Nga Rangatahi Toa provide rangatahi (young people) access to the creative arts, and alternative education. Auckland-based, the organisation run Manawa Ora, a 10-day mentoring programme that allows rangatahi to “develop a creative response to their life experience and cultural identity using the medium of theatre, music, or visual arts.” The programme culminates in a series of theatre performances, one of which takes place on December 17.
Evelyn talks to Dominic Hoey, a.k.a Tourettes about his experience as a Manawa Ora mentor.
Nga Rangatahi Toa has been successful in connecting well known New Zealand creatives with students who aren’t thriving in mainstream education. How did you get involved?
I met Sarah [Longbottom] who runs the programme through friends, and I just hit her up about it. After that we had a meeting and I became involved. But I totally didn’t realise what I was getting involved in. I thought it would be more of a workshop scenario. It’s way more full on, and way better. The way Sarah has set it up means you have to treat the kids and the other mentors with love and respect. So it creates this amazing environment which you don’t usually get to experience. Normally when you run a workshop it’s like, ‘ok I know what I’m talking about, so everyone listen to me’. Whereas this isn’t really like that. All of the mentors get just as much out of the programme as the kids do. It really changes your life. It’s super intense but so rewarding at the same time. I will always do it, as long as they will have me. In no uncertain terms, being involved has totally changed my life. If you put energy into a person, you can make a difference. Otherwise you can feel so hopeless a lot of the time. Through hip hop and recording out in South Auckland, and having friends from there, I knew some of what it was like to live in that community, but not to the extent that I do now.
How do the rangatahi get involved?
There’s a couple of social workers that work with the organisation, who live out in the community [South Auckland], and these people recommend the programme to some of the rangatahi. Then, quite often those who come bring friends in. Sometimes they come once or twice or sometimes they stick around. It happens quite organically, it’s the same with the mentors. I suggested to a mate to come along, and now he is mentoring as well.
How are the rangatahi matched with the mentors?
Sarah just has this amazing way of knowing who should be with who. It’s not always about skill-set, I mean, obviously, if a kid wants to be a rapper, it makes sense to connect them with a rapper. Sarah just has a way of knowing. For instance, this year, most people had one kid but I had four, at first I was worried, but then it just totally worked. The dynamic was really good. Some other mentors were matched with kids who shared similar life experiences. But this matching happens without the mentors projecting these past experiences outward. Sarah is just really good at reading people.
One of the processes of the programme is for both the mentors and the rangatahi to become vulnerable together. How does this happen?
Like I said I didn’t really know what I had signed up for, so the first time I turned up, I was like ‘man, I’m so [in] over my head’. Because a lot of these kids have been through a lot, or are currently going through a lot of shit. But one of the other mentors said to me, ‘Look man, just be open, and honest, and vulnerable and you will be fine’. So I was, and it worked. So for instance, every time something comes up, you have to be completely honest about it, in a way that you normally wouldn’t be, and you let down that facade or guard. There is also a Breakfast Club in the mornings, so everyone gets together, eats together, and there is a subject for that day and everyone will discuss it. Everyone is super open, there’s quite often crying.
What’s an example of a Breakfast Club subject?
One of them was, ‘What is your greatest fear?’ which is pretty generic, but if you are being honest with that, it can take you to some pretty crazy places. And then when Manawa Ora was on [at the ASB Theatre], at the beginning of the show, everyone would step into the spotlight, all the mentors and all the kids, one by one, and just say something vulnerable. So I said, ‘I didn’t learn to read until I was eight’. And that sets the tone for the whole show. That’s partly why you get so close to people so quickly.
What are some of the vulnerabilities that the rangatahi bring with them to the Manawa Ora programme?
All the kids are from South Auckland, which is obviously a poor area. Some kids have hard home lives, some are starting to get into crime, and just the usual shit that comes with living in an unstable community. A big part of our job, apart from teaching creative skills, is to show them that although they might have dropped out of school, or got in trouble with the law, that most of the mentors have checkered pasts too. So for example I can say to them ‘Look I didn’t finish school. I can’t read properly, but I’ve got to travel the world, because I can earn a living from writing’.
How do you manage the intensity of the relationships with the rangatahi and other youth once the programme has finished?
There’s definitely a period afterwards where you crash. The social workers still keep in touch with rangatahi, some see them every day. Sarah and some of the mentors are also in ongoing contact with the kids. We still see them socially, a few of us went to the movies, a few went to a play, and a bunch of us meet for lunch. We keep in touch on Facebook, so it’s not like you’re completely removed, but that is something we are talking about, how to make that transition not so abrupt. If there was more funding, [the relationship] is something that could go throughout the year.
Is there an understanding of the positive changes Nga Rangatahi Toa makes to the future lives of the rangatahi?
The idea is to get the kids into some form of higher education, by building their confidence. One Nga Rangatahi alumnus is training in sound engineering, and next year he will start being a mentor. There’s another guy who has come through, and he’s a mentor now. For those who stick at the programme, there’s a 100% success rate of transitioning them into high education or work. And the contacts they make are incredible. Anyone you would want to liase with in Auckland who is from a creative background goes to [the Manawa Ora performance], so even just going to the foyer after the show, and talking to people, can really change the rangatahi’s lives.
Nga Rangatahi Toa perform Manawa Ora again on December 17 in Auckland. Tickets available at www.ticketmaster.co.nz.
Dominic Hoey a.k.a Tourettes is a writer and performer based in Auckland, New Zealand. Find him here.
Evelyn Marsters has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland and is currently based in Berlin. Her focus is global health and migration, and she is Deputy Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Evelyn.