The son of a Mongrel Mob president, former professional boxer Dave Letele is now helping South Aucklanders get jobs, get fit and get fed. Reiná Vaai meets the ‘Brown Buttabean’ at his Manukau HQ.
“I should’ve been in prison or dead by now,” says Dave Letele, also known as Brown Buttabean. In his early 20s he almost died after drunkenly stabbing himself in the chest with a knife. He remembers waking up in Middlemore Hospital to his mother in tears and his father in handcuffs and accompanied by prison guards. Now, years later, the former professional boxer is sitting in his new building, Buttabean HQ, following a Zoom meeting with the prime minister. He’s a South Auckland community leader, a media fixture – including recently in the New York Times – and, most crucially, an inspiration to the thousands of “Buttabeaners” who have signed up to his community health and fitness programmes.
This is Dave Letele; a fighter. Bold and unapologetic, he now uses his platform to advocate for families in need. His most recent meeting with Jacinda Ardern was no exception. Letele pleaded with her: “our people need to feel safe”.
You need only take two steps into Buttabean HQ in Manukau to know this is Letele’s mission… to make people feel safe. Buttabean HQ is where Letele and his team run fitness classes, health programmes and community food drives. Established six years ago, it has drawn in a community of over 14,000 wanting to make positive and healthy changes in their lives. The food drives have blocked traffic thanks to the number of families stopping in – a sign of Letele’s profile in the community, but also a devastating indication of the number of people in need.
The first face to greet you at Buttabean HQ is a friendly one: Tino. She’s part of the Buttabean team that encountered local families in desperate circumstances over lockdown. “The stories we’ve heard, they’re just heartbreaking,” she says. Thankfully, their warehouse is filled with boxes and food ready to distribute to families in South Auckland.
Next to Tino is a mother who relates to Letele’s journey and the Buttabean mission. The woman, who declines to be named, has spent time in prison. Upon release, she found Buttabean through its fitness classes. Now she’s using her freedom to give back to others as part of the Buttabean team. Bustling around them is Phil, who – like Letele himself – was once morbidly obese. Now he is employed full time, loading boxes with ease. As Tino puts it, “this is the house of inspiration”.
Many employers don’t take chances on people with backgrounds like these, but Buttabean HQ isn’t an ordinary place – they don’t want it to be. It’s radical, progressive and positive; in that way, it reflects its leader, Dave Letele. Having grown up with a father who was the president of the Mongrel Mob and in and out of prison throughout his childhood, Letele understands what it means to struggle. During his younger years, he went right off the rails.
“I ended up moving into a tinnie house with my cousins in Māngere, living a bad lifestyle, fighting to survive, selling weed to survive,” he says. “We had prepaid power with about 10 of us living in this house.”
It took a near-death experience, an emergency passport and orders from his uncle in Singapore to move to Australia immediately to pull him out of the downward spiral. From there he embarked on a journey that led to him owning businesses, playing rugby league all over the world, becoming a professional boxer, losing almost 100 kg in body weight, and starting over.
Now back home in South Auckland, Letele has become a leader in his community. And he knows its young people are watching him.
“These guys need role models but role models who have been there and done it. You’re never going to listen to someone who hasn’t been through it. It’s like trying to listen to a personal trainer who’s 300 kilos. You won’t listen. But you offer them that glimpse, show them this is what your life could be like – ‘I’ve been through what you’re going through, you don’t have to go down that same road’ – then that’s enough.”
He warns it’s not just about giving people hope, “it’s about showing them how to do it too”.
Letele and his team recently received their first major funding from the Ministry of Social Development. While Buttabean welcomes all kinds of support, he’s dismissive of those fly-by-night helpers who only seem to be doing it for the ‘gram.
“It’s funny because we get a lot of corporates saying, ‘can we come and volunteer labour?’ One thing we’re not short of is labour. What we need is money. It’s cool that you want to help but that stuff is ticking a box. If you want to help, come and help but bring some money. Or bring a big truckload of food for the food bank. They see what we’re doing, they see us on the news, they want to take their photo, do their social media, pack a few boxes and then that’s them for the year of social good.”
Letele can be confrontational and he admits that some people may find his approach off-putting. The most common feedback he gets is, “be humble”. As a Māori and Pacific advocate in the community, he’s not surprised by the advice, but has no qualms about ignoring it.
“If I had been humble and kept quiet, would we have gotten Vicki out?”
Vicki is his sister. She had cancer while in prison and Letele used all his contacts to campaign so his sister wouldn’t have to spend her last days in a cell. His campaign was successful and Vicki was released before passing away in 2017. Subsequently, a report by the deputy health and disability commissioner released in May 2019 found the Department of Corrections, a doctor and a nurse failed to respond appropriately to Vicki’s symptoms during her time in prison.
The campaign for Vicki wasn’t just to hold the Department of Corrections accountable, but to humanise the experiences of people in the prison system. It was a call for empathy, compassion and respect. The social stigma of a prison sentence is a mark that a person carries forever. Regardless of how far you have walked away, the mark always resurfaces when applying for jobs, rental properties and loans. The hard-working mother packing boxes in Buttabean HQ is an example of the need for change. This is ultimately what Buttabean HQ provides – a home for people who believe that everyone deserves a chance to start again.
Letele wants anyone who has ever walked a similar path to know they can turn their life around, as he did.
“Youth these days, crime is so glamourised. If you’re a young kid and you’re poor, which sucks, you’re not good at school and you’re not really good at sport, you’re looking around and you’re thinking, who’s got the money? Drug dealers. Gang members. The cars, the bikes, the girls, the gold, so that’s what you have to aspire to.
“But I want to let them know the other side of it. We had warehouses filled with cars too. But in that same warehouse, my cousin hung herself. So what’s the point? There’s another way you can be happy and you can have anything you want in life and do it legally. It comes down to how bad you want it and how much you are willing to work. It takes time. You can’t give up.”
His past experiences continue to guide him as he remembers the moment he was sitting outside a drug house, recovering from a stab wound, and thought to himself, “surely I’m meant for more than this”.
Looking around Buttabean HQ many years later, it’s clear that he was.