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Pennie Brownlee felt the need to improve the world for the next generation. Photo: SUPPLIED

Pennie Brownlee: visionary and advocate


Pennie Brownlee was a woman who saw magic. 

In the land around her, in other people, and especially in children. 

The potential she saw informed her vision of a holistic, peaceful community, and Pennie spent her life teaching others how to see it too – pushing them to think better, do better and be better. 

Growing up in Puriri in the 50s, Pennie’s free-range childhood was the beginning of her deep-seeded love and respect for nature.

This passion spilled over into a devotion to those who couldn’t stand up for themselves, and shaped her life as an activist and advocate.

Close friend Michele Fill said Pennie was always at the forefront of causes in Thames, striving for cultural change in any way she could for Māori, women, and any community group that needed lifting up.

“When I met her in 83, things were very political,” Michele said.

“A National government came in and wanted to close down all the rural hospitals and so we started a campaign.

“We managed to save Thames Hospital. Pen was one of the people who did all the posters for the campaign and helped push the [hospital] bed down the main street.” 

Pennie helped establish the Women’s Health Council and marched in women’s peace marches. Behind the scenes she worked on campaigns to get women elected to councils, and health, community and district boards. She was involved in Women’s Refuge and several environmental organisations. 

“She started the first Treaty of Waitangi workshop … Pennie turned people around in their attitude towards Te Tiriti. She used lots of examples about Hauraki and that sort of opened people’s eyes to what had happened here, and what needed to change here,” Michele said. 

“I don’t think people have any idea of how much she had a hand in [in Thames]. She had the bigger picture, and not many people do.” 

At the heart of Pennie’s activism though, was her need to improve the world for the next generation. And that also meant working with the children themselves, and those who raised them. 

Although Pennie began her career as a teacher, she soon moved on to running workshops for parents. She was heavily influenced by child development experts Emmi Pikler and Joseph Chilton Pearce, and her parenting philosophy was gentle, respectful and child-led. 

“It was a huge thing, her views on attachment and an understanding of 0-3 years as being so precious. [My kids] loved the fact that she would listen to them.”

Pennie worked with CAPS Hauraki, a child and parent advocacy service, from its beginning. She also worked with Playcentre Aotearoa, shaping much of its childcare model.

“Her ideas significantly shaped sector views on learning in the early years and the role parents and kaiako [teachers] play in supporting children’s wellbeing,” Playcentre Aotearoa pedagogical lead Kara Daly said. 

“Pennie’s publications, originally Magic Places and later Dance with Me in the Heart and The Sacred Urge to Play, have been included in the Playcentre Education programmes for decades and have influenced generations of Playcentre parents and kaiako. Nurturing creativity and attachment were two key areas of Pennie’s mahi, and she was steadfast in advocating for the wellbeing of New Zealand tamariki.”

Pennie’s illness and subsequent passing on September 20 at age 76 was a private and cherished time. Michele noted how blessed Pennie’s daughter Clare Caro, her extended family, and close friends felt during those final weeks.

“I think for Clare it was huge to see how this small community [rallied around]. She was pretty overwhelmed by that,” Michele said.

“It was incredibly peaceful and [Pennie] was surrounded by love. It was exactly how she wanted it to be.” 

The family asked at Pennie’s funeral that she be remembered in simple ways – by singing, walking on the beach or in the bush, or planting a tree. 

“Love and respect our children and nurture them, and do the same with our earth,” Michele said. 

“Her family meant everything to her, and so did her close friends. It’s been a privilege to be on her journey with her and we’ve had a lot of fun along the way. She should go down in history as a changemaker – it’s a huge legacy.”

Pennie’s work will live on through the Pennie Brownlee Foundation. Clare, along with some of Pennie’s friends and colleagues, will continue to run education courses and share Pennie’s teachings. 

“We carry the essence of Pennie in our hearts and in all of our work,” the website said, “continuing her mission of promoting the well-being of babies, children, parents and caregivers”.