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  • Phoebe Sullivan

Whaia te ara pau kaha

Words by Phoebe Sullivan (she/her; Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Whātua ki Kaipara, Ngāti Whātua ki Ōrākei, Waikato-Tainui)

 Student executives are designed to advocate, promote, and empower student voices and the community. What encompasses student executives is this desire to serve – to serve for want of change, for want of advancement, but most importantly for want of wellbeing. 


As Māori, to serve simply comes naturally to us. Whether this be on the pae or in the kitchen, we serve for the betterment of the community and for the wellbeing of our people. We serve because that’s our obligation; it is an extension of our manaaki, and it’s a means of giving back to the village that raised us. 


As young, wide-eyed, and eager-for-change rangatahi in tertiary education, one of the many ways we give back is by serving on student executives and, most importantly, by helping Māori. It’s historically a part of us. Some of the greatest activists of our history include rōpu Māori, like Ngā Tamatoa, Ngā Rōpū Tautohetohe, and our own Te Hohaeiti Reo Māori Society. We serve for a purpose, for people, and simply because we just can’t escape a good call to a kaupapa. 


Just like many of the Māori before me, I, too, have heard my call. For some reason, I’m still here, serving the kaupapa. No matter how hard I try, I still can’t seem to escape it. 


However, the longer I sit on these student executives, the easier it has become to identify the many flaws that riddle the structure of student executives – not the people, the structure! 


The mounting pressure put on tauira Māori to engage and to engage meaningfully with wider university frameworks is not only a contradiction to the engagements themselves but a violation of time and energy that could have been better spent elsewhere. Despite our evident dismay at these frameworks designed by old, white-collared university administrators, we are illusioned by our positions in the university structure that our engagements are taken as “sign-offs” and “green ticks”. This is a deception of progression that promotes the idea of a one-fits-all solution to student well-being encouraged by universities across Aotearoa. Unfortunately, tauira Māori are at the brunt of this deception, having become window-dressings of student-wellbeing policies to meet legislative standards. 


By even engaging with these half-arsed policies created by these clerics, Māori have become cash cows that have lined universities' pockets without even the slightest bit of compensation to go with it. University structures have ruled tauira Māori and silenced our voices by commercialising our well-being for enrolment numbers and replacing the value of our education with a lucrative and flawed business plan. Unsurprisingly, universities still can’t scrape themselves out of this educational and financial deficit. 


This pressure to engage and try to create better outcomes doesn't even address the internal pressure that students put on themselves to try to fix the institutionalised issues of universities. It goes without saying that tauira Māori, and any minority student who decides to be part of an executive, feels this most. The constant need to justify not only to the faculty but to our own peers why our mātauranga, hītori, te reo, and tikanga matter is beyond me. Justifying our place as an indigenous person is exhausting. Justifying our space as indigenous peoples is debilitating. We can’t even show our frustration and anger. So, instead, we project on our own. 


Executives have become toxic pressure cookers filled with nepotism and narcissism fuelled by a popularity contest. Individuals don’t value themselves on their ability to lead but by how good their CV looks and by the number of “kaupapa” they're able to push out every year. The worst part is, sometimes it’s not even the university structure perpetuating this, it’s our peers. We’ve become manipulated by a system that measures outputs, rather than inputs; we’ve become obsessed with percentages, numbers, and budgets, and we deceive ourselves by disguising it under tikanga, white-washed by memorandums and financial agreements. Yuck! 


Now, please don’t get me wrong. I say this all out of experience. I say this as an individual who has succumbed to all of these pressures in one way or another. I held myself to such a high-standard that when I couldn’t fulfil it, instead of going mad with power, I broke with despair. I walked around with the heaviest weight on my shoulders - a weight defined by the community I was serving and the responsibility I felt to ngāi iwi Māori. Only to realise that the weight I was bearing was one that was undeserving and the weight I put on myself. 


I couldn’t see it, until I let myself take a step back. That’s the thing about student executives: once you’re involved with the politics of it all, you really think it’s the be-all and end-all. When actually, it’s just a student executive. In the scheme of things, the decisions we make don’t have a significant impact on all ngāi iwi Māori, and it only impacts those who are actually involved in the community the executive serves. We’re not politicians, and we’re not iwi leaders; we’re just a group of students hanging out, trying to create a culture within this boring-ass institution. 


Trust me, I’m not trying to undervalue the importance of these executives. I’m just asking us to think about our roles within the university and within our own smaller communities differently. Yes, your elected student executive has an obligation to advocate, promote and empower. But we’re also only human. We’re bound to make mistakes or get things wrong, and ultimately, that should just be okay; in fact, it should be embraced. As ngāi iwi Māori, we all have an obligation to advocate, promote, and empower each other. So cut each other some slack, because at the end of the day, it’s just a student executive.


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