When it comes to social justice activism there are few more steadfast than Dr Heather Came, AUT’s Head of Department Public Health.
An activist since adolescence, Heather delivered an early school speech on homosexual law reform, the same year she unsuccessfully mobilised girls to run the same distance as boys in the school cross country.
In the decades since, she’s been involved in queer and union activism, and more recently, te Tiriti o Waitangi and anti-racism work. Now, she and a small team of like-minded souls are leading the charge to tackle institutional racism within New Zealand’s public health sector, through STIR (Stop Institutional Racism).
Since 2013, STIR has attempted to influence public health policy and contracting practices and uphold te Tiriti o Waitangi to decolonise the health system. They have utilised everything from nationwide surveys, policy critiques and scholarly publications, to presentations, submissions, organised conferences and workshops.
“We’ve helped win the argument that racism exists in the health sector. Through the persistence of our work and that of many Māori leaders in the space, we have helped change the operating climate.”
“Being an activist scholar is extremely rewarding work. It’s grounding being accountable back to the communities you serve, back to the tangata whenua and colleagues at AUT. It’s a privilege to do the work I do.”
The group’s next challenge? Persuading others in the sector to embrace anti-racism practice and fulfil their te Tiriti responsibilities.
“I am steadfastly optimistic. When we first started this, we set a deadline of ending racism in the public health sector by 2017. Ok we’re not there yet – we’ve had to cover up that date with a picture on all our promotional material! But collectively we are making some headway.
“STIR is now a boutique social movement that I believe brings hope to a lot of people. There are hundreds of people doing anti-racism mahi because they’ve been to one of our events or read one of our papers. Anti-racism work is very challenging and rewarding work.”
STIR’s “work” comes in many forms. Its members have presented evidence to the Waitangi Tribunal, developed a tool to assess whether a policy document is te Tiriti o Waitangi compliant and campaigned in support of ethnic pay parity for nurses (nurses in Māori providers often earn up to 25 percent less than their district health board colleagues).
STIR has also presented to the United Nations committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racism in Geneva, shining a spotlight on institutional racism targeting Māori in the New Zealand health system.
“Presenting to the United Nations committee was one of my proudest career moments to date. As a young person I dreamed about doing human rights work but you never really imagine you will actually get there, to be part of that global monitoring.”
Twenty-twenty proved to be a particularly big year for the organisation. In March they were part of a coalition that launched a 10-day virtual anti-racism event, Te Tiriti-based Futures + Anti- Racism, with 70 speakers (from as far afield as Rwanda and Canada), 49 partner organisations and 15,000 virtual attendees. Despite COVID-19, the event was a huge success and planning will soon commence for a 2022 version.
“We now have a Facebook page with nearly 5000 followers who are interested in racial justice – many of whom are already working on these issues. We’ve created a learning community that we can draw on if and when we need to take political action.”
Also last year, Heather, in collaboration with Māori health equity researcher Associate Professor Jacquie Kidd (Ngāpuhi), received a prestigious $870,000 Marsden grant to continue and extend her scholarly work.
“The new grant opens up all sorts of possibilities and will fund a research project around reimagining anti-racism practice and theory for application within the health sector.” It’s no small undertaking but Heather is up for the challenge. “Being an activist scholar is extremely rewarding work.
It’s grounding being accountable back to the communities you serve, back to the tangata whenua and colleagues at AUT. It’s a privilege to do the work I do.”