A sense of identity is crucial for Māori social workers

School of Social Work Lecturer, Paulé Ruwhiu



It was getting into trouble as a teenager that set Paulé Ruwhiu, Ngāpuhi/Ngāti Porou, on a social work pathway that will this year, see her complete a PhD.

“I remember mum and dad put me in front of this person called a social worker and he started asking me how I was feeling and all these other questions and I remember thinking – I can so do a better job than you and that idea sort of stuck.” 

With a strong sense of social justice and a desire to fight for the underdog she headed to Massey University in Palmerston North to learn about social work, but says she also found herself on a path of self-discovery. 

Growing up Ms Ruwhiu says she had been disconnected from her Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Porou roots. “I was born in Timaru in the South Island and at that time in the 1970’s I struggled with being Māori and what that looked like”. Heading to Massey as a mature student years later, one of the elements in the programme was about decolonisation along with kō wai au – knowing yourself.  With the help of strong Māori support I became very secure in my identity - balancing my mother’s Scottish heritage with my Tangata Whenua side.”

Identity is a strong thread in her academic journey. “When I worked in Māori mental health I realised that a lot of the Tangata Whaiora (a person seeking health) we were working with didn’t have a sense of who they are and where they came from, so that sparked the topic for my master’s degree.  I looked at three generations of Māori women and how Te Ao Māori [the Māori world] had been passed down through the generations. I was looking to see who provides you with the skills and tools to be able to build your identity. After completing my Master in Social Work, I left Māori mental health and went into tertiary teaching, and I found many Māori students coming into social work struggled with their identity, which ignited my interest in enrolling into the doctorate programme.”

For her PhD research Ms Ruwhiu chose a topic close to her heart - the process of decolonisation and the experiences of Māori social work students and Māori social workers. 

Now based on Massey’s Auckland campus she says while she misses the hands-on role of social work, teaching has its rewards. “I really enjoy that ‘a ha’ moment, when a student gets what I’m talking about. I’m quite a dynamic teacher – I don’t just stand at the whiteboard. I love to use different medium.” 

This year she will help run four noho marae where students get to stay a night on a marae to experience Māori culture first hand and to also learn about Māori models of practice when working with Tangata Whenua. “A lot haven’t been on a marae before so we work through all that anxiety and at the end of it they just absolutely love it and want to stay another night and that’s really awesome. I’m really in my prime teaching on marae.”

She says a strong sense of identity is crucial for Māori social workers. “It grounds you in your practice and provides you with the ability to connect when working with Māori.” Her advice to Māori students is, “Seek out Māori supports at Massey and make that connection, so you start to form strong relationships in your academic life.”

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