Jacinta Gulasekharam is a socially driven entrepreneur and co-founder of period poverty start-up Dignity. We spoke to her about how that work feeds her drive to learn and honour te reo.
Growing up in Feilding, Jacinta Gulasekharam felt both safe and strange. She was the only person of South Asian descent at her primary school (Jacinta’s mother is Pākehā and her father Sri Lankan), and most kids couldn’t pronounce her surname. In some cases, the racism she experienced was blatant, as classmates would pointedly ask her, “What boat did you come off?”
Gulasekharam would eventually find a comfortable place in the school’s kapa haka group, dressed in piupiu, swinging poi and singing waiata. Somehow those kupu made their way into her bones, and the whanaungatanga and manaakitanga of that rōpu helped her to feel part of the community. But her education in te ao Māori was limited.
“I remember studying Te Tiriti o Waitangi at intermediate,” Gulasekharam recalls, “But only the English side, and even then only dates and facts. I didn’t really understand what it actually meant for Māori.”
In secondary school Gulasekharam opted to learn French over te reo Māori, as it was what her peers were taking. At the time it felt like a relatively innocuous decision, but it’s one she somewhat regrets these days – albeit one she’s happy to laugh about.
“[French] has been literally useless for me. I wish I had taken te reo Māori then!”
Moving to Wellington and studying at Victoria University helped open Jacinta’s eyes to the diversity of Aotearoa. Immersing herself in her studies and becoming involved with Victoria’s students’ association, she soon found herself exposed to not only the beauty of tikanga Māori, but also to the cultural bias prevalent in New Zealand society. It was that exposure that led Gulasekharam to begin to question what genuine bicultural partnership should look like.
“We have a significant culture here that connects us to this place,” she recalls thinking. “So why aren’t we all learning it?”
In the last year of her degree, in the summer of 2016, rather than kicking back, Gulasekharam and her flatmate Miranda Hitchings were itching to make change in the world. So while their peers went to the beach, the two opted into the Viclink Entrepreneurial Bootcamp. It was here, after reading an article about how young women were having to miss out on school due to a lack of access to sanitary products, that the idea for Dignity came about.
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The aim of Dignity was clear: to make it so young people wouldn’t miss out on education, work, sport or socialising because they couldn’t financially prioritise period products. The statistics had also shown that 19% of Māori youth have experienced period poverty, and 16% missed school because they couldn’t afford menstrual products – numbers that made the two realise that not only would this business need to consider equality and empowerment, it would also need to be culturally sensitive, and to cater to different needs, beliefs and cultural settings.
Initially the pair planned to run their service via an app, but they soon realised that for many of those most in need, requiring device access may have limited their accessibility. Returning to the drawing board, the Dignity team devised a partnership-based “buy-one-gift-one” model, which would allow for companies to provide sanitary items both to their own workforces and to affiliated organisations, workplaces and schools.
With Gulasekharam ever-conscious of the need for Dignity to be culturally relevant and sensitive, it’s important to her that when she’s pitching to different businesses or speaking in public, she can mihi in te reo Māori and offer her own pepeha. A regular goal setter, she made that one of her goals for 2020 – to be proficient in her mihi.
“I signed up for te reo classes this year as a personal and business goal is to increase my reo, which will in turn help to increase my understanding of tikanga around periods,” she explains.
That same drive to ensure cultural sensitivity meant the Dignity team soon found themselves with a very simple, yet very important need – and one that was met perfectly by the Kupu app’s translation functionality.
“I remember I downloaded Kupu and took photos of period products to start to diversify our vocabulary.” she recalls. “The app offers such a great place to start learning te reo Māori, because of that accessibility.”
Gulasekharam wanted to start with some achievable steps in ensuring Dignity was honouring Māori beliefs and practices. This led to collaboration with AWWA and its co-creator Michele Wilson. “Michele is my self-proclaimed whaea kēkē,” she says. “She’s like an aunty I can call up and ask questions around tikanga and language related to menstruation i te ao Māori.”
She also points to a 2019 workshop on Māori understandings and traditional practices of periods as particularly meaningful for her and for Dignity, solidifying the value of the work they were doing.
“It was so illuminating listening to Ngahuia Murphy and others speak about the tikanga and practices that are associated with our waiwhero. It felt like important learning for us as an organisation, and for us all as wāhine in Aotearoa.”
Dignity now supports 130 schools, youth organisations and women’s support services across New Zealand, with their services reaching more than 25,000 people. This year has also seen the organisation support a successful pitch for the government to fund and provide period products for all schools across Aotearoa. It’s something Jacinta is enormously proud of, and an opportunity she hopes all schools will take up.
“It’s such a huge step in the right direction, and embodies everything we’ve been working towards.”
While Gulasekharam is aware that she’s early in her te reo Māori learning journey, she recognises that although she’s not an expert in the language, she’s in a privileged position both as a learner and as a businesswoman.
“I’m learning as I go, and all of the innovation and support out there is helping me achieve my goals: to end period poverty in Aotearoa, and to increase our understanding of genuine partnership, so that we can authentically celebrate the taonga that is te reo Māori.”