Minnie is a pioneer in the access leadership and innovation community; a visionary with a relentless drive for social transformation.
Minnie received the Sir Peter Blake Leadership Award in 2013, became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2014, and in 2017 was a finalist in the New Zealander of the Year Award and the Women of Influence Award.
Ogunte: How do you plan to transform New Zealand into the most accessible country in the world?
Minnie Baragwanath: Our broadest framework is to shift the paradigm from disability to accessibility to possibility.
Accessibility is recognising the need to level the playing field and get the basics in place. Our future projects will start pushing into the possibility space. This is about totally changing how we perceive access citizens, and involves letting go of beliefs and assumptions that hold us back. It’s about taking some risks, actually, and daring to work in uncharted territory.
Over the last seven years, we’ve created a number of programmes that work together to transform communities into more accessible spaces:
Often we work reactively, trying to undo or correct what has been badly designed. Be.Lab looks ahead to invent solutions, and use modern technology to reimagine the world.
Our theory of change is that if you address the environmental, social and personal aspects of life simultaneously, then true inclusion and accessibility start to emerge.
The best way to explain this is probably through an example:
Imagine you are a young person in a wheelchair applying for jobs. You are invited to interview but, when you arrive, you find there are stairs into the building. This is an environmental barrier to getting a job: no matter how good you are, you can’t get in.
Let’s say, next time you do get into the room. However, it’s immediately obvious from the interviewers’ faces that they weren’t expecting someone with an access need, and that they don’t believe someone in a wheelchair can do the job. Here, you’ve hit a social barrier of expectation and attitude.
You might be highly skilled and highly motivated, but if you encounter those first two barriers regularly enough, you need to be incredibly resilient to keep going. This is a huge personal challenge, and the third barrier.
Everything we do at Be. considers these three barriers and how they combine to exclude. Only when you look at the whole picture can you start to tackle the problem and bring about significant change.
Ogunte: What are your tips to keep the conversation on access going long-term? How do you prevent an issue from falling out of public awareness?
Minnie Baragwanath: Before we launched, we knew we needed to be very deliberate in guiding the new accessibility conversation in New Zealand. Until Be., it had mostly centred around welfare, human rights and compliance with minimum standards, if you heard about it at all. The whole narrative needed to be rewritten.
New Zealand hosted the Rugby World Cup that year, which we used as a springboard to launch a conversation about economic opportunity: How are we catering to the tourists who have access needs coming into New Zealand for the World Cup?
We introduced a framework for thinking about access in terms of investment, potential growth, and development. We created our Be.Welcome assessment program to help businesses capture the value of being inclusive.
We actually coined a couple of new phrases, too! We started talking about ‘the access economy’ and ‘yellow dollar’. (What we didn’t know at the time was that the yellow dollar is sometimes used to talk about the ecstasy drug market! We didn’t mean that!) There’s already the green dollar for the environmental movement, the pink dollar for LGBT+; and our brand is yellow, so we wanted to create the yellow dollar to be all about accessibility.
We also use the term ‘access citizen’ to indicate that everyone has access needs at some point in their lives, whether it’s through an accident, injury, aging, illness, or a congenital condition. This term reframes it so that we’re not talking about ‘those disabled people sitting way over there’, but all of us, and our loved ones.
Our focus on changing the language and the narrative has been at the heart of our strategy to stay relevant and fresh: it was the first thing we did. We created new terms that journalists and media could pick up on, and, I have to say, it’s been a very effective way to engage people and help them see access in a new way.
Even just last week, I was speaking at a business event, and seeing people click with the language. I explained how if we move away from seeing disability as a deficit and into exploring the possibilities, you enter into a space of creativity and imagination. It’s a powerful hook, because anyone who’s interested in innovation is immediately excited: Ooh! We want to be in the possibility space! They want to be on board.
Personally, I find this to be a very exciting challenge. It keeps you on your toes!
Ogunte: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Minnie Baragwanath: Honestly, my highlight is getting to work with this fabulous team every day! Many of the people we started with are still with us today, seven years on. Every single day, we come together and think about how we can creatively make the world a better place. It’s kind of a dream! I mean, it’s hard and challenging and stressful, but we have so much fun.
Also recognising that, whatever happens tomorrow or the next day, we’ve already had a positive impact on the landscape. I look at the lovely young people who are now going on to employment, the change we’re starting to create with businesses, and the media engaging with these different conversations, and I’m proud of our efforts.
Is there still a lot more to do? Oh my goodness, yes! But we’ve accomplished so much, and every day we authentically give it our all.
Ogunte: What specific challenge are you facing right now at Be. ?
Minnie Baragwanath: Right now, the challenge is to transition into becoming a centre of access innovation. That’s what we’re in the middle of now, moving into that possibility space.
We’re tackling the specifics of how to get to that goal, like finding key people and partnerships to be part of that journey; investors, partners, early adopters, all of that. There are a few big things on the horizon for us, so stay tuned!
It’s a very exciting time for us. I’m fortunate to be going on a global study tour at the end of April 2018. I’m spending a week in Italy learning from Margaret Wheatley, a leading thinker and writer in the social change and leadership space. But, given that it’s already a big trip, I will also be visiting design and access innovation centres in London, New York and Seattle. It’s an incredible opportunity to exchange ideas and discover a network of sister organisations around the world.
In light of the trip, I’ve been considering this question: How do we connect globally, while genuinely maintaining our local impact?
Ogunte: Your work involves giving out a lot of emotional energy. What does self-care mean to you?
Minnie Baragwanath: Two and a half years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. That forced me, in a very abrupt way, to seriously ask myself these questions. At that point, I had slightly lost track of self-care as a priority, which can easily happen when you’re in startup mode. Since then, I’ve been much clearer with my boundaries, and knowing when I need to take time off work. I’m very conscious now that I can’t take my health for granted.
In my day to day, I make it a priority to deal with issues quickly, and not leave things that are bothering me to fester and grow in my imagination. This way, I avoid the build up of unresolved worries (laughs). I think of it as doing my ‘Minnie Housework’, a weekly clean-up of my own brain!
Recently, I’ve been back at the gym, seeing my personal trainer twice a week. I find it’s important for my self-care to have someone focus on me, and help me get fitter and stronger. I love it, it’s so much fun. I actually laugh more at the gym than almost anywhere else!
I have a regular counsellor that I see, which I find incredibly sustaining. I need that trusted sounding board for whatever might be going on.
A big part of looking after myself is making sure I have fun! For me, this means carving out time to be with friends and to be outside. Over the summer, I would go down to the beach at the weekend or after work and jump into the sea! I have to say, I found this to be a truly magical strategy! No matter what mood I’m in, I come out feeling totally refreshed and renewed. Not sure I’ll keep it up over the winter, but it’s an incredible summer treat!
Ogunte: How do you track your lifelong learning?
Minie Baragwanath: I have people I see from time to time for coaching. Through counselling and talking everything out, I am constantly reflecting, though I rarely write anything down.
I do see the value in journals, though, and one day I’d love to sit down and write out everything that I’ve learnt. You can take for granted how much you’ve knotted out along the way, and, if sharing my journey might help someone on a similar path, then maybe the book will come!
As a learning organisation, we try to embody a practice of actively unpacking whatever’s going on at the time. I know we could be doing more in this space, which is where the leadership programme comes in for me, as I want to set aside time to be intentional about how we are growing as a team.
Ogunte: Who are the women changemakers who inspire you?
1) Gael Surgenor is the Director of Community and Social Innovation for The Southern Initiative, at Auckland City Council. She’s doing incredible work from within a large organisation, working with communities on the ground to affect social change. She spends her time incubating and nurturing social initiatives to get them off the ground. I love that she does her own work, but also supports others.
2) Dame Tariania Turia was the founder and co-leader of the Māori party, and was in government for a number of years. She led important initiatives around Maori social and economic development in New Zealand, and she also helped us when we were starting up. She’s a courageous person.
3) Dr Sarvnaz Taherian is an innovator working on tech for accessibility and inclusion, through a company called Thought-Wired. She’s doing an amazing job of combining technology, social change, and business skills. Definitely one to watch.
4) Dr Erica Whineray Kelly is actually a breast surgeon who has a pioneering approach to health and well-being. When I became sick, she wanted to do something to help. Her organisation was the first private health facility in New Zealand to adopt our Be.Welcome access program, to make sure her medical practice was truly inclusive to all. She has challenged the medical establishment on a range of issues. She’s an incredibly courageous person. Erica walks an interesting path between the social and the economic.
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