.
“There're so many amazing people who have amazing skills and talents, and if there's any way I can help to get their mahi to be at the forefront, that's what I will do.”
Rena says it's a balancing act between getting out from behind her desk and being part of the physical work.
“Sometimes I just want to go plant trees and set traps.”
Which is exactly what Rena does whenever she has the chance to go home to her whanau land at Rangiata, East Cape.
“Rangiata was absolutely the best place in the world to grow up,” she says.
“It was very remote and quiet most of the year. I always remember how it would get really busy over summer with tourists and whanau visiting the area.”
She was born in Te Puia Springs Hospital and raised on her whanau land. Her parents are Rei and Julie Kohere. Rei is the deputy chairperson of Te Runanganui o Ngati Porou, and Julie is a school teacher.
When Rena was six years old her family left the farm to live with whanau near Feilding so her parents could finish their degrees at Massey University.
“Ever since we left, I have been trying my best to get home again. We got as far as Gisborne back in the 1990s.”
Rena completed her schooling in Gisborne where she attended Central School, Ilminster intermediate, and Gisborne Girls' High School.
“All during my childhood, first at Rangiata and then in Gisborne, I spent a lot of time with my Taua,” says Rena, referring to her Dad's mother. “And I cared for her in her later years, which to me was a huge privilege. It gave me time to listen to stories about our whanau over and over again, and grounded me in whakapapa and whanau.
“What is also important to me is our connection to our whenua and the ahikaa responsibilities we have, which has been instilled in me by my Dad and his brother, my Uncle Ira.
“Anything I've done in my professional life has been driven by and informed by my home, my turangawaewae. Having formative experiences happening in such an isolated place made me who I am today.”
Before coming back to Gisborne, Rena and her husband Stefan Pishief and their four children, Henarata (14), Kirianu (10), Mokena (8) and Aniwa (6) were living in Wellington. Rena worked for the Sustainability Trust running the retail side of things, which was a very public-facing job. She did a lot of education about smart and healthy homes mahi.
“It was really rewarding work.”
Rena realised they were always waiting for annual leave to come round, so they could go back to Stefan's family home in Whangarei or hers on the East Coast.
“Having four kids in Wellington without whanau around us was hard too. I would have these moments where I would be speaking to friends back in Gisborne and they would say ‘mum's coming round tonight' or ‘the kids are going to stay with their cousins' and I just felt this strong pull towards home. I wanted the kids to have strong memories of growing up here like I do, and to have a strong connection to their whenua at Rangiata. We knew it was time to move home.”
Stefan is the chief executive of Sport Gisborne Tairawhiti and both of their roles are focused on community connection, wellbeing, and development.
Coming back to Gisborne has enabled Rena to reconnect with the communities here in Gisborne and up the Coast. Her parents have lived and worked in Gisborne and at home at Rangiata.
“My Mum taught at Riverdale School in Gisborne and at Rerekohu in Te Araroa. I am always meeting people who remember koka Julie as their teacher. My Dad is a farmer, like his father Kaka was, and is on the Runanganui board. These connections across the communities are what makes being home so special.”
Since Rena and Stefan moved to Gisborne, they do a “child swap” every school holidays with her parents.
“Mum and Dad drive halfway, to Te Puia, and we meet there and swap vehicles and the contents — the kids and the dog. The kids get to have that time with their grandparents on our whenua. I want them to have strong memories of growing up there, like I do.”
Rena says she hated being asked when she was at high school what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I'm 40 now and I still don't know the answer to that. I refuse to ask Henarata that question . . . I'm asking her what motivates her, what she wants to pursue, what she might enjoy doing in life.”
Rena says she is motivated by the need to care for our land, our beaches, our community.
“Sustainable practices can support the environment and also support business and wellbeing. If everything we do in our lives is seen through the prism of how that action will impact on the world around us, we will make better decisions for the world we live in.
“When the opportunity to apply for the manager's position at TEC came up in 2019, I was fortunate to be the right person at the right time.
“As a family we are happy to have made the move to Gisborne. It is the right place for us to be and we look forward to the opportunities ahead.”
The TEC will continue to extend the scope of its work in advocating for and protecting the environment here in Tairawhiti.
“We have an exciting year ahead of us.”