Ann Dysart: 'A small wahine wielding a sharp axe'

Ann Dysart (Te Rarawa): public servant; b September 7, 1951; d January 28, 2021
Ann Dysart (Te Rarawa) was an ethical and visionary public servant who worked relentlessly to give Mori, and whnau of all ethnicities, real power to influence decisions affecting them and their communities.

She designed and implemented innovative social sector initiatives that improved the lives of those routinely disadvantaged by our systems, primarily in Mori, single parent, refugee, migrant and Pasifika communities.

In recent years she was known for leading E T Whnau, a Mori-designed social change movement that supports people from all communities to create positive change by drawing on their inherent strengths and experiences.


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Described by many as a voice for the voiceless in the corridors of power, a small wahine wielding a sharp axe, Ann was a woman of mana and compassion who saw the potential in everyone and was afraid of no-one.

She was as loved and respected by communities of all faiths and cultures as she was by iwi leaders and whnau living in marginalised communities.

Supplied
Ministry of Social Development community relationships manager Ann Dysart speaking at the launch of Family First Welfare Trust in thuhu in 2017.

It was the values, tikanga and aroha of te ao Mori, and her strong links with ordinary whnau Mori, that inspired her vision of a just and tolerant society that worked in the best interests of all its members.

Ann died of cancer, two days after receiving the prestigious Te Tohu Ratonga Tmatanui (NZ Public Service Medal), acknowledging her outstanding commitment to New Zealanders, and the public service commissioners commendation for 50 years of exceptional service. The ceremony was held at her home, with family and close friends in attendance.

It was a well-deserved acknowledgement of a woman who embodied the very best in public service. Ann was a genuine agent of change.

She always understood the complexity of the task in front of her. She never wavered, however, in her belief that authentic systemic change begins in whnau and communities where people are loved, supported and proud of who they are; where people know their worth and know too that their culture and spiritual beliefs are as important, and worthy of understanding and respect, as those of any other group.

From this bedrock, she believed, people can exercise their responsibility to build the healthy, secure, and violence-free life they want for their tamariki and mokopuna.

Governments role was to listen to all parts of those communities, not just their official spokespeople, and support them to make the positive changes they knew would work for them. Small changes were just as important as large ones.

Ann was born in Ttoki, Northland, in 1951. Her father, Ken, was Te Rarawa. Her mother, Ruth Reid, was Pkeh of Scottish descent. They bought the dairy farm behind the local, family-run store from Ruths parents, and this is where Ann and her eight siblings were brought up.

As the eldest daughter, Ann was often responsible for the care of her younger brothers and sisters. They remember her as shy but interested in people and the world around her; an avid reader who learnt early to manage and delegate so she could get back to her book as soon as possible.

Their whnau was typical of many mixed-race families of the time. They didnt specifically prioritise tikanga or talk about Mori values, but they certainly lived them.

Whakapapa and whnau were as much about friends, neighbours and workmates as bloodline. Everyone who came to the door was shown manaakitanga and respected, without judgment, for who they were. The children got a growling if they spoke ill of others. It diminished everyone, their father said, and they were better than that.

Relationships were valued, nurtured and maintained. She observed and listened as her father and his farming mates leaned on tractors and fence posts talking philosophy and current affairs as often as they talked of pasture growth and milk yields.

She was the tmahine her father regularly took with him on visits to friends and to marae, where they often went straight to the kitchen. She learnt early that was the place to go to find out what was going on and who was doing the real mahi in the community.

Ann left school at 17 for Auckland, where she lived at the Mori Girls Hostel and started her public service career as a state services cadet.

She married Garry Baldwin and became a stay-at-home mum after the birth of son Scott in 1974 and, three years later, his sister, Rebekah (Becs). The young family moved to Christchurch before returning north to live in Hobsonville, Devonport, then Whangrei. When Becs was 5, Ann went back into the workforce as a receptionist at the Whangrei branch of the Department of Social Welfare during the day, and as a marriage guidance counsellor in the evenings.

Her intelligence, empathy and skill with people were soon recognised, and she was shoulder-tapped to spearhead a variety of projects. Each new challenge deepened her understanding of the issues facing people, their societal roots and how to bring about real change in their lives.

By the mid-1980s, she was back in Auckland managing the staff development unit for the Department of Labours Employment Service and designing training packages to give unemployed Kiwis the skills, confidence and opportunities to get back into permanent employment.

During those years she worked closely with Parekura Horomia, then general manager of the departments community employment group to improve the lives of the unemployed, and Mori in particular.

Community worker Denis O'Reilly remembers her as humble and pragmatic.

Ann had an intimate understanding of authentic communities and worked hard to get resources to those already showing discretionary effort.

In 1993 she rejoined the Department of Social Welfare, to design and manage Compass, a pilot programme that supported sole-parent beneficiaries back into the labour force with incentive allowances for training and university study.

She was a sole parent herself by then, and knew how hard it could be

Once the programme was up and running, Ann continued to work on projects that would further develop her whnau and community-centred approach to social change, most notably the Settling In programme promoting positive settlement outcomes for refugees and new migrants.

She was an early supporter of the Muslim community, respecting members right to maintain their own spiritual and cultural beliefs within a wider culture largely ignorant of them. These relationships put her and her team at the forefront of government responses to the 2019 mosque attacks.

In 2006 she took on the last great challenge of her professional life, managing the E T Whnau initiative on behalf of the Ministry of Social Development.

E T Whnau was established in partnership with iwi and community leaders to address unacceptable levels of violence within communities and find solutions to a problem with complicated historical and social roots.

In 2007, hundreds of whnau from all walks of life attended hui throughout the country. They spoke of traditional Mori values that elevate whine and tamariki as taonga. Their ill treatment within whnau was strictly forbidden. The role of tne was to protect and uphold that tikanga.

The nationwide krero came down to a belief that, by reclaiming those traditional values that strengthened whnau and cultural identity, people could take responsibility for the wellbeing of their own whnau and hap. They could take leadership and change what laws and decades of government programmes could not.

E T Whnau is guided by the ministerially appointed Mori Reference Group. Darrin Haimona was its founding chair.

We asked people to dream of the world they wanted their tamariki to inherit, he says.

Ann listened to their moemoe [vision], helped identify the protective factors that keep families safe, and distilled the values that we now call the E T Whnau values.

This was a genuine whnau, hap and iwi-led response to problems of violence in our community. Its a long-term systemic response, and research, which Ann instigated, indicates that its working.

E T Whnau is now recognised internationally as a leading indigenous approach to violence prevention and community development. Its values and ways of interacting with communities are seen by refugee and migrant communities as coming from a similarly communal cultural world view.

In a career that spanned 50 years, Ann fought institutional racism and inequity with quiet persistence and took on anyone, regardless of stature or professional position, who ignored the rights of those she championed.

She heard people talking of a poverty of spirit, the burden of a system that told them how to do things and what was good for them. The antidote was to encourage people to dream about the world they wanted to live in and the future they wanted for their tamariki; to look at what they can do for themselves and regain a sense of control over their lives.

Ann is survived by son Scott, her beloved moko Emma, her siblings and their whnau. Her much-loved daughter Becs died earlier last year from complications associated with multiple sclerosis.

Rere atu r e te manu rerenga tahi, te kahukura mana nui, te kuaka mrangaranga. Tau atu ki te thuna, tau atu, tau atu, tau atu h!

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