Mary-Jane Rivers became an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2024 New Years honours.  

Our hugely admired founder represents and continues to demonstrate community service and leadership at its very best. 

Here’s a brief outline of the key role she has played, both in the establishment of Inspiring Communities, and our ongoing success. 

First, to go back to the early 2000s. Mary-Jane was extremely concerned at the way communities had been hollowed out by the massive socio-economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. They brought with them growing levels of intergenerational unemployment and inequality, a market model preference for competition over collaboration and a sense of despair, frustration and powerlessness in many communities. At the same Mary-Jane also observed pockets of hope in few local places where through intentional collaboration and working differently together, positive locally-led change was happening. 

During 2004-6, Mary-Jane had many, many of cups of tea, tapping into her extensive web of relationships and connections across community, philanthropy, academia, iwi and central and local government. She wanted to understand what others were noticing about was working and how together they might respond. During that time it became clear to Mary-Jane that there was an emerging opportunity for new collective action to help communities reassert their value and agency for finding solutions in  their places. 

Many of us talk about what could be done to change things, few people actually take up the national leadership mantel and act. 

Mary-Jane’s committed catalytic leadership, those many cups of tea resulted in the creation of the Inspiring Communities Trust – a new national organisation to champion and support community-led development in Aotearoa. Seventeen years on, Inspiring Communities has long since been recognised as one of New Zealand’s leading community organisations. More important however, is the national network of 5000 people, groups, agencies and communities currently on our database, and 4000 people who connect via our social media channels. This movement for community-led change in Aotearoa is Mary-Jane’s legacy.   

Starting a national change movement from scratch is no easy task! Inspiring Communities’ success is largely due to the very meticulous way she curated our set up phase, creating an overarching culture that was participatory, inclusive and courageous. Responsive to what was needed next. Eighty-hour weeks were not uncommon, she and her family gave so much over an intensive five year period to bring the aspiration of Inspiring Communities to life. 

To ensure its ongoing success, Mary-Jane intentionally moved from the inaugural Development Manager role onto the Inspiring Communities Governance Board in late 2011, spending some time as Chair, before stepping down in 2015. She has continued to be a supporter of our mahi, forever making introductions and connections for Inspiring Communities with like minded peers, and with those that could do with our support as they cross her path.   

Mary-Jane’s leadership style comes without ego, and is embedded in a dogged determination to do what needs to be done, not just for people – but with people. She is relentlessly optimistic, with her passion and commitment to collective approaches inspiring hope, trust and confidence that the world can be a better place. She is a person that others want to be around and support – as she in turn always enables for others. 

National recognition of Mary-Jane’s community service achievements is timely and so very well deserved. This is one small way, the nation can ‘give back’ so she knows her life’s passion and years of service has been both noticed and appreciated. 

Ngā mihi mahana Mary-Jane.

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