Whakanoa is the process of removing tapu. There are many rituals and processes to remove tapu, usually involving kai or water, and always involving kōrero. Each fortnight we whakanoa with kōrero from community leaders and Hauora Advocates. 

This week we celebrate World Smokefree Day and check-in with the women tasked with advocating for a Smokefree Aotearoa - Stephanie Erick.

Stephanie Erick

Stephanie Erick

General Manager

You’re the General Manager for the National Tobacco Control Service. You’re a researcher, an advocate, and you’ve spent the last 15 years working in the health sector in lot’s of ways. That’s what google search says, but we’re asking - Who are you really? 

I’m a mum. A lucky mum of four in fact. I’ve got an amazing mum who raised me as a strong Niuean woman. There are also sprinkles of Samoan, Fijian in my whakapapa. But both my parents labelled me as Niuean, and it cancelled out all the others. I spent some time trying to reclaim those other ones, but that’s a story for another time. So right now, I am a proud Niuean woman, with sprinkles. 

For us as Māori, we refer to tangata Moutere (Pasifika) as our tuakana, our elders and prefects - we share a common knowing. What does it mean to be an indigenous woman in public health? 
Mostly it means I can be in a space where I am familiar to others as they are to me. It’s not head knowledge, it’s heart knowledge. It’s me just knowing that I'm in the right space. Our NZ education system taught me action plans and evidence and hierarchies, and those are important, but being indigenous in public health, and māori public Health specifically reminds me that karakia and maramataka and our environment are action plans and evidence and hierarchies. Some understand it superficially, but as indigenous in public health, we know this deeply. Being Indigenous means I get to bring all of myself, not just professional and serious me, but fun, cheeky, playful me as well. It’s what keeps me on the straight and narrow, and connecting to that indigeneity is a protective factor for my own wellbeing, particularly in what can sometimes be heavy work. 

What has been the biggest challenge for you amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown? 
I’m very privileged in that the lockdown was quite cruisy for me and my bubble, but the hardest thing for me was to recognise that this isn’t the reality of every whānau. At a more personal level, what has been difficult is not being able to connect in the way that we know - to share space and breath, to kiss, to hug, to hongi, or even just a pat on the back. Lockdown was difficult because it socially isolated us, and even at level 2, I’d underestimated how much we depend on social cues and interactions. I look forward to being able to connect in these ways again; the ways that we as Māori and Pasifika prefer and thrive in.

So this week, 31st May, we celebrate yet another year, and another step towards a Smokefree Aotearoa. So why tobacco control?
I never really had a plan for my life. I actually came to tobacco control when I started at the Heart foundation way back when. We were really strong at nutrition and Physical activity, but nobody really wanted to work in Tobacco Control, but I saw an opportunity. I remember showing up to my first ever Tobacco Control conference at Pipitea Marae in Wellington. Well, I wouldn’t say I “showed up”. I was wandering around lost, and happened upon 3 wahine māori in their flash “Auahi Kore” trackies and they threw me in the taxi and took me to the marae. I was doing a plenary presentation, and I asked the crowd to raise your hand if you’re Pacific. One man in the third row half raised his hand, and I said to him “Your hand is half raised, you must be half caste?” and he said to me “No Kōtiro, I just feel sorry for you” and we both laughed and enjoyed the joke, but really, back then the smokefree goal was very distant for Māori and Pacific people. So I became addicted to the idea of Smokefree and the prize was wellbeing for my pasifika people.

Why is World Smokefree Day important to you in your mahi?

World Smokefree Day has been going for a long time, and so it’s easy to be sidetracked by other things, but the reality is that Smoking is still plaguing our whānau and our communities. For so long, we’ve tried to keep the energy up, we’ve worked with whānau, and communities, and really we need to now be directing all of our serious energy towards those causing the harm. It’s easy to blame whānau, but it’s difficult to call out systems and industries which are failing our people. But it's also the sector's responsibility to keep the space energised, to celebrate the small wins, because we may not be around to reap the benefits of a Smokefree Aotearoa, but we work tirelessly, knowing that this is future-proofing for the next generation. This year’s World Smokefree Day is light, it’s easy, it’s fun, it’s celebratory. We’re just celebrating how far we’ve come, and inviting the nation to join us!

“Societies grow great when old people plant trees
whose shade they know they will never sit in”