TaiTech’s Polly Crawford champions digital literacy in Gisborne

TaiTech Trust operations manager Polly Crawford and husband Barney are regular faces at the trust's base in Kaiti Hub. Polly has been acknowledged with nomination in a category of the 2024 Matihiko Awards which acknowledge Māori contribution and achievement in the digital realm. Photo / Paul Rickard / NZME

This article was first published by NZME.

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Tairāwhiti Technology Trust operations manager Polly Crawford has been nominated in the Kaiāwhina Tōtara category at the 2024 Matihiko Awards.

The awards, created by Te Hāpori Matihiko (a community initiative for Maori in digital and tech), celebrate Māori contributions and achievements in te ao matihiko - the digital realm.

The Kaiāwhina Tōtara category recognises planners, organisers, project managers and those who keep the mahi moving.

Tahui Pare Ihimaera Crawford (Polly) is the operations manager of the Tairāwhiti Technology Trust, more commonly known as TaiTech - a registered charity based at the Kaiti Hub in Gisborne.

The trust helps anyone, but mostly the elderly, in learning how to use devices such as phones, tablets, or computers, although tutors will work with anyone who comes through the door.

“Some people come in and they only know how to turn on their phone and nothing else. We help them set it up and learn to use it properly,” says Crawford, who is of Te Whānau a Kai, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Ngāti Ira and Ngāti Porou descent.

They also work with groups in Tolaga Bay, Tokomaru Bay, Ruatōrea and Rangitukia.

The trust’s core values are rooted in tikanga Māori - whanaungatanga, wairuatanga, kaitiakitanga and rangatiratanga - strengthening the community, improving wellbeing, protecting the environment and uplifting people.

When 75-year-old Crawford received the email about the nomination, she couldn’t believe it. She was shocked someone had nominated her.

Her career didn’t start in technology. She has a banking background dating back to 1970 before retiring in 2001 and moving to Australia.

Retirement didn’t last long. She decided to go back to work at a brokering agency where she helped Māori into home ownership.

But as more of her family followed her over the Tasman, she felt the call of home and wanted her whānau to be in Gisborne and learn about where they came from and who they were.

She was working with the Gisborne Budget Service when she ran into Tena Baker, a tutor at TaiTech, and mentioned to her how she needed to learn how to use her computer.

That was when she found out about the courses being offered by TaiTech.

After attending a course, she was asked to become a trustee. The operations manager role followed.

When she started in the role, she began to get the word out about TaiTech and what support it offered.

TaiTech is nestled in a small doorway next to the supermarket in the Kaiti Hub.

It’s easy to miss but once people walk in, they are greeted by Crawford and asked how she can help.

In the beginning, husband Barney would often set himself up out the front of the doorway, singing and playing music.

“He would say to people: ‘Hey, you, do you know how to use your phone? Well get in there and learn how’.”

The trust started out small but grew - last month, 470 people went through the door.

TaiTech offers six courses with 12 people in each.

“Sometimes we can’t fit them all in,” says Crawford, although in a classic example of manaakitanga, she never turns anyone away.

If the class is full one day, they will find a seat or they offer them another day to make it easier.

The trust also has a writing group who have published a book titled Voices from the Taitech Hub.

Crawford’s “why” for doing all she has done is rooted in the support and inspiration of mother Julia Smiler and father Thomas Smiler Junior.

She remembers things they would say or do to help her - such as the time her mum changed her classes at school so she could learn more office work skills which led to her banking career; her mum - in reaction to her taking a job at a bank rather than other career advice offered - simply saying “well, don’t steal”; and her dad saying things to inspire her, such as the time he told her boss at the bank that she would be sitting in his chair one day.

“These things resonated with me and I would think about all the things they did for us,” she said.

Crawford and her eight siblings were brought up Māori and understood Māori values, which she took into all her work.

She was the only Māori in the bank when she started and over her time there she made great friends with her colleagues, and showed them what it meant to be Māori.

She received accolades as a banker but the Matihiko Awards is the first time she has been nominated for an award in the Māori world.

“I’m proud of that. I think the reason I started my career in the bank was because I wanted to show Pākehā people who we are, how we live, what our values are, and the only way I could do that was by setting examples just like my mum did for me.”

“I know that my Pākehā bank managers wanted me to achieve and held my hand guiding me through their world.

“This was great because there were times that I was able to show them what it was like for our tīpuna.

“Now I am encouraging Pākehā to come to our courses and learn with us by sharing food, laughing at our antics and accepting each other - warts and all.”

Tai Tech relies on funding from various sources such as the Digital Inclusion Alliance Aotearoa, Trust Tairāwhiti, the Dora Bus and the Sunrise Foundation. It also received investment from the Provincial Development Unit to help with its mahi over five years, and runs raffles to get money for kai and other supplies.

Along with Crawford, there are a few other Matihiko Awards nominees from Gisborne.

Stemm (science, technology, engineering, maths and mātauranga Māori) charitable trust Tōnui Collab is up for three different awards. One is for the organisation as a whole in the Kaupapa Tōtara category. Director Shannon O’Connor is nominated in the Innovator Tōtara category and Stemm navigator Kiriana Wilson is up for two awards - Kaiāwhina Tipu and Changemaker Tipu.

Billy Poi, of Te Rūnanganui o Ngāti Porou, has been nominated in the Kaupapa Tipu category and Mere Takoko, from Indigenous ocean conservation initiative Hinemoana Halo, is in the Kaitiaki Tōtara category.

The award ceremony is on Saturday, June 22, at the Due Drop Events Centre in Manukau.

By Matai O’Connor of NZME.

Public Interest Journalism