Monthly Awatere Club meetings introduce us to a range of topics delivered by experts in their field – areas of interest that we may not otherwise learn about. Topics this year included Dr Kirstine Moffat talking about “Stories of the New Zealand Piano” (great to see her book on this topic at Paper Plus a couple of days ago), Constable Lexlei Taylor inspiring us with her work with disadvantaged young people through the Big Brother, Big Sister programme, Graeme Polley talking about his work as an air crash investigator for insurance companies, and Ian McMichael talking about the widening role of pharmacists in delivering primary health care.
This month’s speaker was Dr Priya Kurian, University of Waikato, whose address was titled In Search of a Sustainable Future: A Feminist Narrative. By taking us through her own academic and professional journey, Dr Kurian introduced us to interlocking thoughts on the environment, gender, power, racism and bureaucracy. She described her inter-disciplinary work as “border crossing.
“When you come up against borders you see how they leak and seep into each other,” she said.
The website www.ashgate.com encapsulates her research themes more aptly than I am able to: Her “work opens up a path to understand, evaluate, and unpack the deep-rooted gender ideologies that shape understandings of and approaches to the environment and that, more broadly, influence political processes, power relations, and access to knowledge and resources.”
The University of Waikato website states: “Her research interests include environmental policy and politics; sustainable development; women, gender and development; public policy; race, gender and postcolonialism; science and technology politics; and media and politics.”
“As a social scientist I am committed to objective research – but all research is inherently subjective, shaped by our own values,” Dr Kurian says.
Dr Kurian took us through her own professional life, starting as a journalist with The Times of India in Mumbai. She was involved with writing about the Save the Narmada Movement, a grassroots group objecting to the development of a dam which would displace many marginalised people. In the face of the Movement’s protests, the World Bank withdrew funding for the project. (The project did go ahead, without World Bank input.) The project highlighted for Dr Kurian how public policies can destroy people’s lives, culture and land, through “the upholding of technical rationality and narrow economic values as a priority”. People’s culture must remain at the centre of development, she says.
A six month award to work in the USA led to her undertaking a Masters degree in political studies and PhD at the Purdue University. From there she was invited to work at the University of Waikato in 1996.
It was embarrassing to hear of Dr Kurian’s experience of racist treatment at bureaucratic level – jumping through hoops with the NZ Immigration Department to prove she had a working, everyday knowledge of English, with a degree in English Literature and a PhD from an American University apparently being insufficient evidence. With the abuse meted to her on a personal level, it’s a wonder she stayed. New Zealand boasts of egalitarianism. There is much that happens in our country to challenge this blithely stated assumption.
Dr Kurian touched briefly on the effect of nanotechnologies on our lives – the unknown and unpublicised dangers and promises – and went on to share some of her work with Shama:Hamilton Ethnic Women’s Centre Trust, a group that works to create societies that are socially, culturally and environmentally sustainable. Shama is a group that “challenges the pervasive barriers that ethnic women face”. It provides culturally appropriate support, advocacy and programmes to be a source of strength and empowerment for ethnic women.”