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In Tongan epistemology, ako has a broader meaning – where the relationship of mind body and soul, individual and collective provides complex notions of how one sees the world. It does, as in Māori, refer to the teaching and learning relationship, but it also embraces the process of the collective sharing of knowledge, skills, wisdom and reciprocity.

Earlier this year, funded by a small ACE Aotearoa professional development grant, a group of Tongan organisations worked on building confidence and talanoa around the opportunities that might be available for them in their South Auckland community. The groups were a Akoteu Kato Kakala, the Arise and Shine Lotofale'ia group, and teachers and parents of some of the Tongan language preschools.

Jeanne Teisina is the manager of Akoteu Kato Kakala. She is also a Tongan language tutor at the Pacific Education Centre at MIT, and a doctorate student in her second year at AUT University. Her master's thesis is about langa ngāue: how to build success for Tongan peoples in Aotearoa.

For a number of years, Jeanne says, parents at the Akoteu Kato Kakala centre had been supported and encouraged, as individuals, to get into study and build success stories within their families. What she and the other tutors now wanted to do was to open up the process to all the parents and care givers. “We wanted to inspire people to become who they want to be – and know that it is never too late to pursue a career. We also wanted our parents and caregivers to grow as productive citizens. It is not just about getting into education, it is also about using their skills and capabilities to get a job. We want to empower them so they can look at all possibilities and opportunities.”

Three workshops were offered. The first, Talanoa Ako, was to bring people together, talk about ako Aotearoa, and give them the confidence to find out more. They heard from inspirational speakers, what is available at tertiary institutions and successful Tongan New Zealanders. “They learned,” says Jeanne, “that it is possible to achieve your dream.

“At the second workshop the focus was on getting parents and teachers to come together to understand how to put what we talked about in the first workshop into practice. We were able to talanoa and explore the fact that ako is also building on existing knowledge, skill and capacities that the parents have already have when they migrated from the islands. They learn to think that they are capable.”

“The final workshop was on holistic ako and aimed at helping participants build up their own success stories so they can move forward in the community.

“There were 50-80 people that we were able to reach during these three workshops. Some came with aunties and extended family members. Most were women, but there were some men too.

“Feedback was all positive. People did feel empowered and inspired. A few have already gone onto enrol in a programme others are now talking to the tutors at the ECE centres about what they might do.

“Our people work better collectively. It is about building and growing together as a community.”

Looking ahead Jeanne says that she is aware that they need more mentors. They also need to be able to provide people with practical support, such as how to fill in an application form. And they need more talanoa: “In future we will be extending the work that we are doing to reach more people so we can influence them and help them onto a pathway. We want to build a stronger foundation of what ako Aotearoa might mean for them and their families.”