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Linda Steel: Learning from Healthy Families NZ - future proofing a community-led approach

Linda Steel, CEO te Ao Hou Trust

Linda Steel may hold a number of important titles in front of her name, such as CEO and representative on the Coast Community Board for Ōpōtiki District Council, but at the heart of it all, Linda is a staunch Tōrere local who intrinsically believes that it is at a local level where the solutions can be found and those in positions to support should do so wholeheartedly.

For almost 13 years, Linda Steel has been the driving force behind te Ao Hou’s commitment to a flourishing and connected Ōpōtiki region and says there is so much more to give and do.

“There are many challenges in leading change within a community, by doing so I must start with my organisation”.

In late 2018, Linda in her role as the CEO of te Ao hou Trust, successfully applied in becoming the lead provider for Healthy Families East Cape. Healthy Families NZ takes a systems approach to health prevention, which means a departure from the traditional delivery of health promotion projects.

It means considering how the systems that influence our approaches to health, and where best to intervene for optimal health and wellbeing outcomes. Drawing from different types of theories of complexity, socioecology, and systems, Healthy Families NZ explores and adopts sustainable and meaningful strategies to prevent chronic diseases across the whole population.

And so began the journey towards addressing and creating complex systems change, utilising the Healthy Families NZ approach and way of working across her region.

I have spoken to a number of people about this, about how the Healthy Families NZ approach has changed the way in which I now go about our mahi, and I can share that six or seven years ago, I did not work in the same way I do today.”

The East Cape region is a dynamic and diverse rohe stretching from Ōpōtiki through to Te Tairāwhiti and back through the East Cape, with different lived experiences.

Linda believes there are many opportunities to improve the health and wellbeing of our whānau, hapu, iwi and communities by utilising the theory of change that Healthy Families NZ brings to the table, but we have to be brave enough to take the steps necessary.

“As the CEO of te Ao Hou Trust, I am excited by the mahi that our Healthy Families East Cape team is doing alongside our kaupapa partners and communities, valuing the things that matter.”

Linda is firm in her belief that thinking creatively through being adaptive within a systems change approach to break through the traditional barriers, will drive profound sustainable change. She is also clear in identifying that the work of the Healthy Families NZ movement clearly defines the future way of working collectively for those who favour possibility over pessimism and feel energised whereas others feel challenged.

“One of the things that I’ve been more conscious of as a leader and through my learnings from Healthy Families NZ and innovation is reflective practice. I never use to think about it, but in our tenure as lead provider I am always thinking what works well, what doesn’t work well and how we adapt. It has completely changed the way I work”.

“I notice our communities don’t often reflect on certain issues. For example, when you are supporting a tangihanga, you are there in the moment and then go home, and often no one talks about it and it has impacted upon us. We just go on the next kaupapa and get too busy to reflect. Reflective practice, for me, is one of the best strategies. It makes me think about what role I play within a kaupapa, and how I manage that space.”

As the CEO, Linda has had to adapt to ongoing environmental and external disruptions in the past few years, including the global pandemic Covid-19 in 2020, and more recently, Cyclone Gabrielle in February 2022.

“Our team make-up across Gisborne and Ōpōtiki means we have had to challenge, often within our own thinking as well, the traditional model of organisations. The team in Gisborne can operate solely, and our team members in Ōpōtiki work well remotely,” says Linda.

“We’ve had to be nimble, and adapt very quickly to sudden challenges and the mindset that comes with being a part of Healthy Families NZ has helped with that.”

Linda has had to make some “seriously courageous” decisions and moves over these past few years, says Healthy Families East Cape Manager Toni June.

Like many other leaders, Linda wears many different potae (hats) that extend her influence to other spaces with her whānau, hāpori, and as an active member of her iwi, Ngai Tai. This is evidenced through supporting locally-led solutions that have the biggest impact” she says.

The recent health reforms have also been some of the most dynamic times for Linda Steel as CEO of te Ao Hou, as she has sat alongside other local leaders in the Ōpōtiki District to co-design the localities approach for her region.

I am still not comfortable with being seen as a “leader”, but it is more about how I interact in those spaces. We know our health system is broken, and from the conversations, I’m having with others and there is a real need to harness the power of our indigenous knowledge. This is done by ensuring that we are embedding mātauranga māori in our kaupapa and across our teams.

This will be achieved through the practices of Healthy Families NZ and the systems change and design thinking approach. The localities kaupapa is already embedded with mātauranga māori and we need to explore how the Healthy Families approach is able to enhance this as well.”

The development of localities across Aotearoa is a fundamental part of the reform of the country’s health system. This place-based approach to planning and delivering health and wellbeing services is an exciting opportunity to embed a stronger population health focus across the health system.

“The locality approach operates outside of the system, the big difference is that the system is here to support, not to dictate. That has been the most dynamic shift within the system.”

The roll-out of localities has begun happening over the past twelve months, with Eastern Bay of Plenty succeeding in becoming a localities prototype – one of the first twelve localities in Aotearoa to work towards their locality plan.

New localities are in the process of being stood up across New Zealand with the aim that each area has its own locality by July 2024. This is a collaborative process, with Health NZ launching a national platform where we can share our learnings about this new way of ensuring New Zealanders can access health and wellbeing services, where and when they need it, and in the way that works best for them.

When asked if there were any insights that she’d like to share around the Eastern Bay of Plenty localities design and how the Healthy Families NZ approach can align to permeate better health and wellbeing outcomes, Linda is very clear on her thoughts of the influence of Healthy Families NZ in the localities space.

I honestly believe that the localities approach is a direct result of Healthy Families NZ.”

“The magic is going to happen in the localities space, not in the system. And so having the system there to support and not dictate, in the same way, we operate with our partners at Healthy Families NZ in Te Whatu Ora, is refreshing and important.”

“It is interesting because all of the kōrero in the localities space is about how we can change the system, or ecosystem and a term that has been used within our locality is about “planting new trees not propping up the old.”

By Toni June, Healthy Families East Cape Manager


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