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What a young white guy learned from co-designing a bicultural event

I used to think that there was a ‘right way’ to do biculturalism in events. I thought it was a matter of talking to the person with the right role, finding out the answer, then putting the right pieces into the puzzle and rolling out the event. Bit of pōwhiri here, patterned design there, slide in a few expert speakers on Māori topics…

Rather than full-blown ignorance, I’ll chalk this up as naivety. I didn’t really know what I didn’t know, and I didn’t know that I was essentially thinking about biculturalism in events in a tokenistic and probably offensive way.

Those of us working in/on events often think about biculturalism as the weaving in of things from another culture – te ao Māori. This is how I always viewed it. What I’ve come to learn, though, is that things that are truly bicultural are often quite different from either of the two cultures of which they are comprised – be it an event, organisation, artwork, anything! It’s like interspersing blue and yellow and comparing it with the colour green. They’re made up of the same things, sure, but they’re also fundamentally different.

Working on the Social Enterprise World Forum 2017 opened my eyes to the real possibilities when an event approaches biculturalism like the colour green, instead of the traditional yellow/blue mosaic. I was lucky to be brought into the event on the explicit basis that it was going to be bicultural. On top of that I also got to work with the indomitable duo of Puamiria Parata-Goodall (who has, among a great many other things, led Te Matatini, the pinnacle event for Māori performing arts, in 2015) and Huia Lambie, who is perhaps the most strategic and wairua-led person I know.

Whilst working on this event I found myself saying different things and asking different questions. For example:

“how can we involve tāngata whenua in this?” became “what would make this event fully inclusive?”

“Let’s get a cultural perspective on the logo” became “What do we want the identity of the event to be, and how should that look and feel?” (this one went a step further when we introduced theming through the sound of ka korokī te manu – the song of the bird)

“Is there an appropriate opening ceremony that we should be using?” became “what would make this experience authentic to New Zealand?”

And, perhaps most surprisingly:

“what are we going to do here?” became “can this help us with what we’re trying to achieve?”

What resulted wasn’t just an experience that was better for Māori and Pākehā alike, it was quite simply a much better event!

I was forced to reflect on this recently at the 2018 Eventing the Future conference. 220 Event Professionals from all over New Zealand gathered for two days in Christchurch and I had the pleasure of MCing the whole thing. In the closing session there was a need for a whistle stop tour of the whole event that pulled out highlights and quotes from the various sessions. It ended with what I saw as the major themes that emerged from the content and discussion:

1. The importance of place and context

One of the most significant and defining features of Aotearoa New Zealand is our unique bicultural identity – this is hand over fist the most celebrated aspect of visitors’ trips down here. We are a nation full of good thinkers, incredible artists, and pioneering visionaries. What is their place in our events, or, perhaps more importantly, what is the place of our events in their lives?

2. Our changing world

Technology is changing society faster and in more ways that it ever has before, and this is in turn changing society’s expectations of events. Experiential technologies are changing the events industry literally daily, whether we’re on top of it or not, and new generations are expecting new things in new ways.

3. Meaning, Authenticity

Increasingly we have to understand why our work, our events, ‘matter’. Whilst designing events we need to be better at balancing creativity with analysis, and shift from a mindset of ‘selling sponsorship’ to one of building relationships. We’re not in the business of events, we’re in the business of delivering powerful experiences. Events should have a purpose.

Most people spend only a very small portion (if any) of their time at conferences and events, so the proposition is more one of opening eyes and changing perspectives than really teaching new behaviour in a tangible way. And that is perhaps the more important point here.

The mindset with which people approach the world leads and influences their behaviour in fundamental and invisible ways. Most of us don’t even consider that our way of viewing the world is only one of many, but consider our passion about cause xyz to be a reliable indicator that we are ‘a good person’. Our mindset is invisible not just to those around us, but to us as well. Thus we find it very confronting if/when we discover that some aspect of our behaviour has very real negative impacts on others around us, even though it was neither our intent nor in alignment with our beliefs or values. Put simply, we get defensive when people call us out for doing things that we didn’t mean to do - e.g. making casual jokes about friends that, in reality, are built off the back off institutional racism, everyday sexism, or one of their many pals. (I choose this example because it is something that I am inclined to do, as someone often driven by humour. Regardless of my typically good intention with jokes, put downs are put downs – so I’m actively trying to rid them from my humour vocabulary.) This principle applies as equally for an individual cracking jokes as it does to a multi-national organisation and their supply chain or employment practices. The intent almost doesn’t matter if the result is counter-productive to what we say is important to us. 

Mindsets or mental models of the world are one of the fundamental things that hold social problems in place. Real transformative change can only occur* when the framing in our heads shifts into alignment with the changes we want to see in the world. This sounds simple, but let me remind you that the framings in our heads are most often invisible even to us - we can’t just decide to change our mindset. *Collective Impact pioneers FSG Consulting talk about this in depth in their recent article The Water of Systems Change, which is necessary reading for anyone trying to work on challenges at an ecosystem/cross-industry level.

The opportunity with events, therefore, comes into sharp focus when we consider how we might be designing meaningful experiences that shift the mindset of those in the room. Imagine if every peak-body conference designed their event with this as it’s core focus. I’m holding my breath for the upcoming Aotearoa Social Enterprise Forum* to see what pops out for the good of this world of things. (Which, for the record, I haven’t really had anything to do with – lots of people still falsely assume I’m an Ākina staff member, which I have never been!).

A more clear example of this mindset shift can be pulled from the changing questions I presented earlier:

how can we involve tāngata whenua in this?” became “what would make this event fully inclusive?”

There are a great many (typically Pākehā) people in New Zealand who push back/push forward on the notion of making things more bicultural. “We are a multi-cultural nation, let’s talk about that as well/instead”. This is correct on one level, but comes from a mindset that fundamentally misses the point of biculturalism. It comes from same mindset as the first question above. But look at that second question - “what would make this event fully inclusive?”. Inclusion of all is a different thing than ‘involving tāngata whenua’ or ‘involving everyone who is here’. In English we would use the words ‘hospitality’ or ‘being a great host’ to convey the idea of accepting and bringing people into our space and making them feel welcome. Our space. In Te Reo Māori the closest equivalent is ‘Manaakitanga’, which is a concept with many more layers.

Hastening to note that I’m not an authority or expert on the matter, if we break up the word manaakitanga we get:

Mana – (noun) prestige, power, status
Aki – (verb) to encourage, urge on, challenge, induce, incite, exhort
Tanga(ta) – (noun) people, of people

Hence I have come to understand manaakitanga as a way of being that encourages and grows the status, the power – the mana – of people. It’s about adding value for us and we, whoever that ‘we’ happens to be at the time. This is a different mindset than bringing people into our space and making them feel welcome, and it’s one that I find much more compelling and appropriate for life and for events.

Through this lens (any many others) biculturalism in New Zealand is one of the ways of creating space for meaningful multiculturalism, as well as truly inclusive practices – Multi-culturalism doesn’t address gender equity or ablism (to pluck two from the air), and in some ways it can work counter to modern western ideals. But manaakitanga does. So Biculturalism isn’t an either/or, and it’s not a zero sum game, it’s an enabler. And it’s actually the foundation upon which Aotearoa New Zealand was founded, both formally through Te Tiriti and informally thanks to the manaakitangi offered by our Māori ancestors to our European ancestors and all those who have followed. It’s quite simply who we are, whether we realise it yet or not.

It is this fundamental mindset, the drive for mana-enhancing practices, that will set New Zealand apart. Lifting up the power and status of all people.

The events industry, and New Zealand at large, is on a freight train for change – one that delivers powerful bicultural experiences for the people of Aotearoa and the world. Are you on the train, or still waiting at the station?

Image c/o Peanut Productions.

**This post was originally written for Meeting Newz, New Zealand’s Conference, Incentive & Exhibition Magazine Sept/Oct 2018 edition (available online here). A side note also that macrons present poorly in lots of browsers evidently (boo!) anyone know an open font that can fix that? **