22 Aug 2023
Teresa Poli has never been one to shy away from doing the heavy lifting, in her professional or her personal life.
As a child, Teresa Poli (Ngāi Tūhoe) tackled issues such as poverty and whaling, and she laboured on mines in Australia at the age of 16. Since then, she's focused her career on fighting climate change and advancing Māoritanga. And she tackles weighty issues outside of work too – she was a powerlifting bronze medallist at the 2022 International Powerlifting Federation Commonwealth Powerlifting Championships.
Growing up in Hamilton, Teresa wrote letters to the local newspaper and politicians, urging them to act on social and environmental issues, before moving to Australia with her family when she was 14.
“It wasn’t really until I started working with my dad in the mines and in construction that I realised I really liked building things from scratch and understanding how things work.”
She's always had a connection with the environment and a desire to build her relationship with Māoritanga and Ngāi Tūhoe. While studying engineering at the University of Waikato, she was dismayed to find that in four years, students received one lecture on iwi engagement and another on the Treaty of Waitangi.
“I realised that as an industry we needed to start making changes.”
A Senior Sustainability and Resilience Consultant at Aurecon, Teresa is intent on increasing the knowledge and use of Te Ao Māori in the engineering curriculum and the wider profession. She’s been working alongside Waikato University lecturer Mahonri Owen MEngNZ on lectures on Te Tiriti o Waitangi, Te Ao Māori and iwi engagement practices. Part of her Master’s thesis, Building the Cultural Capacity of Engineers in Aotearoa, New Zealand: A Student’s Perspective, assessed engineering students’ perceptions of Mahonri’s lectures, along with their familiarity with Māori culture and beliefs.
“A lot of the student feedback has been positive, though some students don’t agree with it, saying: ‘This is politics, why do we need to know this?’ which has been quite confronting.”
Teresa presented part of her thesis as a conference paper to the Australasian Association for Engineering Education Conference in Sydney in 2022.
Through her thesis and advisory work with Te Waihanga New Zealand Infrastructure Commission she is investigating how the engineering profession could work better with and for tangata whenua.
“I see this education piece as understanding the why in the connection between Te Ao Māori and engineering. Māori were engineers and scientists. How did we construct the waka? How did we navigate through using stars and astronomical knowledge?”
”Engineers need to start looking at how their designs have a bigger meaning and purpose than getting from A to B. Our roads and our infrastructure enable us to have access to jobs, healthcare, to feed our children.”
She says there are a number of areas where change is needed, but it starts with “understanding the histories, understanding that Māori have different ways of thinking and another set of knowledge that we should access as engineers”.
“It’s about the alignment of Western scientific knowledge and mātauranga Māori and kaitiakitanga.”
Teresa’s role at Aurecon is to support engineers in understanding climate change and adaptation, reducing carbon output and supporting communities with social outcomes.
Her view of sustainability in infrastructure was influenced by her honours project at university, Pathway to our tīpuna – building culturally inclusive and sustainable roads.
“It was about understanding Māori thinking on road construction and actually asking Māori what we would like to see.”
She continues: “Engineers need to start looking at how their designs have a bigger meaning and purpose than getting from A to B. Our roads and our infrastructure enable us to have access to jobs, healthcare, to feed our children. There’s so much more to it.”
She hopes to see more Māori in engineering and for engineering to better reflect Māori ways.
Outside of work, this competitive powerlifter is likely to be found in the gym. She travelled to South Africa in May to represent New Zealand in the 2023 IPF World Championships in bench press. Her bench press record is 107.5kg.
“I just love competing and to push myself to be as strong as I can. I really enjoy the strategy of it, assessing the mechanics of powerlifting, trying to ensure that my centre of gravity is constant and the leverages are efficient. That probably stems from my engineering mind.”