Leadership in the time of Covid: The Wellington Southerlies

Associate Professor Kabini Sanga1, Dr Martyn Reynolds2, Dr Adreanne Ormond3, Pine Southton4

1. Victoria University of Wellington; 2. Victoria University of Wellington; 3. Victoria University of Wellington; 4. Victoria University of Wellington.

How does culture create and configure educational spaces?

Although we might not often notice, culture creates and configures the kinds of spaces in which we live. Subtle signs tell us of relationships and expectations. Take schools, for example. In many classrooms, learners are told to sit in rows by the way the furniture has been arranged prior to their arrival. Who is sanctioned to speak, when this can happen, what are appropriate subjects; all of these parts of the educational everyday are not a matter of individual choice. Instead, they are shaped by culture previous behaviour, inertia that makes change challenging, and the comfort of the conventional.

However, the longstanding is not always helpful, nor does it always embody how people feel. ‘How we do things around here’ can sometimes fail to reflect people’s priorities, intents, perspectives and destinations. This is especially true for those who, for one reason or another, live uncomfortably in spaces shaped by the thinking of others. In this blog, using the case of the Wellington Southerlies Tok Stori, we discuss how deliberate leadership can configure cultural spaces to honour Oceania peoples’ ways of being and living.  

What happens when new cultural spaces emerge?

From time-to-time, new cultural spaces emerge. This can be the result of technological change, social developments, or a combination of these (or other) factors. We have all experienced new digital academic and pedagogical spaces as a result of the restrictions from COVID 19 and the affordances of video-enriched digital communication platforms such as Zoom. Many aspects of life essentially have continued in reshaped ways in the face of the pandemic through the facility of technology. However, the ways new digital spaces are configured and the cultural logics that inform their shape are no more givens than the ways we arrange chairs in school.

It’s all a matter of choice. We can have Western business etiquette inform a digital version of ‘how things are’, translating the ethics of capitalism into on-screen experiences that recognise, for example, role-based hierarchical behaviour and time-efficiency as central concerns. These understandings are easy off-the-peg transfers from the academic normal. When it comes to shaping new spaces that transform rather than repeat (and therefore legitimise) practices found in the pre-COVID academic world, deliberate leadership is involved.

Why does deliberate leadership matter?

How we name things matters. Naming is leadership-as-shaping. The Wellington Southerlies (WS), as described in a recent article, is a digital tok stori series dedicated to exploring Oceanic oralities in theory and practice. In the series title, Wellington refers to our base, the capital city of Aotearoa. As such, the name invites an appreciation of the importance of tikanga – place-based Māori values and practices – consistent with the physical root of our digital space. The southerly is a strong wind that leaves nothing unaffected as it blows through Wellington. We hope for a similarly catalytic space. However, Southerlies also references South-South dialogic relations. We hope for a focused open forum for those who wish to live well together in, and/or with, our Oceanic South, a term with geographic and relational nuances. The direction of naming is, therefore, both taken from our position and our intent.

How does the Wellington Southerlies Tok Stori demonstrate deliberate leadership?

Tok stori, also part of the WS moniker, is a Melanesian oracy, a culturally sanctioned form of communal communication. It has roots in PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Tok stori invokes a safe space for dialogue where relationships are well-maintained, and reality is an ongoing construct jointly woven through talk. It’s a deliberate act of leadership to shape a digital space where the typical presentation-question-answer format so familiar to students and academics is replaced by the more dialogic, inclusive and exploratory activity of tok stori.

The WS is leadership as response to crisis. The crisis is both the effect of COVID 19 on habitual patterns of interpersonal academic engagement and the continued colonisation of Oceanic peoples through the ways un-Oceanic cultures create and configures academic spaces. The shaping of the WS is therefore a necessary and conscious act of leadership through decolonisation. Every tok stori participant is an expert in their own life. All have a contribution to weave into the narrative. A deliberate balance between invited and spontaneous responses and a clearly signalled less formal ‘extension’ following the initial formal exchanges are key WS tok stori elements.

As initiators, perhaps the most important aspect of the WS is to embrace leadership as learning. We are learning to curate a space where multiple voices can erode hegemonic perspectives. We are looking for ways of inviting emotion, risk-taking and vulnerability as valued and planned aspect of fellowship in the digital age. We seek a relational enterprise that involves the relinquishment of the kinds of control that habitually structure academic encounters. We are learning though welcoming the tensions and discomforts involved in new negotiated situations as much as the joys and affirmations that also come. This feels like a deep form of relational leadership. It is tok stori as a space-shaping mechanism to advance a particular kind of relationality.

Conclusion: Leadership through culture and creating spaces

Culture creates and configures the kinds of spaces in which we live. This is no less true for the digital as for the physical. The WS tok stori series is our humble attempt to provide an ongoing space where the relationships and expectations signalled through the leadership of naming, configuration and learning leads to the flourishing of Oceania peoples and honours their ways of being in the world. We hope that the experience people have as a result of the WS will act as an ongoing catalyst for the post-COVID 19 life to which we all look forward.

What we do as educators is leadership. This applies to things as common as arranging chairs in classrooms, naming our initiatives and activities, and setting up the shape of digital encounters. What matters is how we think about what we do, and how our leadership thought translates into action to serve the interest of others. Covid 19 has been the midwife of much disruption. In this environment, leaders are called to affect rather than reflect, and to seize the times in catalytic rather than catatonic ways.


Of Anglo-Welsh heritage Dr Martyn Reynolds grew up in London. He has lived in Papua New Guinea, Tonga the UK and now in Aotearoa NZ. He is a freelance educator and researcher, is a Research Fellow at Victoria University of Wellington, and the University of the Sth Pacific.

Born and raised in a Solomon Islands village, Kabini Sanga is a fisherman. He uses his cultural expertise to mentor a new generation of Oceania researchers to appreciate indigenous Pacific Islands intellectual traditions and research. Kabini holds an Associate Professor of Education position at Victoria University of Wgtn.

Dr. Adreanne Ormond is Indigenous Māori from the Nation of Rongomaiwāhine where she was raised on ancestral land within her Māori community. She is currently a senior lecturer with the Faculty of Education at Victoria University of Wellington where she is a senior lecturer. Her scholarly activities are undertaken with the aim to support and enhance the political, economic, and social autonomy of Māori.

Pine Southon is the Principal Cultural Advisor for the Faculty of Education at Victoria University of Wellington in Aotearoa/NZ. She has affiliations to Ngāi Tūhoe and was raised in the Waimana, Matahi and Ruatoki Valleys in the Bay of Plenty.

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