Determination, Fashion, and Humility - a conversation with the 2022 Young Leader of the Year award at the Spirit of Service Awards

The 2022 Young Leader of the Year award at the Spirit of Service Awards went to Mary Soonaoso Tiumalu. Claire Finlayson chats with her about the kind of leader she is and the things that challenge and excite her.

Talking about her own shiny achievements makes Mary Soonaoso Tiumalu squirm. But that’s likely to be one of the reasons she was crowned Young Leader of the Year at the 2022 Spirit of Service Awards. It takes a certain kind of person to balance leading and serving with such poise – which is to say, she’s both driven and humble.

She looks set to become a bit of a serial award winner because she also scooped the Prime Minister’s Pacific Youth Awards in 2013 at the age of twenty-three. Back then, she said that one of the biggest challenges was convincing herself that she could be a leader and influence change. Nearly a decade on, as Manager of Language Strategy and Development at the Ministry for Pacific Peoples, she’s perfectly placed to influence big, culture-championing change across Aotearoa. So, is this Young Leader of the Year now convinced about her leadership skills?

“Just a tad. I think everyone has a little bit of self-doubt within them – it’s a mental exercise that you have to keep going through. I don’t ever think that I’m going to be the best – there’s always going to be that little bit of challenge that I have within. Awards like this make my head spin. If I had my way, I’d never put myself up for them but the people around encouraged me to do it. Representation matters.”

Holistic workplace

Mary’s been described as a selfless leader whose spirit of service is underpinned by the Samoan values of Alofa (compassion for others), Fa‘aaloalo (building trust and respect), and Tauata‘i (exemplary leadership). Hers is a bottom-up management style: “I definitely like to be the type that galvanises others. I’ve always been someone who just wants to be in the background and push others to realise their potential.”

She’s all about creating a more holistic workplace culture. “In the setting I grew up in, there’s a concept called a ‘va’ – a space between you and others. It’s all about being mindful of the other person’s experience (their role in the community, their role in your family). That dictates how you approach what they need. I try and emulate that in my team. I have a wonderful group of mamas who have children, so I need to ensure that they can excel in the workplace but still meet their responsibilities as mothers. It really draws out the best in them. They can bring their children to meetings – sometimes we have kids there singing with us or listening to talk about a cabinet paper. I think we need to do this more often in the public sector. It should be a reflection and representation of society.”

On that note, Mary also reflects Pacific society in the workplace by shunning business attire in favour of Pacific-wear. This partly owes to the fact that she started a fashion label called FOU with her sister and a friend in 2018. “Fashion has always been a creative outlet for me. FOU celebrates all body shapes and empowers people to feel confident to embrace colour and unique Pacific patterns.” But Mary’s workplace fashion choices are also a bid to disrupt the status quo. “My wardrobe is pretty much 90 percent Pacific/Samoan and 10 percent basic. Even if it’s a pair of earrings or some flare pants with Pacific patterns, I try my best to reflect who I am in what I wear. I notice a lot more women in the sector being comfortable to embrace a bright orange Pacific-inspired blazer or a Mena dress. It’s pretty impactful to see.”

Leveraging language

At the ministry, Mary recently led a team that produced the first-ever Pacific Languages Strategy, a landmark policy that seeks to reverse the decline of Pacific language use over the coming decade. "We know that the Pacific population in Aotearoa is growing super-fast. The strategy gives Pacific communities recognition that we value their place, their language, and their identity as contributing to the multiculturism of Aotearoa". 

It was an intensely personal bit of policy-making: "I get quite emotional about it because the work has been in existence since before I was born. Communities migrated here and started language nests through their church environments. Language was core to their identity and wellbeing. So we had to make sure we were really honouring all of that advocacy from many years ago."

The decline of Pacific language use across Aotearoa is a huge issue for New Zealand-born Pacific youth. One of the most sobering statistics quoted in the strategy puts the average proportion of under-fifteen-year-olds who speak their heritage language across all Pacific groups at a concerningly low 16 percent. As a New Zealand-born Samoan, Mary feels this statistic acutely.

“I consider myself very lucky because I grew up in an environment where there were no restrictions – either to speak English or Samoan. We could speak whatever we wanted.” So permissive and varied was the language diet in the Tiumalu household that Mary’s own tongue often betrays that rich linguistic mix – much to the amusement of her friends: “I sometimes get mocked because the way I speak Samoan can sound like Swahili.”

She’d love for all Pasifika youth to have ready access to their heritage languages. “There’s a concern that the environment they’re growing up in is predominantly English – or that’s the message that’s been pushed onto them: that you need English to succeed. It motivates me to figure out what methods we need to support all communities and age cohorts to know their languages.”

The epiphany

Much of Mary’s professional drive comes from her upbringing. She says, “My mum came to Auckland from Sāmoa when she was just thirteen, and my dad came when he was a bit older. They migrated with that 1960s–1970s cohort. They wanted us to have the opportunities they didn’t have and really pushed us in education, but they didn’t restrict us in terms of what we wanted to do. If I’d wanted to go and dance with Parris Goebel, they would’ve been like yep, go and do it, as long as you’re happy and you’re doing it with your whole heart.”

She didn’t go dancing. She studied law and arts at the University of Auckland. After that she used the money from her Pacific Youth Award to book a trip to Fiji and Sāmoa to do some soul searching. It was while doing policy work in Fiji for humanitarian organisation Save the Children, that she had her career epiphany. “It gave me that line of sight in terms of what I wanted to do. I realised I wanted to engage with people and understand what their aspirations were and then figure out how the system can respond effectively to that. So I came back to New Zealand, got a job at the Ministry for Pacific Peoples in 2016, and I haven’t looked back.”

Balancing people and policy

Being a conduit between Pacific communities and government makes Mary’s role a deeply personal one. So, does she need to park any idealism at the Ministry door? “You can’t write policy on emotions, so that’s what I try and park at the door, but you can invite values into the policy space.” One person who inspires Mary in this regard is Aiono Matthew Aileone, the Ministry’s Deputy Secretary for Policy, Research and Evaluation, Languages and Housing. “He walks both worlds really well – he’s really strong in his identity as a Samoan, but also as a public servant. That’s the kind of leader I try to be every day: strong in who I am but also aware of what levers to pull and what relationships I need to build in order to get good outcomes for Pacific communities.”

She says relationship building is crucial to her work: "I honestly think it just comes down to 'talanoa' - to having conversations with people and breaking down the misunderstandings that exist between a policy advisor and a community person. With policy, you can only do things once you really understand what the community's experience is".

When Mary's parents first heard that her day job was to involve helping Pacific communities progress, they gave her this advice: "you might be in situations where you're the only Pacific person but just speak with conviction and affirmation in order to really advocate for our communities.  You're working for the Ministry - do not take this job lightly."

They needn't have worried about her advocacy skills. Being the youngest of four kids, she'd been perfecting those for some time. "My siblings would attest that I had a bit of a mouth on me growing up. There's a saying in Samoan - 'E la'ititi ae maini', which means you may be the smallest or youngest, but you have a lot of grit and determination to get something done. I thank my siblings for giving me the tools to be able to tackle anything that comes my way!"