In 1972 a petition was presented to the New Zealand parliament, asking for Te Reo Maori to be recognised as an official language. It took 15 more years for that to become a reality, and now the Government is aiming for one million New Zealanders to speak Te Reo by 2040.
This month we caught up with May Lee Allen, on her role at Haka Works and her own ambitions for helping us all to take more of an interest in Te Reo. May Lee grew up in Papakura, South Auckland, and at primary school she was introduced to Kapa Haka, igniting her passion for Maori culture.
On 11 November she’ll be hosting a Te Reo Masterclass with our network with the aim of sharing some basic skills. May Lee is a huge advocate of Maori language and education. Her role at Haka Works, an organisation that uses Maori culture, including haka, to help teams connect and align at events and conferences, combines the two.
May Lee is a speaker of Te Reo Maori and has taught in a Maori immersion secondary school. After over a decade in traditional classrooms, this year May Lee began teaching online with her students particularly valuing the opportunity to speak Maori in a safe, supportive, interactive online environment.
May Lee believes her own Kiwi education created many possibilities that she would otherwise never have imagined. “The more ideas we are exposed to, the better the odds of us each finding the spark that will help us become our best selves, bring us joy and enable us to make the most meaningful contribution to the world. As a teacher, there is nothing greater than seeing students’ confidence, happiness and sense of self-worth develop - this is the real curriculum.”
She also thinks that learning a second language provides the ability to double our capacity for ideas.
“Imagine how much greater New Zealand would be... Language unlocks culture, especially for those of us coming at it from the outside and goes a tremendous way towards understanding one’s own identity whether this is through understanding yourself in the context of similarities or differences with others.”
Being really frank about the time it has taken for Te Reo to be more integrated in the New Zealand education system, May Lee said: “There is a hell of a lot of loss to make up for and a very long way to go, but I believe the trajectory is positive. As a teacher in NZ it was extremely heartening to see young people’s interest in learning Te Reo, seeing learning Maori not as an obligation but an exciting opportunity.
May Lee said being pushed into her school’s Kapa Haka group made her become more confident, less socially awkward, more open-minded, and the greatest accolade of all, “a better daughter,” thanks to taking on some Maori ideas and values around the concept of whanau.
Asked what she can offer us as Kiwi women living in the UK or further afield, to help connect with our culture, she said: “Te Reo is a chance to get comfortable with your own discomfort - to face your insecurity, the demons that stopped you from learning sooner, and perhaps even your own prejudice. In my online lessons I create a safe and inclusive interactive space where everyone feels able to participate and actually korero (speak) Maori.”
Like many of us May Lee was drawn to the UK by her friends doing the same. She started off in Abu Dhabi, but then seven years ago came to London to see what all the fuss was about, and she was lucky enough to land a role at Haka Works.
“Maori culture has had the profoundest positive impact on my life, so it brings me incredible joy and satisfaction sharing some of this with others. I think being a petite Pakeha / Chinese woman helps clients feel able to participate, “If she can, so can I,” and I love knocking through some people’s misconceptions about haka.”
May Lee says if her legacy can be that she’s helped at least a few people to feel valued and encouraged to grow, that will be enough.