Love Lives Here: Realising Rangatahi Potential

Love Lives Here: Realising Rangatahi Potential

The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves. (Horton & Friere, 1990, p. 181)

Ngā Rangatahi Toa (NRT) was founded in 2009 to enable rangatahi struggling in alternative education (AE), plus the many more in the Y-NEET category (Youth in No Education, Employment or Training), to “become themselves”. Creativity and cultural knowledge are promoted in the programme as leadership and transition tools to unlock potential. Paulo Freire’s (1972) pedagogy of love is a central precept. Within Friere’s overarching philosophy, community cultural development projects, public events and innovative partnership models catalyse self-determination, and help extend existing social capital and enable the development of wider associations. Social capital for Ngā Rangatahi Toa implies building the “networks, norms and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” (Putnum, 1995, p. 67); this is necessary to enable successful education transitions and cross-societal change. Essentially the programme builds bridges for rangatahi into wider society. The result for them, aside from forms of learning, is a self-confidence which results usually in greater acceptance and participation, and a more meaningful place in the wider world. This chapter first looks at the kinds of students Ngā Rangatahi Toa serves, and some of the politics surrounding their lives and education. It then introduces and shares some of the initiatives Ngā Rangatahi Toa is involved in.

There are 3500 rangatahi in AE and they are between the ages of 13 and 16: additionally, 28,800 rangatahi are in Y-NEET and their ages range from 15 to 19 (Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, 2013). This is a total of 32,300 rangatahi.  The makeup of the students does not reflect that of the general population of Aotearoa; instead the demographics indicate the ongoing difficulties of our education system to engage with Māori and Pasifika students. There are 3500 rangatahi in AE; 63% are Māori, 25% Pākehā and 9% Pasifika (ERO, 2010, p. 6 [Note: these percentages add up to 97% only but are a correct reflection of the 2010 report provided by ERO]). In South Auckland (the largest concentration of AE students in the country, and the core of Nga Rangatahi Toa participants) the cohort is 100% Māori and Pasifika (AimHi, 2014).

South Auckland educator Ann Milne notes that, “New Zealand’s education system has been largely silent on the topic of whiteness and the Eurocentric nature of our schooling policy and practice” (Milne, 2013, p. v). The worrying statistics evidence the gap that exists between the cultural needs of Māori and Pasifika students, and the dominant cultural paradigm that underpins the New Zealand education system. The education system appears to “make the profile… shape the student” to socio-cultural norms, and is intent on assimilating, as opposed to making “it possible for the students to become themselves” (Horton & Friere, 1990, p. 181). Wally Penetito describes this as a system that “consistently treated [Māori learners] paternalistically, watching them to see whether they were capable of being as good as Pākehā” (Penetito, 2010, p. 51).

Aside from what are often negative media portrayals, AE and Y-NEET rangatahi are largely invisible to the public eye; the students are thus both a marginalised and pathologised group. Through the media, AE and Y-NEET rangatahi tend to merge into faceless “others”, as opposed to vulnerable individuals requiring alternative methods of engagement.  As a result the rangatahi often do not experience the quality education enjoyed by their peers. The further from the mainstream system rangatahi become, the more pronounced their lack of access to formal education, and hence to opportunity (see Higgins and Nairn, this text).

History demonstrates that AE is not an alternative pathway to self-knowledge and self-efficacy, but rather little more than a waiting-room for entry into Y-NEET. Successful transition (defined as being involved in tertiary study, enrolled back into mainstream, or in employment) for AE students sits nationally at just 37% (ERO, 2010, p. 66).

A core focus of Ngā Rangatahi Toa then is to address and reverse the harm perpetrated by the universal rangatahi experience of being “shaped” in an image not of their own making. The overwhelming and unacceptable loss of potential drives the kaupapa of Ngā Rangatahi Toa. As a result of its singular focus on releasing potential, Ngā Rangatahi Toa alumni currently enjoy a 100% successful transition rate to tertiary study, re-entry to mainstream or employment (NRTa, 2014, p. 2). To meet its goals, Ngā Rangatahi Toa takes a strength-based approach, focusing on cross-societal narratives.

Rangatahi who are excluded from the mainstream have reduced opportunities. This group does, however, possess its own social capital. Their exclusion from the status quo, and being described as “anti-social”, renders the active networks and communities within this group as value-negative (often a self-perpetuating label); any potential for wider community relevance is largely dismissed, thus reproducing societal inequalities. By focusing on the world of the rangatahi, while also promoting wider community responsibility by networking rangatahi beyond their existing communities, Ngā Rangatahi Toa performs the “alchemy of consecration” (Bourdieu, 1986).  The programme carefully validates existing social capital and, at the same time, enables rangatahi to share the wider community’s social capital. In doing so, potential is realised.

Community cultural development uses community development principles of democracy, social justice, participation and advocacy in combination with cultural tools – such as theatre, storytelling and visual arts – to create community based arts practice that is powerful, has meaning and has a beneficial long term impact on participants and audience.   (Evans, 2003, p. 13)

Michelle Evans’ definition of community cultural development informs Ngā Rangatahi Toa practice. The definition refers to the overarching development principles, which are inclusive of both the participants and the role of the audience. Within this definition lies the understanding and expression of cultural identity through the arts by participants (a necessary approach to temper the “whitestream”), but with a “next step” to the societal impact of such work through audience engagement.

Ngā Rangatahi Toa projects began purely as “arts access”, trying to even out the playing field for youth who had been largely isolated from art rooms, theatres, and musical instruments. Since the beginnings in 2009, there has been purposeful programme development, strategic partnerships, and a formulated collaborative approach with communities. These strategies have emerged as an interwoven kete of cultural tools that enable transformation within the rangatahi participants and their whānau, while also working as a catalyst for wider social change. 

The practice consists of innovative, collaboratively planned community cultural development projects that embrace a diversity of experience, and develop culture through narrative. Highly skilled and professionally developed artists work collaboratively with rangatahi and their whānau to enable self-identification and self-representation, and ultimately work towards the self-determination of participants and their communities. Crucially, these projects also culminate in the production of public exhibitions and events that are immensely powerful in the brutal honesty of their open-hearted exploration of societal issues. The projects inevitably result in cross-societal engagement which enable the development of new social capital. The public events create interest and access, that of the wider community to the stories of those who have been marginalised and silenced. The universal relevance and artistic excellence of Ngā Rangatahi Toa works is a strength and focus of the practice.

Rangatahi are supported in using creative arts to respond to untold histories and also to consider the impact of these histories on their present day realities. Inspiration has been drawn from Art ACTion, a weekly group-mentoring programme based on the A.C.T.I.O.N. programme from DreamYard in the Bronx, one of the Out of School programmes honoured by the US President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Art ACTion honours action, celebrating the role of the artist as subversive and revolutionary. In Aotearoa the focus is on rangatahi unpacking the true history of Tamaki Mākaurau, and considering the history of protest and striving for social justice through creative arts. Rangatahi are hosted by a variety of community partners including the Auckland Museum, Ngāti Whātua and the Polynesian Panthers. Alongside the partners, rangatahi examine histories such as the Polynesian migration across the Pacific, the Takaparawha occupation, the gentrification of the inner-city suburbs, and Māori and Pasifika migration to South Auckland. Rangatahi are guided through a process of contextualising themselves in the rich history of their city and then, with their artist-mentors, are supported in developing a creative response to their new knowledge. Many rangatahi choose to place their own stories of poverty, struggle and resistance into what is for them a new historical context. They create powerful installation pieces, documentary theatre works, poetry, photographic essays and short films that give rise to strong revolutionary voices. Created works are first presented to our community partners (to honour their struggle) and then to the public, in both South and Central Auckland, to spark dialogue.

Culturally responsive curating of programme content is crucial to rangatahi engagement and personal development. Successful transmitting of content to rangatahi, for whom trust takes time to rebuild, lies in the alignment of Ngā Rangatahi Toa programmes with the theories of Friere, in particular the unreserved pedagogy of love that underpins all mahi. “Love” is one of the most misused words in the English language, however, Ngā Rangatahi Toa practice, embodied by artist-mentors and staff, is to understand that “to love is to recognise yourself in another” (Tolle, 2005, p. 105) As a result of this kaupapa, rangatahi are able to safely reconfigure their often chaotic lives and trust enough to take strength from the challenges that would have once overwhelmed them. The life experiences that previously defined them in a negative manner usually become immensely powerful learning tools for personal development. 

It’s not just me on the stage, that’s why I can do it. I know that when I am on the stage my mentor is there with me and so is the love of my Ngā Rangatahi Toa whānau. I have this love and the love of my whānau and tipuna. It’s never just me, so standing on that stage makes me brave in the rest my life. (Rangatahi participant, NRTb, 2014, p. 3)

As an innovative organisation delivering projects which are underpinned by social and cultural entrepreneurialism, the strategic partnership direction of Ngā Rangatahi Toa is towards developing highly functional, symbiotic partnerships with key organisations. Nationally, there are ties to the Alternative Education National Body and this organisation has advised the Ministry of Education on both the AE sector and the place of creative arts within the curriculum. Internationally, Ngā Rangatahi Toa has professional links with the US Department of State (through the US Consulate and directly with the Washington office), and we are currently in conversation to establish an international exchange as part of the Ngā Rangatahi Toa leadership programme, promoting as national ambassadors those who were once seen only as “trouble-makers”.

Funding strategies focus on fostering individual giving, and the growth of the philanthropic and corporate sectors. Ngā Rangatahi Toa actively engages with corporates, enabling corporate responsibility, which is in keeping with the organisation’s inclusive model of social change and the desire, at a strategic level, to use community cultural development projects to uncover and promote a common vision of inclusive social change. Ngā Rangatahi Toa prioritises business and community partnerships with organisations rich in social capital: their decision-makers undoubtedly impact on the rangatahi, whānau and communities of Ngā Rangatahi Toa. Both strategic and symbiotic, these partnerships are, at their core, a new model of “for-profit”; a profit involving a new social capital as opposed to financial capital. In day-to-day business, at every level of the respective organisations, Ngā Rangatahi Toa and corporate partners deal in the production and distribution of social capital, with the shared view of impacting positively on New Zealand society as a whole for generations to come. Social capital in this context is viewed as reciprocal, essentially opening a channel of exchange between two previously disparate groups.

The public acknowledgement of their skills brings the rangatahi cultural paradigm and social capital into the public domain, creating a new discourse that simultaneously challenges the status quo and networks key social capital, ensuring rangatahi are seen and heard, and can therefore exercise their agency positively in re-shaping the society that excluded them. Alongside these core community cultural development projects, the Ngā Rangatahi Toa Director of Engagement coordinates the supported transition model that functions by networking rangatahi, whānau, artist-mentors, key tertiary partners and strategic community and business partners, all to enable tertiary study and internships with radio stations, television stations, film crews, and innovative and community-minded corporates such as Vodafone.

Ngā Rangatahi Toa participants have a genuine voice and are able to contribute to critical conversations on social justice, inequality and poverty, and the direct impacts these issues have on their lives. Rangatahi are gifted, self-possessed young people capable of great contributions, and through a pedagogy of love, respect, creativity and inclusivity, Ngā Rangatahi Toa is enabling those previously marginalised to fulfill their potential. Rangatahi participants have faced more than most will ever dream of, yet their smiles still light up a room and they will trust enough to get on stage and engage in truth-telling from the heart. Within these narratives are everyone’s narratives, within their lessons are everyone’s lessons. They are, as we all once were, nga rangatahi toa.

We are Manawa Ora. We are hope. We may remind you of yourself or of someone you know, or we may speak to you from a place you’ve never been. Whoever you are, our story’s the same and we hope you listen to our narratives and watch our works with your own life and whānau in mind. Not to judge or compare but to know that we are all defined by our narratives and connected by our humanity. We are all from one street, we are all from one heart. Let’s talk, let’s listen. One Love. (Rangatahi participants, NRT 2014b, p. 4)


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