A conference to discuss critical issues about New Zealand's growing ethnic diversity is being held in Auckland on April 1 and 2. The conference, which is open to the public, will hear from expert speakers both from here in New Zealand and abroad (Details of the conference are elsewhere in this issue).

In the run up to the event, Indian Weekender editor-in-chief Dev Nadkarni spoke to Mervin Singham, Director of the Office of Ethnic Affairs, who is based in Wellington, on the role of the office, its programmes to foster better understanding between ethnic communities and mainstream New Zealand and what the conference plans to achieve.
Excerpts from the conversation:

What can the Office of Ethnic Affairs and the New Zealand government do to increase the ethnic share of voice in mainstream media?

The New Zealand Government (including government agencies such as the Office of Ethnic Affairs (OEA)) does not have any control over the media. However, OEA recognises the role that media can play in forming public opinion. Therefore, we consider it is important that the media increasingly portrays issues related to diversity more fairly, robustly and accurately.

To achieve this, we have supported Ethnic communities to engage with mainstream media more effectively through workshops and other activities. We have also met with mainstream media to convey the importance of ensuring Ethnic people's issues are reflected in mainstream media. One such meeting occurred in the NZ on Air Symposium where Ethnic communities, Ethnic media and Mainstream media met to discuss these issues and improve collaboration with each other.

Other than the media, what does ethnic affairs to do to promote acceptance of NZ as a growing ethnic melting pot to the so-called "middle New Zealand"

There is growing evidence that Ethnic diversity has benefits for the economy and social and cultural life in NZ. OEA actively promotes information on the benefits of diversity to the NZ public in order to promote acceptance and respect for diversity. For example, OEA has published a series of case studies on the benefits of diversity in a publication entitled 'Riding the Wave' in order to highlight how ethnic diversity benefits businesses. When New Zealanders see how ethnic diversity adds value to our country, it becomes much easier to create an environment of inclusion for all people, irrespective of national origin, colour or creed.

Another area of focus for OEA, is the development of intercultural competence in NZ. This is important so people from diverse backgrounds can communicate more effectively and meaningfully across cultural boundaries. This is particularly important in the workplace because workplace integration supports stronger connections with the community as a whole. Strong intercultural competence in the workplace lifts organisational performance through increased productivity and innovation.
When employers recognise these benefits and have the tools to deal with diversity in the workforce, they will be more likely to employ people from diverse backgrounds. This will in turn lead to more employment opportunities for Ethnic communities. The OEA has run numerous intercultural communication workshops with this goal in mind.

How can the department help increase interaction between different ethnic groups so they come out of the silo mentality that seems to pervade individual ethnic communities?

One of the biggest challenges in other countries that are as diverse as NZ is the avoidance of the development of insular minority communities that are not connected to everyone else. This disadvantages both the host as well as minority communities. The OEA works hard to build strong connections across communities to prevent this from happening. We have contributed to Interfaith dialogue and the development of intercultural awareness in NZ in order to promote the building of these connections that are vital to the health and wellbeing of our society.

The EthnicA Conference in April is one way we contribute to ensuring that Ethnic communities also actively interact with and learn from people of other cultures. We hope this will also encourage the development of Ethnic community solidarity - an ingredient that is essential in avoiding the development of silos within Ethnic communities.

What are the biggest challenges facing the ethnic affairs department today?

One of the biggest challenges the Office of Ethnic Affairs has is meeting the huge demand from Ethnic communities for our advice and services. Ethnic communities are comprised of established Ethnic communities, migrants and refugees. Each of these groups has very different needs. There are also immense differences between each individual Ethnic community based on religion, language, culture and identity. The OEA seeks out the most efficient and effective ways of dealing with Ethnic community needs. We focus on dealing with strategic or systemic matters such as employment for Ethnic people or developing leadership capability within Ethnic communities rather than dealing with individual requests for support.

What is the rationale behind the conference?

The primary goal of the EthnicA Conference is to encourage the development of strong and self-directed Ethnic people in New Zealand. The EthnicA Conference is being organised to enable Ethnic people in Auckland to come together to consider a range of topics that are relevant to the future of Ethnic people in New Zealand. We are organising a number of plenary sessions and practical workshops to enable Ethnic people to build their knowledge and awareness of issues related to Ethnic diversity. We also want to arm Ethnic communities with the knowledge and skills they need to participate actively in all aspects of public life in New Zealand. It is also important to us that Ethnic communities enjoy the Conference and reflect on the huge contributions they are already making to this country.

What do you plan to achieve at the end of the conference?

At the end of the conference, we hope to achieve the goals outlined above. We also want to see the development of stronger bonds of respect and understanding across different Ethnic communities. This solidarity within the Ethnic sector will be the foundation from which Ethnic people can chart the course for their own future in New Zealand.