Wahine Toa: Deidre Otene

The latest Wahine Toa post by By Nancy Gilbert, wife of U.S. Ambassador Mark Gilbert.

The next Wahine Toa feature is Deidre Otene of Te Rarawa and Ngāpuhi. Over the last decade she has been at the forefront supporting Māori youth and women in grassroots communities. At the heart of her work is her own community in the Far North, where she currently serves as General Manager of civic society organization, The Moko Foundation, founded by Dr. Lance O’Sullivan. Standing under a large copy of the Treaty of Waitangi at Waitangi Treaty Grounds, she humbly points to a signatory, her great, great grandfather, Hohepa Otene Pura, connecting Deidre and her whānau to the Far North over many generations.

Her societal ideal for equal justice was etched from early childhood. Brought up on family land in a hub of family owned homes in Mangamuka, Deidre reflects, “I did not have the white picket-fence childhood. We fell on hard times but it taught me resilience and pointed me towards making things better for generations to come.”

Wahine Toa: Deidre Otene Photo credit: U.S. Department of State
Wahine Toa: Deidre Otene Photo credit: U.S. Department of State

In her early teens she moved to live with her Uncle Mau Otene, hard work became the family ethos. “His work ethic as a tohunga (healer) and business owner was incredible. He would drive his charter bus to Auckland at 4am, return for the morning school run, and then see patients. Immersed in the ahua (Maori way) of healing, he and my Aunty had a close kinship with Dame Te Atairangikaahu, who would often stay with us.”

Deidre emulated the behavior of her hard working relatives and exceled in and outside of school. “I saw the positive outcomes and reinforcement when I did well in school; and I loved the positive feedback.” She became head-girl in high school, and used netball as a vehicle to travel the country, Australia and the Pacific. Deidre was awarded the University of Auckland Vice Chancellor Scholarship to study law and had her sights set on greater goals.

At Mangamuka Marae Photo credit: U.S. Department of State
At Mangamuka Marae Photo credit: U.S. Department of State

Deidre briefly took time out to start her young family until she was shoulder tapped for a new role in Auckland. “I was 19 years old and offered my dream job at Auckland Council focusing on community action and youth. We moved to the big city, it felt like I had just won the lotto,” she laughs. This was the start of a professional path which gave her opportunities to make incredible inroads and effect systematic change.

Still in her youth, Deidre pushed the boundaries of youth offending initiatives to help establish the Marae Youth Court (Kooti rangatahi). She was mentored by Judge Ida Malosi to reduce the number of youth offending, incorporating cultural competencies to achieve better outcomes for Māori and Pasifika youth. Through this work, she was invited with other Service Providers, Ministry of Education, NZ Police, Child Youth and Family, and Youth Forensics to review the current system.”

“I evaluated each of the systems and out of the discussions of the day; Judge Hemi Taumanu came up with the innovative Marae Youth Court model (Te Kooti Rangatahi), which we excitedly endorsed.” It is a marae-based youth court for low a level offender that draws from the Māori value system and tikanga. There are now five such courts operating around the country and there has been a dramatic decrease in re-offenders.

Her unending career emphasis on merging indigenous values into her work was a natural segue to working with other indigenous peoples. The driven mother of two moved to Australia to work with children removed from their homes at the Australian Benevolent Society in Queensland. Quickly rising through the ranks, she was asked to develop the first case management systems for Aboriginal communities. Deidre remarks, “I enjoyed working closely with the Aboriginal community but nostalgia left me wanting to work for my own people.”

Deidre returned to New Zealand with renewed enthusiasm working for a women’s prison in Manurewa. “It was heart breaking seeing sometimes up to four generations of women in prison. Women are the primary caregivers and when they are absent, the family unit falls away. One day I looked out the window to Matukutureia (mountain) and was attracted to learn more about its history. It has been heavily degraded from mining but is still standing. A kuia (female elder) said its’ resilience is a reflection of the status of the people. ” This left her wanting to build better solutions for the Manurewa community, a high needs area. She recharged her focus and started volunteering at Manurewa Marae.

“I went to visit my sister for lunch where she worked as a podiatrist at Manurewa Marae.  People were lining up to be helped by the medical services. I was drawn to that and it made me think about how people could return to the marae as a place to seek and find help.”

In 2012 Deidre launched a pilot program, Taiohi Whai Oranga, at Manurewa Marae. Winning funding from the Vodafone World of Difference Award, the program connects youth (ages 12-25 years) with opportunities locally and around the world.  The program is all based at the marae that reconnects youth with their heritage (through Māori education), offers direct employment opportunities (predominantly in the tourism and water safety arenas), provides health services, offers internships, and provides leadership training.

Today, the program now has a five year investment plan and has grown to include full time staff. Deidre’s inspiring work was recognized by the Government and she received the Ministry of Youth Development Award for most successful youth services in 2013.

Vodafone, well aware of Deidre’s skills and acumen, approached her to apply for its fellowship on community health care and youth development. She was a finalist and explains, “I took a fresh approach to improving the holistic health of the indigenous community.”

Deidre won the Vodafone Fellowship last June and is spending the year exploring inter-generational leadership with the goal of developing a model that Māori can use in the post-treaty settlement environment.

Meeting some of the experienced staff at The Moko Foundation Photo credit: U.S. Department of State
Meeting some of the experienced staff at The Moko Foundation Photo credit: U.S. Department of State

Her relentless work to help others led her home to the Far North. “My children were staying with my mother in Mangamuka over the school holidays, they love being around whānau, so much so they refused to come home. So I packed my bags and realized it was time to return home,” she laughs.

Reviewing health initiatives at The Moko Foundation Photo credit: U.S. Department of State
Reviewing health initiatives at The Moko Foundation Photo credit: U.S. Department of State

Deidre is currently General Manager of The Moko Foundation, which focuses on health, education, and leadership for vulnerable communities. She supervises a small team that is conducting research on MRSA, Rheumatic Fever and coordinating preventative health care in rural communities.

In the near future, Deidre is looking forward to launching three new innovative contracts and completing her fellowship by visiting Alaska, Washington DC, and Silicon Valley in San Francisco. The knowledge gained by these visits will further her goals of improving the health and well-being of Māori communities. It is a lofty goal that is in great hands with our Wahine Toa, Deidre Otene.