Alumna dedicated to empowerment through education

Dianne Daniels’ dedication to social equity education has shone throughout her career.

“For me, it doesn’t sit well that some people miss out, or that privilege is denied or taken for granted,” says Ms Daniels, reflecting on her education at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington and how it has formed her recent life.

It is this focus on equal opportunity that saw Ms Daniels become a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours for her dedication to digital literacy. Last year, she was named the 2019 NEXT Education Woman of the Year, as well as becoming a 2020 Kiwibank Local Hero for her work heading up her current social enterprise Digital Wings.

Ms Daniels was drawn to study for her Master of Education, majoring in Māori education and education for the indigeneous people of the Pacific, by her relationships with Whitireia Polytechnic CEO Turoa Royal, and Victoria University of Wellington lecturer Jason Fox. She was working as a Te Tiriti o Waitangi tutor at the time, having been a teacher for many years.

She recalls having both her first and her last Master’s paper with former Professor of Māori Education Wally Penetito, who has been her mentor throughout. She also remembers her supervisors Associate Professor Kabini Sanga, and Adjunct Professor Barbara Craig, the latter being instrumental in starting the Computers in Homes programme in partnership with Victoria University of Wellington.

“She was talking about it beginning at Cannon’s Creek School in Porirua. I could see how having a computer would make such a difference to my adult learner women at Whitireia who were having to handwrite their essays, so from 2000–2003 I worked as a volunteer on the programme, based at VicLink.”

Ms Daniels went on to lead the programme for over 13 years, starting with two days a week with four pilot projects, and moving to fulltime with 18 projects within the first two years. “By 2016, I’d taken that to 22 regions throughout the country with 30 contracted regional staff.

“Computers in Homes worked through low-decile schools. The bulk of the families that we were serving were from a Māori, Pacific Island, and refugee background. So all that Tiriti training, all that mātauranga Māori education and knowledge and practice that I brought to that meant that I could comfortably be with people. It’s about knowing who you are and what you take culturally to every exchange, every relationship, and every conversation.”

Ms Daniels counts completing her Master’s as one of her top three achievements. “My strongest memory of studying at Victoria University of Wellington is the flexibility and the support my lecturers offered me as an adult learner, and a working, studying mother. Those first papers I took were a Friday night and a Saturday once a month, with my husband dropping the kids off to me in class.

“That informal flexibility and support, and pastoral care from the Māori education team, as I went through a marriage break-up and the death of a family member, was invaluable. At the same time as being flexible, their academic rigour was such that they didn’t relax academic standards.”

Another top achievement is having raised three children, all of whom completed tertiary education. And her third is simply surviving job loss and continuing to contribute to community. She has done this through Digital Wings, which creates a bridge from the private and government sectors to the non-profit sector by encouraging corporates and businesses to donate their technological equipment when they do office upgrades. The equipment is security-wiped and has up-to-date software installed, before being given to charities and communities.

“I created Digital Wings from scratch, and it’s gained traction. It is such a simple concept, but simple does not equate to easy. And I do feel satisfied and surprised at how it has turned out.”

“I love being a sort of Robin Hood,” says Ms Daniels. “I love taking the good, the bad, and the ugly of e-waste and moving those donations on to charities and communities. Particularly to those communities that are overlooked because they are remote or because of a paucity of knowledge as to how to tap into resources that are available.”

The government’s current focus on sustainability and the circular economy has seen Digital Wings backed by the Ministry for the Environment’s Waste Minimisation Fund.

Ms Daniels wants to tell businesses to listen to the academics about sustainability, and bring in people with ideas. “Businesses need to make clear who their go-to person is for people like me with great ideas for sustainability, for the environment, and for ways to fix this broken planet. And they need to be open to that and not get locked into their business consultants.”

Her advice for current students is to identify their support networks. “Don’t give up. Ask for help. Ask for time out. The help will be there if you ask the right people. Identify those people.”