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Auckland Action Against Poverty director, Brooke Stanley Pao.
Auckland Action Against Poverty director, Brooke Stanley Pao. (Image: supplied)

SocietyJanuary 30, 2021

‘It pisses me off hard out’: Brooke Stanley Pao on poverty and the power of protest

Auckland Action Against Poverty director, Brooke Stanley Pao.
Auckland Action Against Poverty director, Brooke Stanley Pao. (Image: supplied)

Born into one of New Zealand rugby’s royal families, Brooke Stanley Pao is a daughter of privilege. Now she’s the face of the fight against poverty in Auckland. 

Every Tuesday and Thursday just before 10am, a small queue forms on an Onehunga street corner, waiting for the glass doors to slide open on hope. These are the walk-in days at the Auckland headquarters of Auckland Action Against Poverty and desperation has driven people here. Inside, AAAP co-ordinator Brooke Stanley Pao and a small band of volunteers – usually beneficiaries themselves – prepare for another day of sameness, breaking down a bureaucracy that, by ignorance or design, they believe is denying thousands of people the government assistance to which they’re entitled.

Stanley Pao became co-ordinator in October, after her predecessor Ricardo Menéndez March was elected to parliament for the Greens. In his three years in the role, Menéndez-March was a familiar media face and seemed to relish interviews and television appearances. Stanley Pao looks as if she’d prefer to swallow cold sick, but she’s doing them anyway. Her family, though, is no stranger to media interest – her father is All Black legend “Smokin'” Joe Stanley; brother Jeremy is a former All Black who became an orthopaedic surgeon when his career was cut short by injury.

Born the year her dad made his ABs’ debut, she remained in the dark about his rugby career until her teens. “It was never a thing at home.”  That was deliberate, Joe Stanley told The Spinoff. “There were never any photos or memorabilia on the walls at our place about what I did. It’s hard enough as it is for kids. We wanted to keep them out of the limelight, so they didn’t have to deal with that. I didn’t want them to think they had to live up to something that’s ridiculous.”

He says when the family was invited to the opening of SkyCity’s revolving restaurant in the 1990s and other guests greeted him warmly, Brooke, then a bookish 10-year-old, turned to him and said, “Dad, you’ve got to stop coming to the casino so much.” She realised the extent of his fame only in her first year at Epsom Girls Grammar when another pupil approached her and said: “My dad told me to be friends with you because your dad is Joe Stanley.” I was like, what?” Despite that unlikely start, they’ve been friends ever since.

Stanley, who had the concealed inscription “to serve” across the back of his All Blacks jersey, is quietly proud his daughter is doing just that. “She’s living the dream. She could see the haves and have-nots from an early age. She wants to be able to help people. She’s a very strong-minded, opinionated, intelligent woman who wants to make a difference. She doesn’t want for much; she doesn’t ask for much.”

Black and white photo of former All Black Smokin Joe Stanley being tackled.
All Black “Smokin'” Joe Stanley deliberately left his children in the dark about his high profile career. “I didn’t want them to think they had to live up to something.” (Photo: S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

AAAP’s advocates, including Menéndez March, have usually experienced the hardship of life as a “have-not”. Stanley Pao never has. “In my immediate family, we never had to struggle; never worried if there was going to be food on the table. Mum and dad owned their own home. We could use the heater during winter.” The family also got to live in Japan for five years when Stanley played and coached there and she became fluent in Japanese. She so enjoyed the culture she didn’t want to return home.

But, she says, she was always proxy to, and affected by, the financial struggles in the wider family. “To me, it doesn’t matter if it’s family or not – I don’t believe anyone should struggle.” Sharing with cousins, aunties and uncles, was the norm. The kids knew not everyone had what they did.

The new role, she says, enables her to channel the rage she feels about New Zealand’s systemic racism, colonisation and the dispossession of indigenous people from their whenua. “We live on stolen land and we don’t acknowledge that and it’s the whole reason poverty exists here in the first place.” Poverty can’t be eradicated until those issues are addressed, she says. “What is good for Māori is good for all of us.”

Although she says she’s never been the target of racism herself, her mother Evelyn – whose maiden name Pao she took on when she became AAAP co-ordinator – has, perhaps as a result of her darker skin and “massive head of dreads”.

“She comes home and tells me she was followed around the store. She didn’t know it was called racial profiling and it was a thing. I said they follow you around because they think you are going to steal something because you are brown. So yeah, I feel really upset and people have the right to be upset, I think. I channel it into the work here because otherwise I would just want to burn it all down.”

Brooke Stanley Pao (right) and AAAP protest alongside workers from Countdown’s customer care centre in Ponsonby, December 2020. (Image: supplied)

Stanley Pao says she never even knew she was brown until she started at Epsom Girls. “At Tamaki Intermediate there were hardly any white kids. Mum and dad sent me to Epsom to be able to mix with a whole range of people but all the brown girls just flocked together so it didn’t work out that way. It was the first time I realised I was in a minority. But I was exposed to heaps of different people, experiences and world views that I would not have been if I’d stayed in the local school.”

Stanley Pao began working as a volunteer for AAAP about three years ago after ditching her job at AUT’s office of Pacific advancement rather than risk getting into strife with her superiors over her right to protest. In May 2018, she’d joined a lunchtime protest against funding cuts at Auckland University and found herself part of a blockade in Symonds St.

“I thought it would be a chill protest, just standing around. But a wagon of cops pulled up and I thought if anyone saw me from work, I might get into trouble. I decided I didn’t want my workplaces to have that power over me.” She quit a fortnight later, and took a job with brother Jeremy transcribing patient notes – something she still does in the evenings.

The power of protest has always been important to Stanley Pao. She was once arrested in a protest against asset sales when John Key was prime minister, and spent the night in police cells. When she got out, she went home for a shower before returning to town to rejoin the protest lines. Expect to see more direct action from AAAP, including sit-ins at MPs’ offices, on her watch

“I want to target Pacific MPs as well… to start calling them out more in the media because we have a lot of Pacific MPs who have been there for a long time and I don’t feel they’ve done enough to uplift or empower their communities.”

Her activism has also been inspired by one of her mother’s best friends, Nigel “Uncle Nige” Bhana, who as a teen was an original member of the Polynesian Panthers, and fought for the rights of the Pacific community in Auckland in the wake of the dawn raids. “He helped establish their headquarters in an abandoned house in Ponsonby, helped create homework programmes for the youth and got them free food from surrounding businesses who would otherwise biff it. It feels like I’m contributing and carrying on the work he was part of.”

Unlike many Sāmoan families, the six Stanley siblings – she has three sisters and two brothers – weren’t brought up with strong ties to the church. “It’s very rare for Pacific families not to be connected to a church and in some ways, I feel very thankful because we haven’t had that strong control over us as family and people. We’ve been able to be who we are and do what we want as long as we are not hurting anyone else.”

Nominally, Stanley Pao is a solo mum, caring for 11-year-old Tzipora since splitting with her daughter’s father in 2013. It’s not a term she’d ever use, though, because she’s always been surrounded by the “strong village” of her family. She lives with her mum, nana, uncle, a sister, niece and nephew at the same Panmure address the family lived at 20 years ago. Single, by choice, for the last eight years, she says she hasn’t felt ready for another relationship. “The last two took up 10 years of my life so I wanted to be on my own, with Tzipora and my family and the things I care about.”

Former AAAP director Ricardo Menéndez March, pictured here at a rally organised by AAAP, left the organisation last year after being elected to parliament. (Photo: Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images)

Last year, coincidentally on election day, she and sister Crystal had their family story etched on their hands by Samoan tatau artist Tyla Vaeau using the traditional ’au (combs and mallet). The delicate markings depicting her parents, siblings, child and community service, with the addition of Niuean patterns for her mother’s heritage, is a deep bow to tradition against the bright contemporary yellow of her manicured nails.

Stanley Pao hit an emotional wall about a month into her new job, overcome by the suffering she saw daily. “I don’t stress out about much so I didn’t pick up on the signs that I hadn’t had space to think and I was exhausted. I kept thinking how much work was involved and I forgot to eat or rest.”

Sharing the suffering is an inevitable byproduct of the job, says Menéndez March. “If you don’t feel anger or a little bit of burden in that line of work, you have to question whether you’re really taking part in the community you’re serving because we are surrounded by sadness, tragedy and poverty.”

The fact Stanley Pao has not herself experienced hardship means the job requires even more empathy and commitment, he says. “I’ve seen her many times sitting with people waiting at Work and Income, fighting for a food or clothing grant. She has such dedication to the community, I knew she’d be right for the job. The work on the ground never gets seen in the media; it never gets acknowledged publicly.”

AAAP is an unashamedly political organisation and not a charity, meaning it can’t attract tax-deductible donations and runs on “the smell of an oily rag”, says Menéndez March. The co-ordinator’s role is its only paid position but Stanley Pao doesn’t see herself as the organisation’s leader. “We all lead in different ways. We all do the mahi together.”

Menéndez March counselled her not to stay in the job for more than three years because of the risk of burnout and the need for “new blood”, but she has no ambition to follow him into politics. She’s thought about it, though, and would probably stand “if my communities asked me to serve. I hope I’ve never asked. I have the capacity and the ability, I just don’t want to put myself in that space and not be able to enact the change I think is needed. There are many different ways we can be political and it’s important for that to exist outside parliamentary politics to pull them along, because they’re never going to do the right thing.”

Stanley Pao expressed her frustration in a meeting last year with social development minister Carmel Sepuloni. “She said there’s not going to be a substantial increase in benefits and talked about all the other things that would be affected. I said, ‘Is Labour looking at being transformational in the next three years?’ and she didn’t have anything. She just said it was our right to continue to call them out and hold them accountable. But she’s not in here everyday and having people share their really bad experiences at WINZ.”

To those who point out the government’s coffers aren’t bottomless, and the need for safeguards against abuse of the system, Stanley Pao says AAAP believes if people are given enough, they will make the right decisions for themselves.

“We don’t make any judgements. We are on a different end of the spectrum to WINZ. If people ask us for support, we get an idea of why they need it, but we don’t ever judge them. WINZ will go through their bank statements asking why they spent money on this or that. The people we deal with are constantly stressed. They are living day to day worrying about things that I don’t have to worry about and many New Zealanders take for granted. I just want the government to not ignore us any more.

“You know, we don’t have the luxury of time. We don’t have time to sit around and wait for politicians to get their act together and do the right thing. People are suffering now, suffering really severely, and heaps of these people have kids. It pisses me off. It pisses me off hard out. I am angry all the time but I have to channel all that energy into fighting for change and for the people I really believe in.”

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