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Dr Aria Graham

Dr Aria Graham

Dr Aria Graham (Ngāti Kahungungu, Ngāti Pōrou, Samoan) is a registered nurse, a mother to two sons, and a researcher at Whakauae Research Services who focuses on Māori health and development. She is passionate about improving health outcomes for māmā and tamariki by listening to whānau and working within the community. This led to her developing Mamia - a marae-based, culturally-grounded centre that aims to support the wellbeing of young Māori mothers.

Ko Kahurānaki te maunga
Ko Ngaruroro te awa
Ko Takitimu te waka
Ko Tamatea Arikinui te tangata
Ko Heretaunga te wharenui
Ko Waipatu te marae
Ko Ngāti Hawea ko Ngāti Hori ko Ngāti Hinemoa ngā hapū
Ko Ngāti Kahungunu te iwi

Q: What research do you do?

A: I would say I do research under the mantle of kaupapa Māori, the people, the marae, and Kahungunutanga. My mahi incorporates many aspects of Māori and whānau wellbeing but is grounded in a passion to ensure better outcomes for tamariki Māori. I am employed by Whakauae Research Services (WRS) for Māori health and development, which is owned by Ngāti Hauiti. WRS is the only iwi-owned health research organisation in Aotearoa.

As a researcher and a health professional, kaupapa Māori and adhering to that covenant in research, health, and community engagement is imperative. My PhD focussed on the wellbeing experiences of young Māori mothers and my postdoc is piloting and evaluating a marae-based culturally grounded child and maternal wellbeing model based on the findings of my PhD.

Q: Did you always know you’d get into research?

A: Not at all. I did not even know what I wanted to be when I became a registered nurse or then a doctor (PhD). I studied right through my nursing and while having a family, and have found my way to this place of mahi. I think life experience, my whānau, and listening to and witnessing the experience of whānau in the community has had a huge influence.

To me, research is another tool in our kete to help others, think critically, and improve ourselves. For example, when I was nursing, I listened to what the whānau said they needed for their wellbeing, and I could transform my practice accordingly. But when it came to effecting service design and policy, it was very difficult to effect sustainable change, as hard as I tried! So, in that sense, I felt very limited to make change. Advancing my practice through research has been a positive pathway.

Q: What do you do what you do?

A: Mostly because I feel for our tamariki.

To me there is too little understanding and listening to people’s perspectives about their own lives, and we overlook the ‘actual need’ of the community based on their strengths.

Thus, inequities are perpetuated through policy, funding, and service design. A western hegemonic view of health takes precedence, and therefore, health care is based on someone else’s lens, worldview, and ideology, and to me that’s not ok.  

Everyone, particularly Māori as tangata whenua as those who have lost so much to colonisation, deserve tino rangatiratanga. It is every tamaiti’s birthright to have healthy parents, to belong, to be loved, and to flourish. That shouldn’t be something ‘over there’. When I see or hear of tamariki or whānau suffering, I see them as part of me – not someone ‘over there’. That is why I am passionate about Māori health.

Q: Why is your research important to you? Why is it important to Aotearoa New Zealand?

A: My research is important to me because it is based on the voices of whānau and is research done by Māori, with Māori, about Māori, and for Māori and thus, everybody. It is important to me because the whānau, hapū, iwi, the community and my marae have faith in me that I have listened to what they have said, and I will be tika in what I do. Tikanga Māori is integral to my mahi and therefore I take what I do seriously.

For New Zealand, it is important for the same reasons. If we are genuine about exemplifying the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi and value te ao Māori, then the importance of kaupapa Māori research should be seamless across the community, researcher, and the vision of all – not one more meaningful than another. Aotearoa is the home of my tamariki and tīpuna and our whakapapa and I have a role in preserving its sacredness.

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Q: Is there a lot of research being done on the wellbeing of tamariki, māmā, and whānau?

A: There is a growing amount of research in this field and neat initiatives based on a Māori worldview happening here in our rohe and around the country. I think the system’s failure to ensure and improve the wellbeing of tamariki and māmā has drawn more attention to this area. It is heartening that more is being learned, understood, appreciated, and accepted about actual realities and need.

The way in which we consider the health of tamariki needs reframing as dyadic with their mothers and interconnected with their whānau – rather than fragmented. Equally, any research that involves tamariki and māmā Māori needs to come from and be positioned in an empowering discourse rather than deficit.

Q: Do you think there is a good amount of representation in the research community? If not, how would do you change this?

A: I think there is always room for more interest and focus in the research area of tamariki, māmā, and whānau Māori, and not only from Māori but also with our Pākehā allies who want to be part of positive change. From my experience, it appears far more kudos is given to those with power around funding and policy to enact initiatives and even with my PhD there have been many times I have not been listened to or invited to share some insights that may be helpful.

From working closely with our iwi, I think there is room for our own knowledge-gatherers so that we may grow and strengthen our whānau, hapū and iwi according to our own preferences, values and epistemological understandings. I do think that I have benefited from the rigor and robust system of the western research academy and have been fortunate that I can interweave a Māori lens into this.

Q: What findings have you made that have shocked or amazed you?

A: I think the realisation of my PhD, the work thus far into my postdoc and iwi mahi have been about opening my eyes to the wonder and power of our culture, systems and people, and that is an amazing finding. The findings of my PhD were not mind-blowing in that they were really organic, natural and common sense but due to assimilation and an oppressive system, those innate sensibilities have been clouded or lost. However, evidence gathering and sense-making by way of the research process, integrated with a Māori worldview (kaupapa Māori methodology), has brought to light this knowledge.

I do not think I can claim this knowledge but can say I have contributed to uncovering what has always been there but obscured.

Q: What excites you about working on your current project?

A: Everything! I love my mahi. I really enjoy the hands-on rubber-meets-the-road aspect of doing the research and allowing it to evolve. We have had some big hurdles and challenges, but I thank my whānau and think the challenges have been meant to be so that we could ‘arrive’ at this place. I am really looking forward to having women and babies utilise and lead this space and kaupapa, to bring practitioners and services together, along with community, and to see what happens.

There are so many elements that connect to the project, and what is exciting is being able to pushback in areas that I previously thought were important but now see them as time-wasting and unproductive. Thus, I can focus my attention and energy to where the process is guiding me whilst being critical and cognisant of the interconnected parts.

I am learning from so many people and I am grateful. The best part is being based on the marae, and learning from the marae, tikanga and the people. I feel really privileged.

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Q: What did you study at school? Is it related to what you do now?

A: At high school I took the usual subjects, plus Japanese, and funnily had to do Māori by correspondence. I was a very average student and I think because I tried a little harder, I may have had some wins ahead of some peers. In sixth form, I remember getting the top award for what we called ‘cabbage maths’! I wouldn’t have tried so hard if I knew I’d be awarded for that class!

During my nursing training, I didn’t prioritise my studies well with ‘wanting to be young’. I failed second year science. I loved nursing with the people but the grind of study, especially after high school, was difficult. So, the following year, I took two papers and the year off to mahi and that was the best thing ever.

I think Māori as a subject has definitely helped with my mahi, as has the social aspect, but the rest I am not so sure. It certainly helps when I must help my tamariki with homework. My husband and I both went through tertiary education and on to PhDs, but I have told my sons I would be as happy if they wanted to be tradesmen or horticulturalists or something they’re interested in. COVID-19 certainly changes the landscape and thinking differently and outside the box is important.

Q: How important have mentors been for you?

A: Very important. I have so many – whānau, friends, colleagues, my husband, and children. The tuakana-teina concept of supporting the fledgling is essential. And so is gratitude, I think. If we think about what we achieve, then we must be grateful to our many atua and those who stand beside us, takitini, and keep it on-going to the next person.

I had wonderful grandparents and I think, what would they think about this or that? I usually get my answer.

Q: What really matters to you?

A: Whānau. Tamariki. Being authentic. Aroha.