Te Rau Hihiri: Nurturing Māori in the Public Sector

Te Rau Hihiri is a charitable trust aiming to empower and advocate for Māori working in and with the public sector. This article highlights key events in its history and its future focus.

In the age of social media, a seemingly simple post sparked a viral conversation among Māori public servants: “Public servant vs Māori public servant". This post resonated with over 70,000 people, transcending borders and prompting discussions within indigenous communities globally. The dialogue underscored the need for conversations about the indigenous experience within the public sector and, in response, Te Rau Hihiri emerged as a catalyst for empowerment and advocacy.

Te Rau Hihiri stands on a mission to empower and advocate for Māori working in and with the public sector. The organisation achieves this by creating events and opportunities for Māori public servants to connect both online and offline; share mātauranga (knowledge); receive recognition; access leadership opportunities; and contribute to a thriving, interconnected hapori. Rooted in values of culture, connection, creativity, and calibre, Te Rau Hihiri embarked on its journey in 2021, driven by a pivotal moment experienced by Chair Kara Nepe-Apatu.

Kara’s moment of realisation occurred during a conference in 2021, where she witnessed mispronunciations of Māori words and a lack of substantive discussion on vital topics. This experience propelled her to challenge the status quo and call for events created by, for, and with Māori. Te Rau Hihiri was subsequently formed with five wāhine Māori trustees, drawing inspiration from the oriori (lullaby) by Tuteremoana. The name ‘hihiri’ emphasises dynamism, diligence, and determination, while 'rau' embodies the collective mana of the takitini (collective/many).

In March 2022, Te Rau Hihiri organised its inaugural event, Poipoia te Manawa Māui, an online conference attended by 300 Māori public servants. The event featured candid discussions and ‘gnarly’ kaupapa presented by Māori leaders from the public service and iwi. “Our kaikōrero didn’t hold back”, shares Te Rau Hihiri trustee Elena Higgison. “They shared insights on moving beyond good intentions to good practice, upholding the integrity of mātauranga Māori in non-Māori spaces, and reimagining the public service for a better tomorrow.”

Responding to the call for more connection and action, Te Rau Hihiri launched its Kai Whai Hua event series in late 2022. These events strengthen whanaungatanga over kai, focusing on ‘real talk’ kaupapa. Themes to date include strategies to reindigenise ways of working, translating mana ki te mana relationships to the mahi level, and strengthening tuakana teina relationships. To date, Te Rau Hihiri has hosted eight Kai Whai Hua events, attracting over 400 participants from various agencies.

Recognising the need to extend their impact beyond Wellington, Te Rau Hihiri took Kai Whai Hua on the road, organising their first regional event in Hamilton in late 2023. These events provide a safe space for Māori public servants to share challenges and aspirations, addressing issues such as feeling culturally unsafe and the undervaluing of expertise. “Now more than ever, we need spaces to come together to manaaki each other and share strategies on navigating change,” says Kara.

Te Rau Hihiri has received strong support from mana whenua Te Āti Awa and Ngāti Toa Rangatira from the outset. The organisation actively participates in initiatives supporting Māori public servants, including a recent hui hosted by Te Āti Awa in Waiwhetu, where over 200 Māori public servants gathered to build whanaungatanga and co-create solutions focused on manaakitanga.

Looking ahead, Te Rau Hihiri is focused on supporting the development of Māori leadership and nurturing a pipeline of young Māori talent within the public service. In the face of changes within the public service, including the new coalition government's 100-day plan, Te Rau Hihiri has launched its own 100-day plan on social media, featuring daily messages of optimism, hope, and wisdom from tūpuna.

As 2024 unfolds, Te Rau Hihiri remains dedicated to ensuring the Māori public service stays connected, celebrates calibre, shares creativity, and upholds Māori culture. With more events on the horizon, this rōpū continues to navigate change with a long-term perspective and an unwavering commitment to shaping a more empowered and connected Māori public sector for Aotearoa New Zealand.

This article was authored by Elena Higgison and Kara Nepe-Apatu, and published in the Public Sector Journal - Autumn 2024, Issue 47.1.