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A Civil Society - Our People

by Darren Lee, Continuous Improvement Manager (Quality), ACC

At first glance, Glen Innes seems like a slightly odd choice for hosting two days of a Leadership Programme. As it turns out, it’s a deeply rich couple of days. Our host venue is Te Oro - the community arts centre – a building of architectural beauty and stature juxtaposed against a backdrop of suburban liquor stores, modest shops, even more modest housing and the infamous Maybury Reserve.

My first ever leadership role was at the (now closed) Inland Revenue building down the road in Panmure and I spent a bit of time in this community back in the late 1990’s. So arriving at Te Oro on the first day felt strangely familiar. A sort of homecoming.

As the sun warmed the day, the slow burn of the first morning quickly burst into full combustion as Pat Snedden lay down the gauntlet: What are you prepared to be arrested for?

Given the regularity with which this Programme pokes and prods one’s conscience with poignant and soul-searching questions, I should have been prepared for this. And yet once again I am stopped dead in my tracks – as if literally hitting a brick wall. I grapple with the question and struggle to answer it in an authentic way.

More followed…

As Pat recounted his exploits at Bastion Point and his impersonation of a judder bar in front of an All Black bus carrying them to their 1970 tour of South Africa, I’m profoundly affected by a man with the courage of his convictions; a man who was prepared to transgress the very legal system that many of his family helped to uphold on a daily basis. I am moved to now view the word ‘activism’ in a non-pejorative context. As I consider my own strong views on tolerance, a Ben Harper lyric fills my head: Your choice is who you choose to be, and if you’re causing no harm then you’re alright with me. All of a sudden the line between activism and tolerance is now blurred for me. This is not a binary equation.

Pat awakens me from my lyrical reverie with a final body blow. ‘Unless you are prepared to be arrested for something, you’re unlikely to have the values necessary to be a successful leader’. It forces the air from my lungs. I am on the canvas, lying on my back, staring at the ceiling. I can’t breathe. I can’t move…

Lunch is a welcome interlude - a sensational array of food prepared by a group of local Ethiopian refugee women. I simultaneously digest the ridiculously tasty, spicy chicken and Pat’s confronting questions.

The afternoon provides an opportunity for more self-exploration in the form of DISC profiling. It’s interesting, but I’m still reeling from the early rounds with Pat Snedden, his pointed questions gnawing away at my inner conscience, my comfort level is concussed, battered and bruised.

Day Two begins with more self-reflection, but this time about our values. What are my values? Are my values authentic or are they simply what I want them to be? Is it okay for values to be aspirational? Is this what I am prepared to be arrested for? More tough questions (sigh).

For the afternoon, the syndicates are sent on their assigned field trips. I am quietly pleased that my syndicate has a walking tour of Glen Innes – guided by a local community leader and Leadership NZ Alumnus, Josephine Bartley.

Our hikoi is kick-started at the Ruapotaka Marae. A warm welcome from Tamati and Georgie and a strong reminder about values here. If you want to make a difference, start with whanau.

Tamati, a self-proclaimed ‘GI boy’, then takes us through Maybury Reserve and outlines his vision for the now polluted Omaru River, that he used to swim in as a young boy. I am struck by the multi-faceted nature of care within this community – youth projects, young Maori women, the environment. It is rich in empathy and activism.

Tamati hands the baton over to Sgt Kevin Reynolds from the local constabulary, who walks with us and shares some of the Prevention First and other Police community initiatives. He explains that the community itself plays a strong role in setting the priorities for the action plans here. Following the river as it meanders through the reserve, walking side by side with Josephine, Tamati and then Sgt Reynolds feels like a nice metaphorical reference to partnership. It also takes me back to last month and Chris Farrelly’s views on how we all need to ‘walk side by side’.

Our police escort ends at the Family Centre where we are introduced to a team of humble people with humble means and operating out of humble premises. They offer a range of support to the community including parent support, domestic violence support, even a men’s group. The mantra here seems to be if there’s a need, we’ll do it. The important aspect though is again the emphasis on being community-led. The parent support programmes, for example, are designed by and from the needs of the parents themselves. They are not dictated by a central agency. This feels like a sound basis for social innovation.

Time is precious and we rush to view a glimpse of the Tamaki Regeneration Project – the single biggest urban transformation project in New Zealand. En route we are welcomed by some of the Cook Island Seniors Group – a colourful interlude, full of laughter and warmth. No sooner have we said Kia Orana, than it’s time to be ferried back to Te Oro (courtesy of one of the Cook Island seniors!). An all-too-brief conversation with Shelley from the Tamaki Redevelopment Company leaves us with a final thought: how do we get community services to align with the needs of the community and not those of the individual organisations?

It is clear from the reports back that all the syndicates were touched in some way by their respective field visit that afternoon. As we depart at the end of the day, there is a hint of frustration and a desire to do more to help close the gap in our society.


Footnote: The next morning I find myself wandering down Ponsonby Road. The contrast to the previous two days is stark. It is the brunch-set rush hour. Young 30-somethings in their designer active wear, with their designer babies and/or designer dogs drape themselves over the sun-drenched tables outside the multitude of cafes. I try not to judge, but I wonder how rich their lives really are. What I see helps me to reflect on the previous two days and how it can be easy to get cocooned by the warmth and generosity of community spirit that I saw on the streets of Glen Innes. But the gap is real. And it’s big.