Q&A | Sam Orchard on changing the narrative, with We are Beneficiaries

Beneficiary-bashing: “I realise this is something we’ve been doing as a country for a very long time,” says Sam Orchard, whose illustrations about life on a welfare benefit went viral during the lead-up to New Zealand’s general election in September.

A comic writer and artist, Sam reached tipping point after Green Party Co-leader Metiria Turei resigned in the wake of backlash to her admission that she’d lied while on the Domestic Purposes (now Jobseekers) Benefit, in order to secure enough funds to support herself and her baby daughter while she completed a law degree.

He says he was fed up with this status quo rejection of Metiria’s experience, and in a moment of passion got some friends together to draw and rewrite the narrative of ‘who beneficiaries are’. Turns out the group’s frustration resonated with a wide range of people, also sick of how beneficiaries have been pigeon-holed as “lazy bludgers”.

Before he’d had time to think it through too much, the drawings and stories he and his friends were working on were being shared by hundreds of people. This led to the formation of We Are Beneficiaries, a social media project that has now accumulated thousands of followers and social media shares.

We Are Beneficiaries is what I’d call a pop-up social media project. It’s a continuation of the public conversation that started after Metiria resigned, and it did something that media, politics and communities have struggled to do over the past decade: it humanised discussion about the experience of being a beneficiary.

“This is the one issue that really spoke to me [during the election campaign] and it was being shut down in a really yucky way,” says Sam. “I’m an artist and a lot of my friends are artists, and because art isn’t really valued in a capitalist world, a lot of us have been on the benefit.”

We Are Beneficiaries posts are relatable to a wide cross-section of people, and the pop-up project is an example of how digital media can open different spaces for public discussion and enable agenda-setting from the fringes, or at least by people who don’t call themselves journalists or politicians.

I was curious to hear more about Sam’s perspective on how the project has evolved, what spaces it was trying to fill, and the behind-the-scenes thinking that has shaped We Are Beneficiaries.

He explains the project in more detail below.

Hannah

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On agenda-setting: “It felt like it was really important for me to continue that conversation when it was shut down.”

In the lead-up to the election there was a lot of stuff with politicians saying how the economy is really good, everything’s going well, New Zealand’s wonderful. Then Metiria Turei stood up at the Green AGM and said ‘actually, one of the things that’s not working in this country is inequality’.

She talked about how the welfare net was broken and it made people poor and it made people lie. When I heard this, I was like ‘oh someone’s talking about communities I’m involved in and people who I know and my own experiences, this is really wonderful’.

After she had disclosed her situation, instead of the conversation being about ‘what is it about the benefit that makes people lie in order to feed their children’ it became about Metiria’s personal responsibility, her personal choices and how poor was she really?

There was some really gross, neoliberal stuff that individualised her experiences and that I think played out in really racist and misogynist ways. Me and some friends said, ‘Oh, this feels yuck’.

We started to draw pictures of ourselves and our experiences on the benefit or what we wished for; what we hoped the system could be like. Then we put it up on Facebook. And it just went wild. It was a conversation that a lot of people wanted to have and lots of people wanted to share their experiences as well.

On challenging narratives: Discussing beneficiaries has been a really one-sided conversation framed as ‘anyone who is on a benefit is definitely lazy and it’s definitely their fault’.”

When I started the WAB project I was thinking, ‘oh the media, they’re awful’. But the more I’ve learnt, the more I’ve realised beneficiary-shaming is something we’ve been doing as a country for a very long time.

Over the last nine years – but it’s probably longer actually – the conversation about who beneficiaries are has received a one-sided framing. We talk about people who are on the Jobseeker Support as somehow being bludgers and lazy, yet we don’t talk about people who get the pension in the same way, or people who get loans from the government for their first house.

There are different things that are valued that the government provides for us and that have different labels. There are lots of people who get tax breaks for things and we call them ‘tax breaks’ not ‘welfare’ but it’s the same thing – you’re benefitting from the state.

It feels like there’s a culture that has grown that is a combination of politics and media and community. It’s a culture that says if you get help from WINZ – or also disability and housing – you are somehow lazy and you somehow don’t deserve it. It’s like we did a really good job of selling this idea of what a beneficiary was, so people started to believe it; they started to forget the humanity of people who are beneficiaries.

It’s not just one system, and changing this perception of beneficiaries is a collective responsibility.

On reacting, processing, and actioning: “I think a lot of this was because no one had listened.”

I wasn’t expecting the project to take off so much. I was really surprised by how many people were writing in all the time – with really long stories in particular. I think a lot of this was because no one had listened. Metiria Turei was saying that similar things had happened to her when she disclosed her situation. So many people started contacting her and saying ‘that’s my story too’. These are people who have been shut down by the system and told to be quiet and to just, shut up or else you won’t get your money.

There’s a lot of space on the other side of that to hold this conversation.

So, there was a process underway in our team, some people were working on editing the stories to make them cohesive and flow and cut them down into bite-sized chunks. Because it was an image based project the story needed to fit on the art for social media and be readable. But also, the brevity was about the way the conversation happened with Metiria: people wanted to know all these little tiny details about where she was living at the time and what conversation she had with whom and stuff like that.

“There are lots of people who get tax breaks for things and we call them ‘tax breaks’ not ‘welfare’ but it’s the same thing – you’re benefitting from the state.”

We just wanted to do short pieces without that level of detail to show that, actually, you don’t need to know everything about us. You just need to know what our wishes are for the system, and how we felt in really small moments. That added the power of the stories; it made it really obvious when people layered on their own assumptions to that in the comments, which was kind of revealing.

In terms of the art, we tried to keep it quite random really. We wanted the storyteller to be a stranger to the artist. That felt like a gift: like saying ‘your story is important’ and an artist who doesn’t know you from anything else is going to sit down and invest in your story and create art for you.

There’s something about this process that just makes me think that, in our natural state, as humans, we’re actually just kind to each other. And we want the best for each other even if there’s nothing in it for us or there’s no investment. These people are really willing to send in their, often quite vulnerable and quite traumatising stories, and these artists can say ‘yup, I can hold that and create something beautiful out of it’.

On growing an audience: “I’d like to think it opened up people’s eyes to who beneficiaries are in New Zealand.”

Reading the comments was hard, but mostly it was people who were like ‘me too’. That was by far the most common type of comment to come up. We were really lucky in having a quite massive range of diverse stories, so the project had broad appeal.

One of the early stories features a white guy who is a family man who had worked all his life and happened to get made redundant. He had used his savings because his work didn’t pay him out or something like that… I think he got shared thousands of times because he was a different face to what people expected beneficiaries to look like.

Early on we had a few of those different faces popping up, where people were like ‘oh I know someone like that’. That kept that audience growing. It’s quite interesting to see which stories get shared more than others, but I’d like to think it opened up people’s eyes to who beneficiaries are in New Zealand, and that they’re probably people you know and in fact they’re probably people who are your family members and people who live next door to you.

On comments and ‘fake news’: “A lot of us have experienced people within WINZ telling us that we’re liars. it felt really important not to do that.”

Thinking about whether someone had lied in a story, I just thought: What would their motivations be? And if they did lie it would be coming out of a feeling – of something like isolation – and that might be exacerbated, they might hyperbolise the story, but I feel like it still comes from the same place – the only reason they would do it is that it has a sense of truth in it.

So, we have operated on a culture of just believing what comes through and that might be quite naive and I’m ok with that. I think the value of operating from a place of belief and generosity is much more important for this project, given that WINZ does have a culture of assuming people lie.

“You don’t need to know everything about us. You just need to know what our wishes are for the system, and how we felt in really small moments.”

Besides – it wasn’t about one individual story; it was about us beneficiaries as a collective voice. You know you might have one person saying ‘this is what happened to me as a single mum’ and you might have another one saying ‘yes, something similar happened to me’, and another one and another one.

It’s those collective experiences and collective stories that start to reveal a pattern. The project builds truth in a collective rather than an individual way.

On media strategy and authenticity: “I think we’re utilising alternative media for social change.”

I tell ya – if the Ministry of Social Development had approached us and said ‘I want you to do some research about this’, I’d be like ‘show me the money’. But that’s not what it’s been about. This project just felt like something that needed to happen.

It was about generosity to say ‘your voices are important, we want to hear them, we want to share them, we want to tell them’, and I think that’s why it worked. It’s not about any sort of capitalism, it’s had a sort of authenticity and organic-ness.

If we had of started the project by saying ‘we’re going to do some very valid research and do it as a research piece’, no one would be interested. I mean, I wouldn’t be interested…

On where to from here: “The easiest way to get people to listen is to talk in their language.”

I came into the project thinking I don’t know what needs to change but I know that WINZ needs to do better. And having sat and read almost 200 stories and pondered them, I feel like there are some really key themes that can be pulled out of that.

The change that we want to happen is for WINZ and social welfare in New Zealand to do better. And I’d like the Ministry to listen to that. Because we are operating with alternative media, the easiest way to get people to listen is to talk in their language. So, we want to wrap up by engaging the Minister of Social Development, Minister of Disability, and Minister of Housing with a report. That’s the format in which we’re going to be packaging up these wonderful, beautiful, creative, artistic pieces.

There are politicians – both in Labour and the Greens – who have previously have said a better social welfare system is something they thought was worth investing in, so we are going to be telling them: ‘Here’s some ways you can invest, here’s what your clients, us beneficiaries, have said.’

Sam Orchard is a comic writer and artist. Find him online at www.roostertailscomic.com and follow We Are Beneficiaries on Facebook.

Hannah Spyksma is Media & Climate Editor at Impolitikal. She is currently completing a doctorate in journalism at Queensland University of Technology. Read more by Hannah.