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Ethnicity and diversity: Why we need top of the cliff solutions

The experiences of migrants and refugees are addressed in an annual summit hosted by AUT’s Immigration and Inclusion Research Group. This year a range of speakers will be tackling the workplace.

“We are in a woven universe, so how do we create a weave that doesn’t fray?”

This is the question at the core of creating robust immigration policy, according to AUT’s University Director of Diversity, Edwina Pio.

The diminutive professor smiles with her eyes and speaks in a slow, steady stream. A Fullbright alumna, Duke of Edinburgh awardee and Doctor of Buddhist Psychology, she uses terms like ‘hard data’ and ‘radiant consciousness’ in the same breath.

Her office in AUT’s city campus is decorated brightly with small tokens of faith from a number of different cultures and religions. It’s a Wednesday morning but she is wearing a beautiful sparkling gown.

Pio is bringing together AUT stakeholders for her third diversity summit, this year exploring ‘Ethnicity in the workspace’. “In general people are a bit nervous about touching areas like this because they are delicate and they always create controversy, irrespective of which way you go,” she says. Previous summits have tackled ‘Muslims at work in New Zealand’ and the refugee experience.

“I have a group called Immigration and Inclusion Research which was launched in 2015. The purpose of the group is to look at provocative, contemporary issues, but to look at them through robust research and inform people – hopefully into action. The idea is to engage with stakeholders both external and internal to the university.”

A migrant herself, she has published extensively on diversity, ethnicity and religion, including books on working Indian women in New Zealand and faith-based violence in Pakistan. She is a registered counsellor and assists women and children experiencing domestic violence.

Pio gives specific reasons for hosting the summit:

“Firstly, to create spirals of influence. All of us can influence people around us. We can influence our children, our wider whānau, but also in an organisation. How do we create rationally compassionate disruptors? We need compassion but we also need hard data.

“The second point is social cohesion. How do we bless the wairua of all? And how do we create a radiant consciousness rather than a wounded consciousness? Many people that come to New Zealand from other parts of the world, after some time they start whinging about everything.”

She says this with a warm laugh but she’s not entirely joking. Social cohesion – building shared values between different communities – can be the difference between a new migrant experiencing the best of what New Zealand has to offer, or the worst. And it works both ways.

Professor Edwina Pio presenting her book ‘Work and Worship’ at the 2016 National Interfaith Forum. Image: Interfaith NZ

“We are better at supporting those [migrants or refugees] at the lower end of society than those at the higher end. It’s not an either/or dichotomy but I have found in my research that there’s a number of migrants who are highly skilled and qualified who say that if they had gone to other countries, they would have had many more opportunities than in New Zealand. So what happens is the image of migrants and refugees is they are eating into what New Zealand has, eating into resources without putting back into the kete for the privilege of living in this country.”

Social cohesion is especially important with some of the more complex social issues. She says domestic violence, for instance, is higher in some communities than others. With her research she hopes to facilitate leaders and policy makers come up with top-of-the-cliff solutions.

“We often have a bottom-of-the-cliff approach with vulnerable workers – gambling, addiction, sexual abuse. Are we addressing the issue by going to the root cause, beyond band-aid solutions? Issues of patriarchy, issues of women’s subjugation. Whether one comes in as an immigrant or a refugee, do we address it in ways the community and culture understands?”

Her third point is one that not many New Zealanders would even consider when thinking about the thousands of migrants that stream into New Zealand every year, and yet it’s a burning issue globally.

“Security. So terrorism and fundamentalism. What are we doing about that before it becomes a problem? For example, faith. We don’t teach religion is schools or universities. The value systems of different religions. Part of that inculcates values in students at a young age, and also inculcates the belief that if you think differently from someone else, you’re not bad. We coexist. That’s the message we need to give rather than being frightened about certain religions.

“We are one of the most peaceful countries in the world. But we have to be able to see that as the world is changing we do things differently. So, securitisation and social cohesion are very important. How do we create a korowai of peace?”

She has the largest number of speakers yet at this year’s summit, including representatives from New Zealand Police, Westpac, the founder of the BizDojo shared workspace initiative, a children’s book illustrator and Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy to name only a few. They represent different ages, different colours, different ethnicities, not-for-profit and for-profit and will be discussing issues such as recruitment, mentoring and progression in the workspace.

“Because New Zealand is changing so fast, and we have in many ways been hermetically sealed from the rest of the world, the lag between what’s happening and what needs to happen beyond policy, beyond rhetoric, is the implementation of these things. That’s where the gap is. People in New Zealand generally want to be very respectful and even when you look at gender it’s usually white women who move ahead. In New Zealand, we need to have a different way of looking at things and people need to feel they have the wherewithal to be able to do it. That’s where I hope these summits I have are helpful.”

‘Ethnicity in the workspace’ summit, Friday 22 September. Attendance is free, register here.


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