Saturday, October 10, 2015

Politics and social justice run through O'Connor sisters' blood

For the O'Connor sisters, politics runs through the blood, as does the need to speak up in the face of adversity. Stacey Knott reports on four sisters who are dedicated to fighting social injustice, as part of the Wonder Women series.

Between them, sisters Mary Ellen, Julia, Margaret and Teresa have advocated for unions, nurses, schools, the environment, refugees, and the poor and disenfranchised.

They're not afraid to voice their opinions, and stand up for their beliefs - it's in their DNA, they say.

Sisters Mary Ellen O'Connor, left, Julia O'Connor, Margaret O'Connor and Teresa O'Connor.
Sisters Mary Ellen O'Connor, left, Julia O'Connor, Margaret O'Connor and Teresa O'Connor.

They grew up on a farm in Appleby, their mother was a social activist, in the mid 80s she fought for the rights of seasonal workers and the homeless in Appleby. Their father, a stalwart of the Labour Party.

Their parents set up St Vincent De Paul Society in Richmond and were instrumental in setting up Trade Aid.

"The twin pillars of our lives were the Labour Party and the Catholic church and social justice is at the heart," Margaret, the third eldest, says.

She is an oncology nurse in Nelson, and also the area council president for St Vincent De Paul Society New Zealand.

Margaret has been outspoken on union matters, and has acted as a spokesperson for casual nurses at Nelson Hospital.

The O'Connors act like a clan, she says.

With pride, they are quick to offer insights into each other's work and dedication to the community and what it means to be an O'Connor.

Ad Feedback

None changed their last name after marrying, and all have children, many also taking the O'Connor name.

"[We were] probably a bit marginalised where we were raised as Catholic, Labour Party people in the middle of a WASPish conservative farming area, so I think we probably always had that influence over us, and while we might have felt slightly marginalised, as a result it possibly gave us strength.

"[For] our parents, social issues were to the fore, political discussions were our meat and potatoes around the table. It was part of the fabric of our upbringing."

" I know some people will probably stray from how they were brought up politically, but for us it probably runs fairly strongly in our veins."

Oldest sister Mary Ellen has worked in English language schools through her career, and currently works for English Language Partners, working with former refugees and new migrants. She's written books on trade union histories and the history of Salisbury School.

She's outspoken about many issues, from poor housing, to the GCSB.

"It feels to me we are increasingly almost in a war zone, in terms of the number of fires you are fighting."

Second oldest, Julia, a lawyer, worked in private practice in Nelson for 17 years, much of that in family law, and has also worked as a legal educator for community law, and in the disputes tribunal.

She went to Papua New Guinea for a year in 2011 with VSA as a legal advisor.

In 2014, she went back to the Nelson Bays Community Law Centre where she has been doing immigration work with former refugees as well as employment law.

Through her work, she has "seen all sorts of horrible ways people treat each other," and still feels shocked by what she sees.

"I don't see myself as solving the world's problems, but it's really good to be able to assist and provide structures and processes for people to work through some of those issues."

She is also on the board for Salisbury School, and recently stood down from chairing it.

"There would have been no chance for me to have different politics, we were just so immersed in it," Julia said.

Youngest of the four, Teresa used to work as a journalist at the Nelson Mail, and has also worked as a nurse.

After the 1991 budget, she wrote an editorial about the impact of it for the Listener, and he employer tried to fire her for it. She wasn't fired, but had a warning placed on her file.

This sparked a national campaign to remove the warning from her file, the sisters said. Nurses wore stickers in support, and then opposition health spokesperson Helen Clark joined a rally in support of what was an ultimately successful campaign.

Teresa has also been involved with the Victory Health Centre and setting up a free nurse service at Franklyn Village.

She has been editing the Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand magazine since 1992 where she still works, it's a job she feels fits her values.

Teresa was the force behind setting up Voice Nelson, which Mary Ellen is also highly involved in.

Teresa said Voice Nelson arose out of the "complete and utter despair" she felt after the 2014 election.

Teresa said she and her sisters have loud voices and are able to use them, Voice Nelson worked to give voice to those who aren't heard, including the poor and disenfranchised.

Their great-grandparents fled Ireland's famine for New Zealand, and the sisters say they have "huge privilege" from that.

"I have a responsibility to do something, however pathetic and small or insignificant, to honour a legacy, that I, from some accident of birth, have benefited from," Teresa said.

Mary Ellen said Voice Nelson had attracted older members, and she sees it as a way to pay back for what her generation had, "in terms of having had free health and education handed to us".

They were hopeful about passing the baton to younger generations.

People need to care about those less fortunate, Margaret said.

With an impassioned plea, she says it doesn't make sense to keep letting the gap between the 'haves' and 'have nots' grow.

"Everybody loses with inequality. Everyone stands to gain when we live in more equal societies."

They have another sister, Gabrielle, the youngest who was unable to be interviewed. The sisters say she is very animal-orientated, a natural farmer and works as a caregiver.

There was another sister, Bridget, who only lived to four months due to health reasons.

 - Stuff