It’s been a rewarding, challenging 20 months for Mihi Blair. As she steps down as GM of Tobacco Control Advocacy at Hāpai she tells us how the support of wāhine Māori, the voices of her tamariki and watching her beloved dad die from lung disease gave her strength and determination in her work.

When Lance Norman, former CEO of Hāpai Te Hauora, encouraged Mihi to apply for her current role, Mihi was hesitant. “I was unsure about stepping into the role at first because I didn’t have a health background,” says Mihi. It was the wāhine in the national management team -- Fay Selby-Law, Rebecca Ruwhiu-Collins and Steph Erick -- who convinced her. “They’ve created a positive environment to empower women and that can bring you back into a place of self-care.”

Soon Mihi was meeting with countless stakeholders from the tobacco control sector, community members and government officials, all the while working to push a collective approach and also raise the profile of Hāpai. Influencing policy and raising public awareness is hard work and humour often came in handy. “It’s a serious environment and I’ve been privileged to be surrounded by supportive people in the sector,” says Mihi, “but there are lots of things you have to laugh at. It’s about taking yourself seriously in your mahi, but not in your world.”

Mihi also got her whānau involved and says a highlight of her time at Hāpai was seeing her daughters participate in the kaupapa; “Kayla, my middle girl spoke at the Māori Affairs Select Committee, and Erena spoke at the Smokefree Cars submission along with my nephew Lennox and also featured in the ‘Tobacco is not our whakapapa’ campaign. They’d lost their grandfather. It was hard to talk about smoking impacting on their lives, but they did it.”

Six months into her new role, Mihi’s father Greg died, at the age of 71, from lung disease. Mihi was heart-broken knowing her father was dying from a preventable illness. “It broke him too,” she says. “He definitely regretted it. He talked about how he’d missed out on doing the things he wanted to do later on life. At 50 he was still playing rugby. At 65 he couldn’t even walk ten metres.” Mihi believes more discussion is needed around tobacco-related deaths. “From watching my dad die, I learned how important it is to uphold someone’s mana, and to be their voice and to stand strong even if it means upsetting professionals.”

Wanting to get people’s voices heard has led Mihi to knowingly rock the boat at times; questioning DHB procurement processes, demanding equity-focused kaupapa and advocating for the use of vaping as a quit tool. Mihi was especially pleased with the Vaping Policy Forum held at parliament last year in April which was sponsored by Associate Minister Salesa. “Because she was so supportive, we had over a hundred people attending, included experts from here and Australia. With Hāpai, ASH and Tala Pasifika all collaborating we had the capacity to provide a lot of expertise and support.”

Mihi leaves Hāpai to begin a new role as Operations Manager at ProCare Health Ltd, one of Aotearoa’s largest Primary Health Organisations (PHO). She says she’ll take what she’s learned from Hāpai into her new role. “Hāpai are leaders in advocacy. They uphold the mana of our people.” For Mihi, a key to excellent health outcomes will always be listening to people’s stories and lived experiences. “If you aren’t hearing the people’s voices on the ground then you’re going to face issues.”

Source: Tobacco Control Update January 2020

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