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Monday 19 December 2022 12:33pm

Paula King sitting in front of a pond
Dr Paula Toko King.

A passion for upholding sovereign rights to health and wellbeing for tangata whenua has led Dr Paula Toko King to a career in Kaupapa Māori research that encompasses areas of racism, disability, care and protection, youth justice and prison.

Dr Paula Toko King completed a medical degree at the University of Auckland and was on track to become a paediatrician before switching to public health, a move prompted by seeing children return again and again with preventable illnesses.

Māori and Pacific peoples and other groups who experience marginalisation by society end up getting the same illnesses that are related to social determinants of health equity. I was seeing the same things day in and day out. “I thought there must be a better way than this.”

King (Te Aupōuri, Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Whātua, Waikato- Tainui, Ngāti Maniapoto) now works as a Public Health physician and Senior Research Fellow at Te Rōpū Rangahau Hauora a Eru Pōmare research centre at the University of Otago, Wellington.

Her work combines her interest in tamariki wellbeing with hauora Māori and has been heavily influenced by the late Dr Moana Jackson.

She acknowledges the considerable guidance and support from hauora Māori leaders based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, such as Dr Donna Cormack, Associate Professor Bridget Robson (Associate Dean, Māori), Associate Professor Ricci Harris, Dr Melissa McLeod, Associate Professor Tristram Ingham and Bernadette Jones.

“As soon as I went into this, I knew it was actually what I was looking for all along.”

King has this year been awarded funding from the Health Research Council to look at improving the health and wellbeing of whanau when they re-enter the community after being incarcerated.

She co-leads the project alongside Dr Ruth Cunningham from the Department of Public Health, Wellington and Cheryl Davies (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Wehi, Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri) from Kōkiri Marae.

The project is the first in New Zealand to investigate health and wellbeing outcomes for Māori who have been incarcerated.

The research team includes advisers and research assistants who have lived experience of incarceration.

Participants in the research will also be supported to become qualitative researchers on the project if they choose to.

“It is about people who have been in prison driving their own solutions for transformational change.

“At the end of the day, they are the ones who are going to know what really works for their own health and wellbeing.”

King's 2021 PhD explored the co-design of equitable health and disability-related services for tamariki and rangatahi Māori and led to her consulting over the naming and design of Wellington's new Child Health Service and Hospital, Te Wao Nui – The Great Forest of Tane, to ensure it was a welcoming space for all children and young people.

She is excited about work she has just finished with the University of Auckland developing an ethical framework for engaging with children and young people who are care experienced. The Kia Tika, Kia Pono framework has been co-created with rangatahi to help ensure their rights are upheld and aims to make those involved in the sector do their own self-reflection.

Her focus on tangata whenua rights has also led her to work in the area of disability. She was commissioned by the Waitangi Tribunal to write a report for Stage Two of the Wai 2575 Health Services and Outcomes Kaupapa Inquiry. She recently gave evidence to the tribunal on her findings – that, within the context of colonisation, coloniality, racism and ableism, the intersection of indigeneity and disability leads to significant inequities for Māori with lived experience of disability.

She says her interest in indigenous rights stems from her upbringing in what was then a remote community in Tahāroa on the west coast of the North Island near Kawhia.

“We were very immersed in te ao Māori there. Everything centred around the pā and I experienced a way of life where tamariki were elevated as leaders.”

At the age of nine, King moved with her family.

“All of a sudden as little Māori girls, my sister and I were experiencing racism,” she remembers.

“It was a bit of a culture shock (and) I always go back to that Māori lens of thinking where tamariki were platformed and absolutely valued. This has been disrupted by colonisation, but we can go back to that.

“I want all tamariki and rangatahi in Aotearoa to experience that.”


  • Health Research Council Rangahau Hauora Māori Research Investment Stream

Recent awards

  • Health Research Council Rangahau Hauora Māori Project Grant (2022)
  • Exceptional PhD Thesis (2021)
  • University of Otago PhD Prize in Social Research/Public Health (2020)
  • Health Research Council Clinical Research Training Fellowship (2014)

More stories about early career researchers

This story is part of the research publication 'He Kitenga 2022: Talented Futures', which presents the different pathways into research that early career researchers follow.

Read more 'He Kitenga 2022' research stories

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