‘Is there an historical truth? .. What stories get privileged is part of that question’

Last year I had the privilege of spending some time with Teach First NZ, a leadership development program in New Zealand focused on ending education inequity. In New Zealand the inequity overwhelmingly discriminates against Māori children (the Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand), the result of a history of European colonisation, oppression and the forced cultural assimilation of the Māori people through the education system.

(Listen to the personal story of Esther, a Māori educator who’s journey powerfully reveals the violence of a discriminatory system)  

Every year the staff and participants of Teach First NZ engage in a process of relationship building with the Maori community of Ngati Whatua, hosted at the Orakei Marae (the Marae is a very significant cultural and spiritual space in the Māori tradition). The story of the Ngati Whatua and the Orakei Marae is one of great historical significance, shaped by brutal state oppression, non-violent resistance and renaissance. But it is also a story that is often excluded from the countries dominant historical narrative, leaving the majority of the population completely unaware.

As is the case in many countries, the ‘history’ of New Zealand is still a contested space, where the question of whose narratives are privileged over others is often answered by observing the narratives relationship to power. Although New Zealand has made a lot of progress in the area of acknowledging the narratives of Maori communities, whose stories have historically been repressed, there is still a very long way to go. As such, often missing from the narratives that become dominant or ‘official’ is an authentic exploration of the country’s colonial past and its effects on the present day context. Teach First NZ’s relationship building process is designed to give participants the opportunity to be exposed to these different narratives, share their own and in the process better understand themselves, and their relationship to each other and to the historical and present context.

Shared history, different narratives

Mike Hughes and Hinekura Lisa Smith (who were involved in organising the process) describe how histories are explored through the sharing of narrative: Listening and learning from the narratives of the hosts, the Ngati Whatua, and also exploring the personal narratives of the visitors – drawing from the richness and diversity of their individual and shared histories. The purpose is to gain a better understanding of the past and present context, their relationship to it and their relationship to each other – and as such better understand the roots of inequity and the role they can play in shaping a different future.

The opportunity to listen is a gift, not an entitlement

Mike challenges us to reflect on our mindsets before we engage in the process of sharing and listening to others. He frames the opportunity to learn and listen as a gift to us, not an entitlement and pushes us to think about how the way we perceive the relationship may affect how we engage in it and how it is experienced by those we are engaging with.

Letting go of the agenda

Mike talks about the tension between a personal desire to engage with and interrogate specific elements of a community or individuals history while also respecting a community’s, or an individual’s right to define their own narrative and privilege the stories they want to privilege.

‘What len’s am I seeing this through?’

Jonathan Wieland, a Teach First NZ participant, shares his reflection on how the experience challenged him to question the dominant historical and social narratives that he had been exposed to throughout his life.

‘To have our perspectives and our bias challenged was huge! …These simplified stories miss out so much. Who gets to choose what’s cut, and what’s kept in?..What lenses am I seeing this through? What am I missing?’

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