Community underpins Pacific success

A research gap identified in her professional life saw Doctor of Education student and Queen’s Service Medal recipient Gabrielle-Sisifo (Gabby) Makisi return to study at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

Gabby works at the Ministry of Education—Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga, leading a team that designs, develops, delivers, and evaluates programmes which build educators’ understanding of Pasifika communities and how they support education. While undertaking this work she found there was a lack of evidence and research in this area—in fact, one of the only research outputs on the topic was her mother Tagaloatele Peggy Fairbairn-Dunlop’s Master’s thesis from the 1980s.

Gabby decided to build on this research by pursuing further study in this field. Her starting point was her absolute belief in the strength and knowledge of families and communities and Samoan ways of knowing and being, which was passed on to her by her mother and her grandmother Emele Moa Te’o Petaia Fairbairn.

“My PhD aims to address this research gap. It’s building on everything that has been rattling around in my head for 30 years,” says Gabby. “In both my studies and my professional life, I want to build educators’ capabilities and understandings of Pasifika learners’ parents and their families and the Pacific in general. I want to create a clearer, more authentic narrative and build evidence around how fantastic our parents and communities are as wayfinders and makers.”

Gabby spent 18 years of her career as a secondary teacher and in various leadership roles at secondary schools. She was Head of History, Year 9 Dean and Year 10 Dean, and Pacific Dean at Onslow College and Head of History, Associate Head of Social Studies, and Pacific Dean at Rongotai College.

It was these extensive contributions, along with her service to the community, that led to Gabby being awarded the Queen’s Service Medal (QSM). Gabby’s contributions include service as events director and faufautua (adviser) for TuTagata—Wellington’s secondary schools Polyfest; support of Pacific education, health, culture, and wellbeing with Vinepa Trust; work as a member and former branch president for PACIFICA Newtown, and community service with the Kilbirnie Salvation Army.

“At first I was a bit embarrassed to be singled out but now I’m actually chuffed. For me, the QSM recognises the importance of the day-to-day, the stuff we as daughters, mothers, sisters, cousins, and aunties do every day.

“I’m so happy to see the things which are special to me cited—my church, the kids I have taught, Rongotai College, Vinepa Trust, and my dear TuTagata,” says Gabby. “I don’t think of it individually—there’s a big group around every single piece featured in the citation.”

That group of family and community is what enables Gabby to continue her community work, her professional work, and her doctorate. It was particularly important to her to fit her studies around her existing family and community commitments, so she was very pleased to be able to compete the first two years of her PhD through courses rather than a full-time research thesis.

“It’s been fantastic for me with my competing commitments. I wanted something that could fit around my other commitments and being a daughter, mother of four, grandmother, and aunty.”

She is a girl of her village—Tanugamanono and Kilbirnie-Newtown—and her commitment to these communities is her top priority, Gabby says.

“As Pacific women, we walk in many circles, but successful Pacific people are still on the ground in their community. The wellbeing of the community supports individual success so we must in turn use our talents to support the community.”