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Diversity and Inclusion series: Nikki's story

18 November 2019

A portrait of Maori chief Heta Te Haara hangs in Nikki Peapell’s home. Born in the 1800’s, Heta united tribes to negotiate with the Crown. Nikki is a direct descendant.

Welcome to our special series celebrating Diversity and Inclusion in MercyCare’s employees, volunteers and service users. Our stories are accompanied by Steve Wise’s remarkable photographs, that show how these ordinary, yet extraordinary, people are individually effecting change for themselves and the people around them. We hope you enjoy their personal stories.

Nikki Peapell - MercyCare Youth & Homelessness Services Manager

A portrait of Maori chief Heta Te Haara hangs in Nikki Peapell’s home. Born in the 1800’s, Heta united tribes to negotiate with the Crown. Nikki is a direct descendant.

“We believe our ancestors protect and guide us, so my aunties gave me a portrait of him and said, ‘you have to put Heta up because he looks after our family’,” Nikki said.

“I truly believe those attributes transfer down to our family. He was a humble leader, and like my grandfather, his father and so on, they are known for having a wicked sense of humour but being able to talk their way out of any situation. True negotiators.”

Nikki’s more recent forebearers are just as impressive. Known to her simply as ‘Nan’, Nikki’s great Aunt is Merimeri Penfold. Born in the 1920s, Merimeri was the first woman to teach Maori language at University and served as Human Rights Commissioner from 2002 to 2007.

“My pride of our culture is definitely there, but I know a lot of Maori people that don’t have that sense of pride, they are disconnected from their tribe, or they have had a negative experience of being Maori. This can really get in the way and impact your mental health and [life] trajectory.”

Nikki’s own life trajectory could have been very different.

Growing up on New Zealand’s Hibiscus Coast, Nikki’s family life was turbulent. While her mother’s side had a heritage of strong leadership, her father’s side had intergenerational difficulties with drugs, alcohol, mental health struggles and violence.

“I guess as a result as a kid I was always curious about human behaviour. I had a strong sense of justice, community and fairness.”

At 17, Nikki fell pregnant.

“A comment that stuck with me was ‘you are just going to be another Maori statistic – a young teenage Mum’. I was quite stubborn and determined to show everyone otherwise – no that wasn’t going to change the trajectory of my life.”

Nikki completed a psychology unit at university whilst pregnant, setting her on the path to studying psychology.

Working in mental health, first in New Zealand then in Australia, Nikki could see the difference a psychologist made for families but was frustrated by traditional models.

“The outcomes were poor because there wasn’t enough cultural awareness and understanding.”

Nikki has been a champion of bicultural practices.

“In previous work, we had a low number of Aboriginal clients accessing our mental health services because of stigma, mistrust, impact of colonisation – factors I could relate to because our people had been through a similar journey.”

Bicultural pathways were developed in partnership with Aboriginal leaders and Elders and the number of Aboriginal youth accessing the centre and the service’s impact increased.

“With youth, you need to be holistic. We may not understand their presentation or behaviours or why they are disengaged from their family if we don’t use a cultural lens.

“We need to be culturally responsive, engage with diverse cultural groups to better understand what works for their people, and embrace that diversity to integrate it into our service delivery.

“I truly believe part of the solution is working collaboratively with community, whether that be the Aboriginal community, different ethnic groups, or LGBTQI. By really having that genuine, meaningful relationship and being flexible in our delivery of services we achieve better outcomes.”

Nikki said staff diversity was crucial. “In the field we work in you need to understand the people you are working with. You need to be well connected and represent the diversity in the community.

“Having staff that come from different backgrounds, who have different lived experiences, is so valuable because they can have a deeper understanding of not only what the issues are, but what the solutions are to break those cycles.”

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