Michael, the son of local kaumatua Darren Rewi, is now the chief executive of Mana Tahuna, a charitable trust that was borne out of lockdown to support local whānau.
In just eight months, Michael has helped lead a group of volunteers to become a fully-fledged organisation with diverse revenue streams, an office space, a team of 18 paid staff and a goal to strengthen the voice of local Māori.
After studying audio and sound engineering in San Francisco and then working for Air New Zealand in Auckland, Michael always knew he wanted to return home but feared there wouldn’t be the opportunities that he’d experienced living elsewhere.
It was at Air NZ where he gained skills in managing large teams, being selected onto the national carrier’s Emerging Leaders Fast-track to Management course and eventually helping introduce kaupapa for Air NZ’s Airports Division through its internal Māori programme, Te Ara Nui.
“I stepped into a team as a manager but I had a good team under me. I knew that to be successful you need to build a team as well,” Michael explains. “We learned to think on our feet pretty much every day, which is something I now bring to work here at Mana Tahuna.”
He left Air NZ on his own accord to move into the house he and his partner, local businesswoman Elizabeth Wallace-Gibbs, had built and with a plan to eventually start a family.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do. I took the leap, I knew the community here, and I knew I wouldn’t have trouble finding something. But there was the fear of the unknown and with that the uncertainty of how high I could get with my career.”
Michael began working for his parents in their business Mobile Industrial Health when Covid-19 hit. The pandemic immediately drove up demand for health services and the business spent a lot of time supporting and reassuring clients during a time of uncertainty. Michael’s father Darren and a few other volunteers established a foodbank to deliver to 270 families and whānau during Level 4 and Level 3, supported by Ministry for Primary Industries, Te Pūtahitanga, Te Puni Kōkiri and Queenstown Lakes District Council. They still deliver to 70 households weekly.
“During lockdown, Dad and I met with local Māori MP Rino Tirikatene. Dad asked what assistance was available for the Māori community here and Rino said, ‘stand something up officially and we’ll get you the support’.”
And so Mana Tahuna was established. Michael’s father Darren and two other kaumatua sit on the charitable trust board while Michael headed up an executive team alongside Jana Davis and Jordan Tuhura.
“Through delivering food parcels you see the real need for services and the lack of services here,” Michael says.
“We initially sat down and looked at different funding avenues that can help us fulfil what we are trying to achieve here. A lot of that was support for Māori and whānau. These kinds of services exist in city centres – Kaupapa Māori health and service providers. They don’t exist here. Services that might work for Pakeha or other ethnicities might not work for Māori. So how do we bridge that gap?
“With Mana Tahuna we have established three core pou: Projects that create employment; health and social services and youth services.”
Projects that create employment is also helping Mana Tahuna’s long-term ambition to improve the natural environment. The trust is currently undertaking the largest commercial reforestation effort in New Zealand after winning a tender to plant 300,000 beech trees on Mt Dewar Station near Coronet Peak.
“Not only were we able to employ people who’d lost their mahi due to Covid, this reforestation is ultimately going to restore water quality and biodiversity at the headwaters of Lake Hayes. It’s a win-win.
Government and agency funding has enabled Mana Tahuna to establish a rangatahi programme, which includes a safe space for mau rākau and access to mentors. The trust has employed local kaumatua Ned Wepiha as the rangatahi lead. In addition, the trust has received funding to run other wānanga – “we want to create a safe space that people can come to”. This will take place at Mana Tahuna’s new premises on Glenda Drive.
“Our goal is to engage with all Māori in our district and have their voice heard through the services we provide.”
Despite initial fears about the lack of career opportunities, Michael has been overwhelmed by the deep and powerful sense of community that exists in Queenstown and Wānaka.
“Everyone’s backing what we are trying to do for the Māori community. No one’s putting up barriers. Everyone’s trying to help us get to where we’re trying to be.”
Now embedded into the local business scene, he’s also able to connect with other emerging and existing business leaders, including those in the tech industry and Deloitte Fast 50 winners. “I’m experiencing a different side of Queenstown that I never really knew about when I moved away. It’s given me confidence that you can start up something here and be successful.”
He’s also enjoying the ability to spend time in the outdoors more than he did when living in the city – including playing for the local Premiers rugby team. “Living here is 100% better for my overall health, being able to destress.
“The best thing for me personally is being able to be back here with my friends and family.
“Plus, I’m able to make some changes in the community that we missed out on while growing up here.”
Hear from those who have already made the move.