Monday 29 October 2018 10:04am
Professor Michelle Thompson-Fawcett lecturing to a Geography class earlier this year.
Examining the concepts of "identity in place" – and mapping how these ideas have shaped her career – were at the heart of Department of Geography Head Michelle Thompson-Fawcett’s Inaugural Professorial Lecture on Monday, 29 October.
Professor Thompson-Fawcett (Ngāti Whātua) says her lecture, entitled Whakawhanaketanga toitū: A tale of tū cities, explored the motivating factors behind her research and teaching.
The lecture’s introductory section covered how events following a 1976 announcement by the Crown to allow a waterfront housing development on the remaining land at Takaparawhau helped shape her interest in indigenous rights and land use.
“This was the last 25 hectares of Crown land at Orākei that a local hapū hoped would be returned, and as a result the Orākei Māori Action Committee occupied temporary housing, in protest, for 506 days on that land. They did so until 222 of them were arrested for ‘trespassing’ on these ancestral lands of Ngāti Whātua, and the temporary meeting house, buildings and gardens demolished.
“As a school child living less than two kilometres away from this activity – and cognisant of the tormenting history of tangata whenua being deliberately displaced from their turangawaewae and identity in Orakei as part of a century-long colonial praxis of dispossession and displacement – it seemed to me that the ongoing politics of place, and power injustices linked to the control of space, were among the most important issues you could seek to unveil in our society.”
This backdrop of protest and upheaval provided a “deeply challenging agenda” for her undergraduate studies and made the subjects of geography and planning stand out as “two obvious starting points for life at university.”
After gaining a Bachelor of Town Planning she worked for a decade in local government planning for the New Plymouth District Council, the Taranaki Regional Council and the Manukau City Council.
“I became acutely aware of the need to increase the capacity of Aotearoa’s municipal and environmental decision makers and officials in terms of Te Ao Māori (Māori world) and Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) if transformation was to be achieved meaningfully. That led me back to university again to research and teach in regard to these critical matters, and in particular, to work with those who were embarking on becoming our nation’s – and other’s – kaitiaki (guardians).”
She later gained a PhD from the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and during a two-decade academic career her research has focused on investigating the level of achievement of Māori communities’ aspirations for urban design, cultural landscape management, and the management of natural and physical resources.
This has yielded 170 research outputs, 28 research grants, and involved 10 PhD students, 53 masters’ students, and 22 summer scholarship students.
Professor Thompson-Fawcett describes her teaching practices as “tightly interwoven” with her research, and says they constantly evolve in-step with partnerships with Māori and professional communities.
“I attempt to craft learning environments where indigenous knowledge, culture and values are recognised as normal and legitimate. In my case that involves indigenous community input into what is taught and how, and honouring indigenous worldviews and practices in the environment,” she says.
Her appointment as Professor tops off a remarkable year; in July she received the 2018 Distinguished New Zealand Geographer Award and Medal for her work in the field of Maori and indigenous geography over the past 35 years.
The Geography Head of Department received further accolades in Parliament in September at the national Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards when she received a Sustained Excellence award in the Kaupapa Māori category.