Pasifika Futures - Our Way

Pasifika Futures has developed the Our Way programme for Pacific providers to become more effective in making a difference for our families and communities.



Lush green leaves soak up the hot South Auckland sun. Minutes away from New Zealand’s main airports, the meticulous handiwork of Papa Tom Wichman is undeniable.


Uniformed rows of repurposed tyres hold the fertile ground for a multitude of vegetables and herbs like rakau, kumara, pumpkin, tumeric, capsicum and a variety of beans. There’s also yacon, which he introduced to the Cook Islands because of its health benefits.


As Manager of Sustainable Projects for the Cook Island Development Agency New Zealand (CIDANZ), Papa Tom’s garden flourishes in the signature setting of its headquarters on Kirkbride Road in Mangere.


It’s a fine example of Pasifika Future’s new training programme Our Way, designed especially for the staff of its Whanau Ora partners working with Pacific families.
Papa Tom was one of the first participants in the new Our Way, One Purpose, One Voice training programme that Pasifika Futures has just started to up-skill all its staff and all the staff of its Whanau Ora partners.


“It was a great experience learning other people’s stories. From their stories you learn about the mistakes they made, and their success,” he says.


“You realise they’re human, like you. Because when people tell their stories, it makes you feel at home because their story is the same as my story because we all have weaknesses and success.”


The Our Way programme was inspired and informed by the Southcentral Foundation in Alaska, an Alaska Native-owned nonprofit health care organisation serving about 65,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Anchorage, Matanuska- Susitna Valley and 55 rural villages.


“We would like to acknowledge Southcentral Foundation for their generosity in allowing us to use content from their Core Concepts Training Manual, for their advice and guidance on the development of our programme and for the long-standing, precious relationship we have developed over 20 years,” says the CEO of Pasifika Futures, Debbie Sorensen.


“What we’re doing is looking at how we can improve our offering to the families we work with. And when I talk about ‘we’, I mean the whole Whanau Ora network that Pasifika Futures supports.


“That’s close to 40 organisations. To do that, we need to improve the way that people work together - inside organisations, between organisations and with families.


"In a lot of ways, it’s an improvement exercise that starts with us.” says Mrs Sorensen.


“We believe you can’t really go to families and say ‘Tell us about your lives’, without understanding our own life and understanding all the lessons that you’ve learnt as a person, and how that reflects on the way that you work with other people.”


For three days senior staff from 10 of Pasifika Futures partner organisations came together for the inaugural Our Way, One Purpose, One Voice programme.


“Our Way means a shared way, or coming together from many ways. It’s intended to support people in their work, at every level, to become more effective in making a difference with our families and communities.


“The programme focuses on building relationships with each other, the families we serve and our communities,” says Mrs Sorensen.


The Our Way programme includes learning skills and tools specifically designed to give the participants insights into themselves as well as others, so they become more effective when working with Pacific people.


Talanoa and the Vaka Model of Care


The Our Way programme identifies talanoa as a key tool. Talanoa - respectful conversation, talk and an exchange of ideas or thinking, whether formal or informal. Participants led by facilitators are part of talanoa groups, with guidelines that ensure their group is a safe place for sharing.


Another key component of the programme is the Vaka Model of Care, which is inspired by the legacy of exploration, courage and ingenuity synonymous with Pacific ancestral knowledge of ocean navigation.


The roles of people on traditional vaka, as well as the structural parts of a vaka itself, make up a framework that aligns Pasifika Futures with its partners delivering Whanau Ora and the families they serve.


During the Our Way programme, participants learned how to share their own stories, understanding their aspirations and history, and also how they impact others.




Vaka Tautua offers support services in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch for mental health, older people and disability for Pacific people within New Zealand.


“We had a couple of our staff do the Our Way training, and I participated by sharing my story and observing the process on the third day,” says Vui Mark Gosche, Chief Executive of Vaka Tautua.


“From our organisation’s perspective, it’s a really well-crafted programme. It reflects the different way in which Pacific staff and organisations like ours - which is for Pacific by Pacific - do their work compared to people who work in the mainstream.


“We have a number of people with us who’ve worked in the mainstream. They want to join a provider like ours because they want to do their work in a culturally appropriate way. This programme sets it in context well, because it’s hard to articulate this difference,” says Vui.


“It gets people to understand the massive importance of relationship and trust. It outlines the need to understand the stories of the people that you’re working with. To do that by being able to understand your own story and present it is a really crucial element, as is being able to practise with much more confidence.”


Vui says most training in New Zealand is done in a monocultural way, which expects people to be objective, dispassionate and divorced from the realities of the people they’re working with.


“What this programme has allowed, and recognises is a different way and, in our experience, a much more effective way, of engaging with Pacific people and Pacific families.


“The added extra is the relationship, the personal stuff. In our experience, we deal with people who are really hard to engage with. They have multiple, complex issues and have usually not engaged with anybody because other organisations, government or non-government, have difficulty reaching them” he says.


“It’s that human element, the cultural element of sharing a common story, walking in the same footsteps, understanding the realities of those people’s lives,” says Vui, who adds their staff are from the community and have walked in those people’s shoes themselves, whether it be disability, mental health, hardship, homelessness or violence.


“We see the fact that staff have lived that experience as a bonus, not as a detrimental thing. It’s an added positive in terms of the way in which they can do their work. This programme, for want of a better term, gives you the permission to use your lived experience in the way in which you practise and engage. The storytelling process is a key part of that, because we’re so rarely given the opportunity to share our story, or think it has any relevance or value to anybody.”


What Vui sees with the participants and what he’s experienced himself is that the back story - the story behind the eyes - is hugely valuable.


“When people get to share it with each other, they realise all of that tough stuff they’ve done in their life, as well as the good stuff, is of equal value in terms of being able to do good work with people who have got challenging stories themselves,” says Vui.



Rouruina Emil’e-Brown leads the Cooks Islands Development Agency New Zealand.


“The experience was eye-opening for me, eye-opening in the way that, at the beginning, we all had these titles and job descriptions and we came in with all of this knowledge, waiting for a process to take place. Everybody’s like this,” she says, crossing her arms.


“Everybody had a story and their stories connected in such a beautiful way. It matters for the work that we do. It’s difficult to know the needs of our families if we don’t have the real stories.


“I think about my mother-in-law when she was very sick in the hospital bed. When the doctors came, she acted as right-as-rain, but we knew she wasn’t. She always gave a happier version of her health conditions because she didn’t want to put anybody out. But it was never quite the right thing to say.


“The real story is always hard to find unless you’re really listening and unless you create a safe space for families to be able to say, ‘This is actually what the real need is in my family. These are my pain points’.


“They don’t always tell you that at the beginning, so it’s difficult to serve well unless you hear where the real needs are. Where the real sore points are for families,” says Mrs Brown.


“If we’re talking about a process that allows us to filter through the things that they don’t want to tell the whole world, there is a process that allows us to safely enter their space, and for them to allow us to enter so we can address with them what the real concerns are.


“Our path - the vaka process for us - was an opportunity to test what we knew as facilitators. It was a huge undertaking for Pasifika Futures to really trust the people that they work with, that they could reach that depth with the participating organisations – to really know that a process can work for getting underneath the skin,” she says.


“I just know how good it feels when you have authentic, genuine, deep relationships, there is a process for getting there and it doesn’t have to be the way that we’ve always done things.


“I’ve always had empathy, but to have a really good process to help you understand where people are coming in makes a difference.


“Those are the tools we’ve developed. We adapted some tools that were used by the indigenous community, to adapt to what we do here in Aotearoa New Zealand for Pasifika communities, and that’s what we have with the Our Way programme,” says Mrs Brown.


“We took a pattern that was working, and we put our understanding of our different cultures here, over it. Using the vaka as a framed-up understanding of all the pieces that we need to have in families in order for things to be working for them. So, there’s the research piece, the construction of a vaka and all of the pieces that are required to make that vaka work.”



For Fiu Wesley Tala’imanu, who leads the Fonua Ola Pasefika, there’s two sides of what he does.


“I was part of the group that was facilitating the programme and also had staff going through the experience, like Mark and Rouruina, taking what we learned and giving it a Pasifika context,” says Fiu about the Providers Network in Auckland.


“Your values for working in this field are what drives the Our Way programme. It tests our values about why we do the work we do.


Everyone uses the word ‘passion’, but underneath it there’s a core value about why you do what you do it - to serve, to help,” says Fiu.


“I learned something new when we used the vaka as part of the Our Way programme. It really tied in to what we’re trying to do, because we are navigators. We’re navigators in a big ocean and we’re looking for a better place for our people. That’s what Our Way is about. We’re providers in a big field of social or health services.


What we value is being here to serve and help our people. Our staff valued the training.”


He adds that sharing and hearing other people’s stories makes him think deeply about why he’s doing what he’s doing.


“As the momentum builds and more people do the training, there will be more people affected,” he says.


“I want every staff member to go through that process, so they have an understanding about our values and expectations, not just those that are guided by the contractual work. We could do any other job in the world, but this is why we’re here to support Pacific families.”



At Pasifika Futures’ Auckland offices in Ellerslie, the conversation is candid and free-flowing.


“The intention of this training is to improve the way we work with families and each other, to enable the families and the organisations we work with, to meet their aspirations,” says Taulapapa Wilmason Jensen, Deputy CEO of Pasifika Futures.


“The basis of our relationships with the families and our partners begins with talanoa. And the quality of the talanoa impacts directly on the outcome and sustainability of these relationships.


“What we’ve been hearing regularly from families is how important their relationship is with their navigator; their navigator enables them to see beyond their current circumstances, how to unpack their aspirations for becoming a prosperous family, to enable them rather than building dependency,” says Taulapapa.


Mrs Sorensen picks up the thread.


“We believe you can’t really go to families and say ‘tell us about your lives’ without understanding your own life and all the lessons that you’ve learnt as a person, and how that reflects on the way that you work with other people. It’s about understanding yourself first before working with others, not making the assumption that everyone who works with families is skilled at the same level or trained in the same way.”


The feedback received from the first Our Way participants was positive.


“Everyone gave high praise, felt their experience was worthwhile and recommended others do it, and they felt it had the biggest impact on them. It was unlike anything they’d been to before,” says Seini Jensen, the Director of Performance and Evaluation for Pasifika Futures.


The overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants came as a pleasant surprise. Mrs Jensen attributes it to people wanting to connect with each other.


“The participants understood a lot of the concepts. The other thing is that we’re a group now and we all feel connected as a group.
We’ve shared this programme, and are operating from that same base,” she says.


“Now we know what we share and what works, and we all believe in this approach. You could see that people enjoyed that connection with each other, beyond just the normal work meeting.


Understanding yourself and sharing that with others as a way to connect and be more effective in relationships generally,” Mrs Jensen says.


Mrs Sorensen thinks people are more used to going to training where they’re told what to do.


“The change in methodology is where, first of all, you can’t hide behind your cellphone or computer. It’s challenging over the three-day programme to have people disconnected. It’s a really big deal and actually quite hard. It means you have to concentrate and contribute. You get to choose at what level you contribute, but you have to contribute.


“The active participation over three days is something people enjoyed. It speaks a lot to the heart of the way that we, as a group of Pacific people, live and think.


“Health professionals are told that there’s a professional line. And yet as a nurse … I’m a nurse, you deal with people’s most intimate times in their lives. How can you do that well? How do you get people to trust you if they know nothing about you?


“If you look at the complaints people make about the health system and the way they’re treated, a lot of it is that: ‘the doctor didn’t understand me’ ‘the nurse didn’t understand my circumstances’ ‘I didn’t have my medication because no one told me’.


That’s because no one took the time to understand about the space you’re in,” she says.


“So, it makes sense when you think about it, but it requires a whole re-training, and that’s not to take away from the fact that you don’t work with families to meet your own needs. It requires a discipline around how you share, but you have to understand your own story first.


Otherwise you think everyone else is like you. Or everyone is like the picture that you see, and we as a community are subject to that all the time, although sometimes we do it to ourselves, too,” says Mrs Sorensen.


Our Way will become the cornerstone training for all people involved in the Pasifika Futures’ Whanau Ora programme, from the navigators to management and also governance.


The vaka metaphor resonates with Papa Tom.


“If you go on the outrigger by yourself, it’s hard to paddle through the waves, but if you get on the big waka it’s easier. Everybody works together for the benefit of everybody. By telling our stories and listening to others, and the meanings of the waka. Especially when you get on the big waka, everybody must know what part they have to play.”


For more information go to the Pasifika Futures website.