In January 2019, Seattle’s Aparna Rae and Sage Ke’alohilani Quiamno launched Future for Us, an initiative designed to accelerate the advancement of women of color through community, culture, and career development. They envision a world where women of color lead at the highest levels of corporate, government, and social sector organizations. For everyone pioneering this important vision, one of the most meaningful questions is this: In a world where women of color are supported to be business and community leaders, what do these women look like?
This question’s significance stays firmly intact across wide-ranging cultural and societal lines, and in reference to people of all ages and backgrounds. My home country of Aotearoa (New Zealand), and my own Māori culture and ancestral line, provide one historical and ongoing example of the human connection between success and identity.
In Aotearoa, the treaty signed by Māori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown in 1840 was supposed to establish a path for shared land and leadership. But differences in meaning between the Māori and English translations of the bilingual treaty confused the Māori understanding of joint leadership with the British expectation of sovereignty. Disagreements culminated in nearly thirty years of conflict known as the New Zealand Wars, after which Māori had lost ownership of land and the treaty was disregarded entirely. The remainder of the 19th century and some half of the next saw the widespread oppression of Māori in New Zealand.
The most devastating means of progress and success sold to people in oppressed or non-dominant cultures is the necessary suppression of cultural identity. The same can be said about the identities of any non-dominant person or groups: “If you want to succeed, be more like us.” For Māori that wasn’t an option – owning our advancement meant owning our identity – and it shouldn’t have to be the solution for anyone. When we think about what it really takes to succeed, relative dominance and external norms don’t factor at all in the equation. It’s not about who anyone wants us to be. Meaning and fulfillment and lifelong success are achieved on the strength of whoever we are, what we know and can do, and our connections with others and the world.
Māori shared this understanding with the rest of New Zealand, whose cultural identity is increasingly intertwined with the cultural Māori experience. In schools, the focus has shifted to creating a culture committed to “Māori achievement as Māori.”
“Māori achievement as Māori” [is] essentially saying that our Māori students should not have to stop being Māori when they come in the school gates in order to be successful in education, that their ways of knowing and understanding are important and valid and should be valued by schools. We have several government initiatives specifically about Māori achievement as Māori . . . and [we] work on recognizing Māori success, the ways that Māori are successful, saying that every Māori student can be successful and still express their cultural identity, whatever that is, whatever part of the country they’re from. If we’re effective teachers of Māori students, what things will we be doing? What attributes will we have?
– Gwyneth Cooper, Head of Science, Bream Bay College, New Zealand (as quoted in Measuring Human Return)
Māori students don’t have to suppress their identity in order to succeed in the classroom. They can be, “look like,” and celebrate Māori. Everywhere, schools need to teach every one of their students that the person they are isn’t holding them back, but a powerful means for contributing back.
Sage, Aparna, and Future for Us remind us of the lesson that Māori have taught and continue to teach to this day. The focus is not on how women of color can gain a new world through the loss of identity, but rather on how the world’s women of color can create a new future that reflects who they are.
Instead of asking what might be in store for the world, ask what our leaders will look like in the future. What we see in the futures of women of color shines a light on the future of us all.