Wahine Toa Leadership Conference

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

In October, the United States Embassy in New Zealand brought together 140 Maori women from across the country for the Wahine Toa (“Women of Strength”) Leadership Conference, the culmination of two years of interviews and engagement with emerging female leaders from the Maori Iwi (“tribes”).  My husband, Ambassador Mark Gilbert and I were completely taken by the depth and beauty of Maori culture upon our arrival in New Zealand; since then, we committed to learning more about the indigenous people of Aotearoa and the ways that their culture is woven into the fabric of this gorgeous country.  With the Embassy’s Public Affairs team, we started the Wahine Toa project, traveling the length of the North and South Islands interviewing Maori women leaders who are making an impact on their communities, by fostering economic development and social wellbeing. Each interview is now part of our Wahine Toa blog series that highlights their accomplishments and innovative and inspirational leadership.

This spring, we teamed with Whai Maia Ltd., the leadership development arm of one of New Zealand’s leading Maori tribes, Ngati Whatua, to gather these inspirational women and their mentees for discussions on civic engagement, women’s empowerment, and networking among communities of Maori women and across the Pacific. Mark called the White House to invite President Obama’s Special Assistant for Native American Affairs, Karen Diver, to keynote the conference and engage with iwi leaders, civil society organizations, youth groups, and parliamentarians throughout New Zealand.  We were delighted when she accepted.

Karen visited Ngai Tahu head offices in Christchurch
Karen visited Ngai Tahu head offices in Christchurch
Karen with Te Wananga o Aotearoa where she was given a new name “Hinehuakirangi” (Maiden of the Sky)
Karen with Te Wananga o Aotearoa where she was given a new name “Hinehuakirangi” (Maiden of the Sky)

The result was an energy-filled and stimulating conference with 140 women representing the diversity of New Zealand’s iwi. Many of the Wahine Toa project alumnae played integral roles in planning and orchestrating the conference. Our first Wahine Toa feature, Rangimarie Hunia, now CEO of her tribal cultural organization, partnered with the U.S. Embassy to facilitate the conference. She opened the program with inspirational words of wisdom. Ruku Schaafhausen kept the day on track and set a warm, open, and nurturing tone as the Master of Ceremonies. Our creative alumnae, Olivia Hall and Kiri Nathan, expertly stage managed the proceedings.

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Libby Hakaraia and Ana Morrison moderated panels entitled “Disruptive Thinking” and “Our Uniqueness is Strength,” respectively. Liana Poutu and Deidre Otene were panelists on “Maori Protocols and the Maori language,” and “Empowering Maori Youth,” respectively. Other leading speakers included Lola Van Wagenen, American historian and environmental activist; Tina Porou, Kiwi environmental leader; Lisa Tumahai, the kaiwhakahaere (chair) of the billion-dollar Te Runanaga o Ngai Tahu; Michelle Dickinson, the popular science communicator known as Nanogirl; business leader Teresa Tepania Ashton; and Shelley Campbell, CEO of the Sir Peter Blake Trust. The powerful panels had the room in rapturous laughter and tears, delivering masterful messaging on how to collaborate and celebrate visions for the future. The energy in the room was electric.

Diver delivered a profound keynote address about her personal story as the first female Chair of the Fond Du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa tribe. Drawing on her community leadership and federal policymaking experience, she provided practical and inspirational advice on issues of tribal governance, federal advocacy, promoting women’s leadership, and creating ethical, sustainable tribal wealth to achieve community objectives.

The Motuhake panel – “Our Uniqueness is Strength”
The Motuhake panel – “Our Uniqueness is Strength”
With Karen Diver
With Karen Diver
Wahine Toa alumna, Brittany Teei, during the ‘Championing Each Other’ breakout session
Wahine Toa alumna, Brittany Teei, during the ‘Championing Each Other’ breakout session

The final session was a workshop by Miriana Stephens, Director of Wakatu Inc., intended to foster peer to peer connections, resources, and expertise to further advance women’s leadership within tribal, community, and federal leadership structures.

The Embassy is grateful for the support of our partners Te Wananga o Aotearoa, Moko Foundation, Te Tumu Paeroa, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu, NZ Maori Tourism and Kono NZ for their assistance in this successful program.

A highlight was hearing from youth leaders
A highlight was hearing from youth leaders

To sustain the project’s momentum, I’m thrilled to announce that the Embassy will be sending three Wahine Toa project alumnae on exchange programs to the United States in 2017, through grants of three special awards presented that evening: Ana Morrison (Ngati Tuwharetoa ) received the Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program Exchange (IVLP), entitled “Women Change Makers: Political and Social Leaders.”  The IVLP is a longstanding and prestigious leadership and professional exchange program, providing emerging leaders with direct experience of American institutions and culture. Rukumoana Schaafhausen, the Deputy Chair of Te Arataura, and Aimee Kaio, a South Island health community leader, were awarded “Wahine Toa Awards.” They will each travel to the United States for an economic, cultural, and educational program to visit Native American business and community leaders.

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It has been an honor and a privilege to have created and worked on this project. I look forward to watching the amazing Wahine Toa I have met continue to overcome obstacles and make a difference through inspired and inclusive leadership.