Ranjna Patel on racism and domestic violence in New Zealand

Ranjna Patel

January 3, 2021

Ranjna Patel is a co-founder of the Tāmaki Health GP network who has done so freaking much for New Zealand community in regards to health, migrant social networks and domestic violence - it will be honestly hard to list it all here. In this interview, she speaks about finding her voice at 65 and connecting people to ensure that we have better diversity and representation in our decision making spaces. She helped orchestrate foundations of Gandhi Nivas - a partnership among ACC, NZ Police, counselling and social services to provide families, and particularly men, with help in regards to family violence.

The interview was recorded in October 2020 - Enjoy 😉

I used to sit in on every final interview just to say: your qualifications have been checked, we know you're proficient for your job and now I'm here to see if you're here to serve. Because working in a high needs community, your body language is more important than the words that come out of your mouth. If someone comes and only has one jumper and he's wearing it all the time and you know he works in a smoke environment, of course, he's going to smell. And if your face screws up a little bit, you've lost it. You've lost his trust, you've lost his confidence. He's not going to tell you anything.

A lot of people come in for jobs saying “I want to do good in South Auckland” and that’s fine, but you won't be able to handle the realities when someone says “sorry I'm half an hour late because it's raining outside and I’ve got three kids to bring with me”. If you got ‘oh you're making me late’ kind of attitude, that just won’t work. You've got to be really empathetic and put yourself in someone else's shoes. When you talk to the families in South Auckland, there is no food in the house; if it's a loaf of bread and a tin of baked beans, that may be all they have and so you don't judge. So that's very important, sitting in on the last interview to see what empathy you show. Are you here to serve? - is so important to us.

We employed a lot of the unemployables: all the doctors that came over from overseas that can't get registered here, the nurses especially Pacific and Tongan. They just couldn't pass the English test and my nurse leader who's a kiwi would say “I wouldn't be able to pass the English test and they're expected to?”. But the clinical knowledge and ability they had made them into excellent navigators that went to the homes to assess home situations and they got a lot more done. They weren't doctors or nurses but in their own country they may have been specialists running hospitals. But in New Zealand they were nobody, earning $20-25 an hour when they really should have been earning $120 an hour, because they just weren't certified here. 

We get awarded for positive inclusion and being a very diverse workforce, the reality was - nobody wanted to work in South Auckland and so we did get all the migrants that couldn't get jobs. When we entered the diversity awards, they kept asking the staff “so in this project…?” and they just went blank because there is no ‘project’ here. This is just business as usual. 

When you were starting out with your husband did you have any particular mission or goal in mind?

Survival. My story is that on the 27th of November I went to India. Met my husband on the 30th of November and married him on the 8th of December, 47 years ago. It was an arranged marriage; my parents did their homework. When we came back and he couldn't get registration, no one would tell him what to do. It was like - get the registration and we'll give you a job, get a job we'll give you registration. It took 10 months for someone that's been at the top of their class in India at the best university, to have to face that is really morale breaking. Then he wanted to be a specialist and his mentor said: “New Zealand isn’t ready for a coloured specialist with an accent. You won't get any referrals so you need to work in the area that looks like you and sounds like you”. And as it happened a practice in Otara came on the market and so we borrowed 110% and even then no one would give us money. The lawyer wouldn't release the documents because he thought that we couldn’t pay his fees. My auntie who lives in Puke called the bank manager on a Sunday night and said - “Look this is a good up and coming couple, support them”. And so on a Sunday night he signed our mortgage documents. So you don't forget the people... and it's not all easy. 

The business we purchased was 9 to 12 and 3 to 5, that was not going to pay our mortgage and we realised that for people in South Auckland a job is more important and you're not going to take time off. The car went with the person that had the job. The mum was left at home with the kids, no phones, no transport. So the first thing we did was to have a no-appointments policy and opened our practice 8 to 6. I became the receptionist, the typist, the cleaner, whatever needed doing. So no great vision or missions here [laughing].

How has that developed over the years? Any core core beliefs and missions came into play?

I think I've just got over my impostor syndrome, hence doing things like this [laughing, referring to this interview]. Because what I found 10 years ago is that very few women and very few ethnic women get asked to speak. I get so scared when I speak, I start off like I’m going to cry. My voice cracks and then I get my mojo if it's a topic that is passionate to me. From that time I realised I had a voice and I could speak to make a difference and to encourage people, so when I do get asked to speak and if I'm not able to I'll recommend someone else. I’ll say “look sorry I can't do it but I can get you another ethnic voice. Is it the tick-box for the brown girl that you need on stage? I'll get you someone”. So it gives a pathway for young people because you just don't get the opportunity.

I often walk in the room and I notice that I'm the only woman or I'm the only non-white person. I think people don't realise how we live with that every day... 

I think that reality really hit home after March 15th... 

Through our work, because we grew very quickly since we opened our doors. My husband said “don't worry about the money if people can pay, that's fine, but it's not going to make us rich - $10 at a time isn't going to make us rich, so don't worry about that”. So we just looked after the families and I never had a marketing budget because our customer service was all the marketing we needed. We grew and grew. We also had a lot of British GPs in the area that would be there for 10-12 years and then move off because it's too hard. They would complain, complain, complain so we would be audited, audited, audited. What my children saw was every Christmas and Easter, just before the holidays, an audit would come through and so, you know, you've got to get all your documents ready. So all our holidays would be spent doing that. Children saw that and they thought that's normal - you just get treated like that. 

When March 15th came, they were so angry... hearing things like “don't come to my birthday party because you don't wash your brown”. So you know when people say things like ‘we are one’, which paradigm do they live in? My older son is 45 and he was really angry being the only Indian at a private school with lots of racist experiences but he just thought it was normal. And then my youngest said that it doesn't change and he's 30. So you know has anything changed? Not really. That made me realise just how much children will do what they see, not what you tell them. “The world's your oyster” and “you can do anything” but what they see is what gets ingrained a lot more. That’s the same with domestic violence. It's intergenerational because children see dad hitting mum and mum not saying anything; and then the girl thinks that you got to live with that and the boy thinks that it’s okay because dad did it. The psychiatrist on my advisory board for Gandhi Nivas says “it's going to take three generations to get that out of the system”.

How did you get involved with domestic violence work? Were you particularly interested in that as part of your healthcare work or...? 

No, no. I sit on the police advisory board for Counties Manukau and in 2012-14, the data showed that 4 out of 14 women killed were Indian, which was 29%. Whereas Indian population back then was about 3% - completely out of kilter. The area commander said “The Indian population is growing, especially in South Auckland, and there's a big problem in your community and you need to advise on it.” So I got all the NGOs together, it wasn't a passion or anything, to see what's missing here. Then I went to MIT to do a family harm course to understand how it all works or what's New Zealand system is like that we're failing these women. I've got six granddaughters and I didn't like those statistics, so I thought okay, I've got to do something about it. 

In 2010, police safety order had a positive change: when a man gets removed, a woman and the children could stay home. But they don’t give him any support or counselling. And so he would sleep in the car, get extra drunk or go to a mate's house saying “she kicked me out, wait until it happens next time...”. The situation just got worse.

The providers said that we need a 24/7 service, and not Monday to Friday 9-5, because most incidents happen in the evenings and on the weekends. That made sense to me because in healthcare, if you have a heart attack and you're a smoker, we pounce on you to say “you've got to stop, otherwise you've got a 5% more chance of having another heart attack”. When that pain's gone in 24 hours, you forget and that's the same with police removal. When you're angry and you have the incident, it takes 6 weeks to get before the court, then 6 weeks before anger management. By that time, you've forgotten what you've argued about. And the other thing is that over 90% of women take the men back. So if you do call the police and the man is angry the second time, you dare not pick up the phone - it's going to get worse.

So the NGOs that I got together said “Bricks and mortars is what we need. We'll provide the counselling service”. Then the question came about money: “how much will you pay us?”. I said “I don't have any money. I would do the bricks and mortar but you've got to do the counselling. Let's make this a partnership!” And so from 20 NGOs in the room it dwindled down to 3 or 4, then when it came to the next meeting, it was 1 group that stood up and said that they will do the work. I went to all Indian businesses and said: “We've got a problem in our community. I'm doing a fundraiser”. So we got all the furniture donated by the Indian community and raised the money for it too. 

But within 3 months there was no other facility in Auckland, let alone New Zealand, that actually had the 24/7 free service and so we opened it up to everybody. Now my data is more Pacific, Maori and European, than Indian: the service works for everyone. Because this wasn't my area of expertise, I put an evaluation from day one with Massey University. In the first 12 months they reported that 93% of those men did not reoffend again. Now, I couldn't put my hand on my heart and say that's a change in behaviour because 12 months is not really that long. That's why we did the 5-year research and looked at 5 years before and after the incident (early intervention where they didn't get a criminal record) and nearly 60% of men did not reoffend in that period. 

We had people self-refer, asking if they can spend the night when they are at their trigger point. That to me is success - when the men actually pick up the phone and say “can I come and spend the night because I've recognised I’m about to snap”. This is phenomenal. We knew we were doing good, but when you have data to prove it, it gives you credibility. And now the next stages will be about working with the iwi. We’ve got 3 services in Auckland and all 3 are very different demographics ethnicity-wise. It showed that just being focused on what the man needs is the important part. After the incidents, on the next day, another set of counsellors go to the woman and ask whether they need to be removed to the women's refuge, giving them that support. Even with children, showing them that it's not okay, that they can pick up the phone and dial 111. Once anyone's in the system and the phone rings again, police react very quickly.

So, you know, when you don't get government funding you can make up your own rules. You can do things differently...

From your experience over the years with this work, do you think the government can achieve similar results on a national level? Replicate something across the whole country and somehow do that central government approach?

As long as they don't own it. They muck up everything by having to be bureaucratic. If you give it to business or if you give it to a community, they will know the common denominators that need to be delivered. Our blueprint for Gandhi Nivas says this is what you have to do and then you add your cultural or your social lens on top of it. It could be about finding men jobs or helping them with their CVs. 

Bill English, when he was in power, said that he’s put this cross agency in and I said “You're a three-year government. Cross-agency doesn't work because you take your time getting your act together. Then everybody who is involved has to prove that they are the ones who did the most good”. 

If it's a joint effort from many different agencies: education, health, corrections, justice, police, housing; if everybody puts something into this and then we adapt it to what the person needs - then that might work! We're only touching 10-12% of 10-12% that ring for help, so that's 1% of people that we're actually targeting. 

Doing your work over the years, do you feel like you’ve become more of an optimist or a pessimist? What's your relationship to this overwhelming feeling of problems being so big? 

Now I openly say what I think. But it took me till 65 to do that. What I do well now is connecting people. If I see someone should be put on a board, I'll recommend them. And I’ve got to a position where that carries weight and so if I see a gap where I don't have the competencies to do the thing, I will look for the best people around. Like with Gandhi Nivas, I actually do very little. I'm just the conductor in the middle and the service is done by the counselling services and the police. Somehow it just couldn't work because they just needed this bricks and mortar in the middle and it seemed so easy to do when you stand back and look at it from the outside, so I filled that space in the middle. 

During COVID, at the temple a lot of Kenyan students that have been here 10-12 years came to me and said that they want to do something valuable, like food parcels. So I suggested that they do it from the temple. I rang people in Pukekohe and was put in touch with Pak’n’Save who gave me a 50% discount because we are a charity. Everybody just donated generously and then when my daughter got involved, because she knew a lot of growers, we were donated all the gourmet potatoes and tomatoes. Everyone else was doing the work, I was just linking people up. Getting Pacific and Maori come to get food packs from the Hindu temple was just phenomenal. Then the Maori wardens turned up the first week saying “you don't seem to be managing this flood of people”, so they just went back to their cars and put on their jackets to help coordinate people. Before we start and after we finish, we'd give them a meal. So this is how it works, you know, breaking those barriers. 

What are some of the things that fill you up with joy outside of all the work that you do? 

My grandkids. They're the inspiration, you can hear it in their voice. Having 6 girls and a boy, you forget about the kids - they don't count anymore [laughing]. Every single personality is different: one is still debating and getting upset about picking the right subjects and the other one says “I did it ages ago” [laughing]. I've got twins...

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