Our thoughts are with our members and their organisations impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle. Boards have a key role to play in the wake of any crisis. See guidance for chairs and directors

Our thoughts are with our members and their organisations impacted by Cyclone Gabrielle. Boards have a key role to play in the wake of any crisis. See guidance for chairs and directors

A powerful voice building pathways

Fonoti Pati Umaga calls for open conversations in boardrooms – ‘it’s about building that honourable space between people’.

By Sonia Yee, Senior IoD Writer
20 Dec 2022
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4 min to read
Fonoti Pati Umaga

Celebrated musician Fonoti Pati Umaga feels like the ‘poster boy’ for disabled people. “If there is a legacy I want to leave behind, it’s a pathway built for our young people to come up and get into roles of leadership and be the voices of our disabled people,” he says.

“I feel like I’m a poster boy, so forward movement is about allowing us to build a succession plan to bring our emerging leaders in so there is a clear pathway for that. And that’s going to take work, but that is what’s needed.”

Umaga refers to himself as a proud Samoan and first generation New Zealander. He sits on numerous boards and advisory bodies, and is the recipient of many awards and commendations.

He says boards need to have open conversations about disability and sees his consultancy work and advocacy as a means to articulate the experiences on behalf of his people.

That includes pushing back when needed, and providing appropriate steps and solutions to create forward momentum. But in doing so, that can also mean shouldering some resistance and, at times, being confronted with glaring eyes.

“When I go into a board meeting I’m very aware of the prejudice and stereotypes that emanate from people when I engage with them. I’ve become used to that and I’m comfortable to come into a situation like a boardroom or advisory group and articulate the experiences of my people because of my own experience.”

While he acknowledges the politics in the disability space, Umaga uses the word disabled to describe his identity after an accident almost 20 years ago left him paralysed.

“The Pacific culture and disability go hand-in-hand for me, so that provides me with a lens on diversity and being a Pacific-disabled person involved in governance,” he says.

Umaga says the Pacific-disabled community has been identified as a ‘high needs and high-risk group’ and being on a board means having a voice to push for change. But in order to create space for that to happen, he says, every person on that board needs to be open to communicating in an authentic and meaningful way.

That includes not being afraid to ask questions, even if it feels uncomfortable. “Let’s have this open conversation where I can say, ‘I’m disabled and I want to know about you and I want you to ask questions about me, even about my disability. Māori call it whakawhanaungatanga, but we call it ‘va’ – it’s about building that honourable space between people,” he says.

“We’re all different, even people with disabilities. We might have a similar disability, but we have different needs and different ways of communicating and engaging with people, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Making mistakes along the way is part of the process of working towards change, and Umaga feels it should not be an obstacle for boards because sticking to the status quo for fear of being singled out won’t support that change.

Based in Auckland, Umaga’s parents arrived in New Zealand in the early 1950s. He says he rejected his Pacific culture growing up, but later realised its importance, and his cultural perspective and insight now feeds into his work, including a recent role as senior engagement advisor for the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Historical Abuse in State Care.

He also works across the disabilities space as a Pacific leader and consultant and sits on a number of boards, including Mana Pasifika Inc; Disabled Persons Organisation; MSD Pacific Reference Group – Pacific Prosperity Strategy; Health and Disability National Advocacy Trust; Whaikaha – Ministry of Disabled People’s Better Outcomes Partnership Group and Community Reference Group.

Umaga (Fonoti is a chieftains title given to him in 2016) is also an acclaimed musician who sits on the board of the Pacific Music Awards Trust.

A highly regarded arts practitioner, he was awarded a Queen’s Service Medal for his services to the arts in 2012. He was also inducted into the Attitude Awards Hall of Fame in 2019 and received a Creative New Zealand Pasifika Award that same year.

“When I first heard about the QSM, I thought ‘Oh no, I don’t do this for a medal’,” he says.

“The Pacific culture and disability go hand-in-hand for me, so that provides me with a lens on diversity and being a Pacific-disabled person involved in governance.”

Positive responses flooded in from the Pasifika community, who wholeheartedly embraced him as a Pacific leader – one who is creating change in a space where very few have had a voice.

“Ultimately, it’s the people around me that have helped me achieve things because I’m not achieving this on my own or for myself. I don’t really see awards as being a milestone in an individual way,” he says.

One of the current obstacles for the Pacific disabilities community is a lack of consideration around cultural engagement from service providers, which has resulted in a distrust within the community, he says.

He speaks candidly about the issues around disability and diversity. For the Pacific community, those layers and obstacles are two-fold.

“The government has very little data and experience of engagement because our people do not trust the system,” he says of the layers of bureaucracy involved in applying for services and being asked to provide every detail of your life – something which the Pacific community do not deem appropriate.

People slip through the cracks and only receive the bare minimum of services that meet their needs. “We build up this defence mechanism so we only give what information we need to, but it means we don’t want to fully engage with that particular organisation or government agency.”

Data collected by service providers may not be an accurate reflection of the real picture from those within the community.

“The issue with data is that there is a cost placed on it in terms of the research that’s needed and the time to get into the communities and find the real stories,” he says.

What Umaga would like to see is much stronger engagement to ensure sustainability and authenticity is reflected in the information collected. But without members from relevant communities participating on boards and being included in the conversation, there is less likelihood of that coming to fruition.