Jackie Clark tells it like it is at an awards ceremony, 2018. (Photo: Paula Penfold)

‘You don’t know their lives’: A call for empathy from The Aunties’ Jackie Clark

Today Jackie Clark is at home in South Auckland, tired after a long morning of delivering care packages to the women she walks alongside as the founder of The Aunties, a support community for those living with the effects of family violence. She’s also exhausted by all the opinions being shared about the families at the centre of the new Covid-19 community outbreak.

As told to Leonie Hayden

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Everyone assumes they’re brown. Everyone. And they might be. They also might be well-off white people. Geographically, South Auckland is huge and there are four million dollar mansions out here too.

My point isn’t about who they are or aren’t, or what led them to make the decisions they made. My point is: you don’t know.

I want people to understand the circumstances that can lead people to making decisions you and I might not make.

The complexities go on and on, what families go through out here. I’m so impressed that most people do what they’re told, particularly given the circumstances. As someone pointed out this morning, the Dawn Raids weren’t that long ago. And all of a sudden we expect everyone to do what they’re told all the time?

I work with people that don’t access the news and rely on their friends and family on Facebook for information. They message me: “What do you think about this piece, is it right? So-and-so said this, is that right?” They go to people they trust because there are so many sources of news available now days. And then people like Billy whats-his-face Te Kahika come along, and look like someone they can trust. If you’re living a life that’s already complex, it gets really difficult to figure what’s the truth and what’s not.

One of most profound effects of that loss of trust is that people find it hard to make decisions. The PTSD brain makes you doubt absolutely everything.

Particularly for the people I work with, when you’ve been shat on all your life, your decision-making skills aren’t the best. They don’t trust themselves, everybody’s told them they’re useless and worthless. Lots of them have problems with that. And they don’t have any trust in the government authorities. All that looks like to them is Work and Income giving them a hard time. They used to do what everybody wanted them to do, and look where it got them?

Particular people in particular areas of New Zealand don’t have any power. And when something like this happens, they go “Ah well. We’ve all gotta die sometime.” It’s too easy to make assumptions, oh that person’s a fuckwit because they didn’t listen. They didn’t do as they were told. There’s so many variables, and most people don’t know what the variables are.

I’m not talking about that family, who the hell knows what their circumstances are? Nobody does. But there are people that don’t know what’s going on. They know there’s a pandemic, and that’s about it. They just live their lives as they’ve always lived their lives, from worry to worry, from pay cheque to pay cheque. Because why should they do any different? What’s the system ever done for them?

What matters is that people need to think about these things, and not make the assumption that everybody has the same knowledge as them and level of education, and the same trust in the processes as them. There are people who are marginalised and under-resourced and stepped on all the time.

I think about what it’s like to walk through the world feeling trusting, and trusting your decisions, how powerful that is. So when that power is taken away from you, systemically, what hope is there?

I was thinking about all of the Aucklanders running away to their holiday homes, and how ironic it is they’re running away from the stolen land they’re living on. Running to more stolen land to holiday on. It’s colonisation writ large. People all round Auckland today getting their coffee without masks on. And all these people on social media this morning calling for the families to be fined or arrested.

They don’t want to understand. They can’t imagine that not everyone’s like them.

A family had contact with another Covid-positive family. You don’t know what’s happening in their lives. It could be that they’re thoughtless bastards, absolutely. It could well be that. But what if it’s not that? Then you’ve made judgement, and spread your views all over social media, which they will more than likely see in some form or other, and then what? You’ve caused enormous damage and harm.

Think about the power of social media and how these families will be reading things about them online.

We’ve been asked to be kind, and people happily retweeted and reposted and shared that around. Yes, be kind. But I really do think people have conflated kindness with niceness. Being kind is far, far deeper than being nice. It requires you to have empathy and compassion for circumstances that you have no knowledge or experience of.

People think empathy is that thing where you feel everything that someone else is feeling. It’s not. It’s when you take what somebody else is feeling, you hold space for it, and then you give it back to them. It just means you hold space for them, and that can look like holding your tongue, because you don’t know their life or their experience. Withholding judgement or opinion, making space for their life, because it’s different from yours.

All I’m asking people to do is hold space for these families. If you don’t have any knowledge or experience of their situation, then maybe accept that you don’t. Because if you don’t, you have no place to judge them.




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