Yeshe Dawa is apologising for talking too much. This is despite the fact I’m visiting her cosy Mt Albert home precisely because I want to hear what she has to say.
She’s not used to talking; she’s more of a listener. She likes to ask gentle, probing questions, and hold your gaze while you answer, hands clasped around a mug of tea and a thoughtful look on her face.
This ability to be quiet, to pull back and listen, is a point of difference Dawa believes will make her an asset if she’s voted onto the Albert-Eden Local Board in the local body elections this October. That and the fact that, at 33, she’s a good deal younger than most local board members.
You might know Dawa as the Midnight Baker. For the past four years she’s run a cafe of the same name on Dominion Rd, and before that she was staying up all night making batch after batch of her signature allergy-friendly Freedom Loaf, sometimes working 70 hours a week or more as the business started to take off. She loves what she does, but she’s recently started wondering whether it’d be worth trying to expand the reach she has in her community. “I know this sounds really sappy, but I hate seeing people suffer,” she tells me. “If I could get into a position where I had a little bit of power over something then I would want to make a system equitable for people. I’m passionate about helping people, and having an effect greater than yourself. I imagine it’s like ripples in a pool, reverberating outwards.”
Dawa, whose father is from Tibet, was born and raised in Dunedin. She has lived in the Albert-Eden area for nearly a decade, and currently flats in a bungalow filled with lush houseplants (not her work she insists — her flatmates have the green thumbs). She shares her home with Josh, her partner of three years, his 10-year-old son, Miles, a couple of other flatmates, including Miles’ mum, and a cat called Gareth Morgan, who, coincidentally, refuses to do anything you want him to and rejects most overtures of affection.
Dawa is standing in the Maungawhau subdivision of the Albert-Eden Local Board for City Vision, the Labour-Green Party centre-left council-level coalition. She has ties to the Greens, having appeared in ad campaigns for the party last election, but has not been actively involved in politics before. A friend in the Greens suggested she’d be great on the local board, and though she was busy running Midnight Baker, the idea appealed. In late July, she decided to throw her name in the ring. She’s campaigning with four other City Vision candidates in Maungawhau, vying for votes in the suburbs of Mt Eden, Kingsland, Balmoral, Epsom and Greenlane.
Like an increasing number of millennials, Dawa is conflicted about whether or not to have children, as she’s not sure what kind of world they’ll be growing up in. The areas she cares most about (new and better recycling facilities, improved cycleways, social equity) are all informed by her fears about the changing climate.
Talking to Dawa, you don’t get the impression she’s embarking on some ambitious pivot to politics. She’s not coming out swinging on major issues, and tends toward emphasising her eagerness to learn, rather than coming in with all the answers. Which is fine — local-board work is, after all, about the unremarkable and yet essential minutiae of everyday life, not the heavily politicised big-ticket issues of the Government or Auckland Council. “One of my strengths is I listen well — I give people the space and time to express themselves and get their point across,” she says. “I don’t think I need to be the loudest person in the room. There are advantages to just being someone who can stand back and assess and contemplate how you’re going to do things.”
She’s also confident her relative youth and experience as a business owner will bring a fresh perspective to the local board. A report by Stuff’s Charlie Mitchell in August found it was more likely for a councillor to be named John than to be born after 1980 in this country, and though local boards tend to skew slightly younger and more female, their makeup is still generally less diverse than the communities they serve.
“Before I got involved in the elections, I looked at my local board, and I saw years of experience but I couldn’t see myself, I couldn’t see the wider community,” Dawa says. “The younger generations that are going to be the most affected by climate change, the renters who are priced out of the market, the people from all of the different backgrounds the community is made up of.” She knows the current local board members work hard and care deeply about the community, “but it would still be great to see more diverse representation alongside such experience and I’m hoping I can offer that by standing.”
Auckland local body election voting opens on 20 September and closes on 12 October.
This piece originally appeared in the September-October 2019 issue of Metro magazine, with the headline "Listening and learning".