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The best place in the world to be a child

1 Nov 2018
Denis O'Reilly
This article was published 6 years ago. Content may no longer be relevant.

In the 1980s government programmes provided meaningful work opportunities by the van-load. Photo: Evening Post (1983), published with permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ.

After the Hāpaitia te Oranga Tangata summit in August, Denis O’Reilly started thinking about how to address the wicked criminal justice problems we face. He turns to the past, and muses on community, from the tranquility of Pā Waiohiki, Ahuriri.

Can’t we just get on with it? It’s over there. Ready, fire, aim. We can improve calibration as the shots land.

I’ve just come back from Wellington to our little kāinga at Waiohiki with an expanded contemporary policy lexicon. The community development shibboleths and adages from the 1970s have been dressed up in new clothes. The millennials who are developing policy arising from the reviews of the education, welfare and criminal justice systems are discovering the bloody obvious, but can’t bring themselves to say “bellbottoms”.

Aotearoa’s complex and paradoxical social problems, which we once described as problematic, are now called wicked. Wicked used to mean evil, sinful, immoral, wrongful, iniquitous or corrupt. Mind you, on reflection, many social sector policies inflicted on poor communities over the past three decades have been exactly that.

Old-school references to Tofler, Drucker, Handy, Alinsky and Putnam have been supplanted by nods to Friedman (Thomas not Milton), Sen and Sinek. Praxis, action, reflection is now called theory of change. Treasury describes the interface between community, state and economy as a woven mat, a whāriki of wellbeing, comprised of four strands of capital: human, natural, fiscal and social, necessary to both enable and bind us together. Don Brash will doubtlessly bristle at the Māori metaphor – in economics for goodness’ sake!

In preparation for our nation’s first ever wellness budget, business and community leaders and followers alike are being exhorted to embrace complexity, to take a collaborative and systemic approach and to be prepared to risk failure in overcoming the gorgon-like social issues of our time. While there are tentative efforts by central government policy wonks to comprehend the biology of communities and to appreciate that they are dynamic organisms, the overriding response tends to eschew organic systems thinking, and policy responses primarily remain mechanistic.

The belief seems to be that it is possible to gather multi-sectoral data from especially high-cost populations (such as gang communities) and, by applying appropriate predictive algorithms, identify evidence-based interventions that will be effective in targeted communities and produce value-for-money outcomes. Results will be aggregated and metrics displayed on a wellness dashboard.

You can keep up with the kōrero by attending regular seminars on community-led development and staying tuned to Deloitte’s State of the State articles. You can get the inside running through reading comprehensive papers on the Treasury Living Standards Dashboard from Kōtātā Insight and discussion papers from Treasury’s Office of the Chief Economic Advisor and, doubtlessly, other analysts. It’s all great work if you can get it.

Meanwhile, back at the coalface of community, despite the Criminal Justice Summit, despite apologies to Housing New Zealand meth-hype victims and despite affirmation that Aotearoa will continue to primarily treat illicit drug use as a health issue, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Regardless of accelerating climate change, practical implementation of fresh social policy insights and demonstrations of political will remain glacial.

We need to mellow out, wear bellbottoms, apply insights from the experiences of the 1970s and 1980s, adjust for the contexts of the day and just get on with it. Take the NEETs conundrum. One in eight rangatahi aged between 15 and 24 is neither earning nor learning. Yes, we have Mana in Mahi, and it’s a damned good initiative too. It will suit some, but it’s individualised, and there are great pools of rangatahi, the nefs on the couch, who, in this period of their life, are highly affiliative. They want to be in groups. This was understood by the 1981 Committee on Gangs, which established the Group Employment Liaison Service to facilitate group work and was further endorsed by the 1987 Ministerial Inquiry into Violent Offending – the Roper Report.

Earlier this year, Minister of Employment Hon Willie Jackson asked me to give him some ideas to address the problem. I told him, “We can do it by the vanload, Willie. Take a team of seven, add two reserves, appoint a captain from within the team, add a coach and a manager. It’s called a vanload. I see vanloads of Recognised Seasonal Employer workers in Hawke’s Bay heading out to pick apples or whatever, and I reckon we could do the same for our youth, whether it be picking fruit, building roads, erecting kitset homes or planting trees for uncle Shane.”

We observed back in the 1970s and 1980s that, as rangatahi participating in group work skills development programmes developed confidence, good work habits and skills, they were more inclined to enter the mainstream workforce as individuals.

“Oh,” says Willie, “we love your ideas Den, but you freak my officials. They reckon you’re a bit out there. It’s the gang thing, Den, the gang thing!”

Well I am out there, Willie. That’s the point. And too damned right it’s the gang thing. While youth criminal prosecutions in the general population are down by 25 percent since 2013, the trend of criminal prosecution of Māori youth over the decade has increased from 49 percent in 2008 to 64 percent in 2017. Either we enrol these clusters of disengaged rangatahi Māori in pro-social activity or someone else will for anti-social purposes – and they are.

As always, the New Zealand gang scene is dynamic. Gang numbers are on the rise among a generally young cohort. When one crew aggressively recruits, other crews respond. The unanticipated consequence of Kiwi gangsters being expelled from Australia and sent back home has meant the unwelcome importation of new attitudes, networks and criminal skills. We are now witnessing wealth accrual through purposeful crime. Our current problems with methamphetamine are one outcome.

There can be difficulties in separating out the valid social and economic aspirations of gang members and the criminal offending of gang members. 

Criminal offending by gang members isn’t necessarily organised or purposeful and can be spontaneous. 

For instance, over half of serious crimes of violence committed by gang members are acts of domestic violence.

A few years back, Ministry of Social Development analysts concluded that gang-related households were violence ridden and a shitty place to bring up kids. Moreover, it was judged that these households consumed more than their fair share of welfare benefits for little appreciable positive outcomes. A multi-agency response was developed in the form of a Gang Action Plan.

It was to be centred around a Gang Intelligence Centre hosted by New Zealand Police. The idea was that agencies would identify gang members and their progeny and then feed data about them into the intelligence centre. Once assembled, this data was to be used to inform agencies and thus enable delivery of co-ordinated wraparound services. The logic model proposed that these inputs would result in a reduction of gang-related harms and an increase in gang-whānau pro-social achievements.

At some point, what seemed to be a pretty straightforward mission collided with a problem of another form altogether, namely the need to tackle transnational organised crime. This imperative became part of the Gang Action Plan. I suggest that these are a different order of things. You can’t successfully conflate what is essentially poor behaviour arising from the consequence of post-colonialism and the social and economic marginalisation of Māori communities with the phenomenon of transnational crime.

Liberating potential requires a different mindset from countering pathology. But old habits die hard: the unhelpful Police prejudice towards gangs identified by Justice Roper in 1987, the fog of Police Blue Vision described by Jarrod Gilbert in 2013 as existing when Police uphold a belief regardless of the evidence against it  and the unconscious Police bias against Māori admitted by Commissioner Mike Bush in 2015 ended up with gangs being considered as synonymous with organised transnational criminal groups. The War on Drugs morphed into the War on Gangs.

 This blurring of the original logic for the Gang Action Plan, fixation on organised crime and subsequent loss of focus on gang-whānau-home life has subsumed a noble cause. After all, if we are to collaborate to realise the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern’s vision to make Aotearoa the best place in the world to bring up a child and be a child, then gang-connected households might be a good place to start.

And how would you do that? Well, doing away with labelling might be a start. Make gang affiliation irrelevant, focus simply on behaviours. Call organised crime what it is and deal with it wherever it rears its head – be it fraud in commerce, fixing harness racing, conspiring to hide dirty deeds by the clergy or, predictably, drug dealing by gang members. Split the crime-fighting activity out from the social developmental effort.

Accept that answers to wicked problems sit within each and every community and that they will be unique in design and delivery. Realise that perfect is the enemy of good and that best practice is an illusion. Settle simply for better practice and better outcomes than you were getting before, and keep on improving relentlessly.

Appreciate that there is risk and ambiguity in dealing with gang-whānau. Do your best to mitigate risk by transparency and good governance. In the 1970s, we began to realise we needed to build our action responses on entities that included gang leaders and members but that were separate from the chapter. Hence, the work co-operative movement of the 1980s – which, at its zenith, had well more than 2,000 members – was usually founded on a marae or hapū structure or a sports club or an especially constructed charitable trust. We’d try and engage non-gang ‘straights’ from the community, such as a local padre or a local body member as members of the governance team, and we’d engage the most conservative accountancy firm in town to oversee the books.

In the upcoming 2019 wellness budget, Treasury will be looking for value for money – ROI, return on investment.

At the community interface, we realise that the real thing to track is the Lovemark, the emotional quotient in an investment of discretionary effort. The metric is ROA, return on aroha. Altruism, that contribution of voluntary effort, is driven by the belief that “my effort counts”. It creates a multiplier effect. This multiplier builds social capital and seeds amongst others in the community the desire to contribute towards better outcomes.

On the gang side of town, it’s always a zig-zag pathway. There will be slips and lapses. When that happens, no matter how dark things look, kia kaha! In the words of the song, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again. We are in the infinite game.

A group of workers and helpers stand by Matipo Community Trust's community garden. - The Matipo Community Development Trust is an uplifting example of resilience along the infinite zig-zag pathway. Photo: supplied.

Building bridges

If you want an uplifting example of resilience along that infinite zig-zag pathway, take the Matipo Community Development Charitable Trust in Whanganui. It’s based in the city’s poorest and possibly most troubled community. The Trust was fostered by the Whanganui Black Power President, the late Craig ‘Rip’ Rippon, after the tragic death in 2007 of baby Jhia Te Tua that happened in a gang-related drive-by shooting in Puriri Street.

Rip was an example of a desistor – a man who had turned his life around. He wanted to build a bridge between gang and community and to create a future where his grandchildren enjoyed education and sustainable employment. Rip enrolled mainstream community leaders in his vision. They established a community garden and training programmes.

But he’s also symbolic of the Lovemark that can be tracked, the aroha that can multiply and build social capital, dust itself off when the worst occurs and simply get on with the altruism again.

In 2015, Rip acted to ensure the return of a stolen puppy to its rightful owner. Typically, as in many of these tragic instances, perpetrator and victim were related by whakapapa. Regardless, intoxicated as they were, the perpetrators became incensed at Rip’s intervention. They came to his home and beat him to death.

Many organisations would have buckled at this further tragedy, but the Matipo community leadership and Rip’s whānau determined to follow through on their intergenerational vision. They developed the gardens, continued courses in horticulture and built a shade house and a tunnel house.

Now a new tragedy has occurred in that community. In August 2018, a young Mongrel Mob member Kevin ‘Kastro’ Ratana, another relative to many in the community, was shot dead in the same street as Jhia, just around the corner from Matipo Street.

Again, the dark clouds of fear and revenge threatened to derail the Matipo efforts. But a kaupapa that is good and true can be extraordinarily resilient.

Pro-social leaders came to the fore. The community dusted itself down, and their pro-social efforts continued. They have been recognised. On 25 September 2018, the Matipo Community Development Charitable Trust won the Trustpower Supreme Community Award for the Whanganui District.

If we are to solve wickedness in Aotearoa, however you use the word, let’s get on with it. Have confidence in your own good sense. Take small steps and accept small wins. Do it by the vanload and remember that all we need to achieve is an outcome better than before.

E koutou ngā mate, ko Jhia, ko Rip, ko Kastro, haere, haere, haere. Kia takototia koutou tonu i roto i te korowai o te rangimārie o mātou whaea Papatūānuku. Let the loss of your lives not be in vain. Let us help each other overcome our prejudiced perspectives and negative behaviours. Let the pain we experience when we remember you energise us all to work for the wellbeing of our communities. Let Aotearoa be the best place in the world to be a child. Tihei mauri ora! 





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