The Christchurch mosque attacks were the catalyst for University of Waikato graduate Dr Sripriya Somasekhar (Priya) to recalibrate her career.
“Really, March 15, 2019 brought home conversations that hadn’t been had before,” Priya says. “It brought race – the colour of our skin – out into the open, and that made me reflect where my energy should go.
“Racism is rife in New Zealand and our family, like many others, experiences it on an ongoing basis. I’d repressed experiences for seven years.”
A friend told her about a job going at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), and even though applications had closed, she was invited to apply and was appointed the Ministry’s Principal Advisor, Inclusion and Diversity. That was two years ago.
This year, Priya received a Public Service Award, nominated by her colleagues, acknowledging her achievements to date. Her citation, among other things, stated, “She has shown courage in addressing serious and sensitive issues relating to family violence and to inclusion and diversity, and she is willing to have difficult conversations that involve challenging the status quo.”
Before joining MBIE, Priya worked at ACC in family violence and prevention, a job she secured after completing her PhD in psychology at the University of Waikato.
She came to New Zealand from India to make a better life for herself, her husband and then three-year-old son. She already had three degrees (two of them masters) from the University of Madras and enrolled at the University of Waikato because she knew of its strong, long-standing reputation in psychology and because the weather, though not as warm as Southern India, was more appealing than cities further south. She is pleased with the decision she made.
As a psychologist in India, Priya’s work was mostly dealing with clients one-on-one. But she could see that the real opportunities for change came at community and societal levels, “where you can bring about change – change societal norms, rather than through individual experiences”.
“If you can get into the community to look at strategies and issues, look at gender and family violence in New Zealand, you can shift the dial at community level, same with race issues,” she says. Initially, Priya began studying at Waikato in February 2012 for a postgraduate diploma, but a presentation she made in her community psychology class so impressed psychology professor Neville Robertson that he suggested a PhD would benefit her career more. Professor Robertson became her PhD supervisor and later, a mentor.
Priya’s thesis topic was “'What will people think?': Indian women and domestic violence in Aotearoa/New Zealand". She interviewed migrant Indian women and revealed some of the situations they found themselves in in a new land, far from home, without friends and family and entirely reliant on their husbands for all their needs, financial and social.
Her study highlighted what largely took place under the radar and has helped shape policy for family violence and prevention. Her thesis has helped her train frontline staff in the police and other NGOs dealing with migrant communities.
With the Christchurch mosque attacks, Priya decided to change her career direction. She started at MBIE with a blank slate, tasked with delivering inclusion and diversity initiatives for nearly 6000 MBIE staff, refreshing the strategy and implementing a comprehensive work programme. With full support from senior leadership, Priya surveyed what was working well and what wasn’t.
“We found three key areas that needed addressing. There were pockets of people who felt unsafe bringing their identities to work, others found they weren’t getting equitable opportunities, and people were reluctant to call out non-inclusive behaviours as they didn’t feel safe doing it.”
Priya says she was able to cut to the core with racism and discrimination. She developed a work programme for all staff and introduced two bias workshops to all employees - The Wall Walk and Beyond Diversity. The Wall Walk is an interactive half-day workshop designed to raise collective awareness of key events in the history of New Zealand’s bicultural relations. Beyond Diversity is transformational unconscious bias training with a focus on racial equity that provides practical tools to engage in thoughtful, compassionate exploration of race and racism, especially as it relates to MBIE and the public sector.
“The biggest change I’ve seen is the way people talk about issues of race and discrimination,” Priya says. “I feel we’ve made good progress with some issues while there’s a long way to go with others. I have a sense of hope and feel people are now equipped to start that journey.
“There’s a different feeling at MBIE now, it’s more inclusive, and while I might take some small credit, inclusion and diversity doesn’t happen in isolation. It’s collective mahi.”
She says her Public Service Award came as a huge surprise; “heart-warming and surreal”.
“When there are few or no others like you in these positions, you start to wonder if you can be a leader, so the award was positive reinforcement for me. It also highlighted increased visibility of the mahi being done in the areas of diversity and inclusion.
“I am also grateful for my ancestors and countless women of colour who have made it possible for me to be here.”