Life for Muriel Tunoho is firmly grounded in the Māori concept of manaakitanga – extending aroha to others.
In July, the E tū co-president was recognised with a Hutt City Council Civic Award for her long-term community work and activism.
The awards acknowledge those who’ve volunteered their time to benefit communities and organisations in Lower Hutt.
Born in Petone as one of six, Muriel began her working life alongside her mother in a jeans factory, as part of an all-women team: “My job was to fill up the cotton spools onto their sewing machines. I loved the energy of the large women workforce. There was a real tight feeling of solidarity there.”
It was short-lived however, as she went onto work at the BNZ after her mother found a job ad, determined that her daughter could use her education better than in the factory.
But it wasn’t until after Muriel had her first child and moved to Petone’s newly opened union health service as a part-time receptionist, that she began her community work. And the rest is Hutt history.
Muriel has now been the chair of the Hutt Union & Community Health Service for 20 years and still counting!
She’s also been a key part of various other groups and health initiatives, including the Pomare Access project, current Convenor of the Hutt Valley Living Wage Network and E tū Co-President since 2015.
But Muriel says it’s her work at the union health centre that has been “the anchor” that’s allowed her to do so much.
“Health isn’t just about pills, aches, and pains – it’s about addressing the wider social determinants of health, including poor housing and low incomes,” she says.
“It’s about seeing patients develop into real leaders and being able to get more actively involved in decision making.”
Her desire to serve others is borne of an understanding of financial struggle, but also her family values, she says.
“One person that has inspired me and had all those organising traits was my mother. She was the youngest of 18 – skilful in negotiation and organising – and in some ways that’s what I try to emulate.
“Our upbringing has always been about looking outward to awhi others, not looking inward.”
One particular story has always stayed with her: an elderly Māori man, living alone, who needed hospital care but refused to go.
“He had these fears of hospitals and no whanau support nearby, but his [main] issue was simply that he was too embarrassed that he didn’t own a pair of pyjamas [to wear in hospital]. In the end, that was the solution – and that’s all that mattered.”
“You forget people have humility, and they only share with people they trust. Building relationships that are respectful is everything.
“I think there are always those little gems in people. They don’t have to be ‘leaders’ like people perceive leaders to be – leadership can grow in everybody.”