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The people spoke – but did anyone listen?

Rebuilding and healing broken communities can be a slow and frustrating process. But as Max Rashbrooke writes, it starts with listening to the powerful stories of those with lived experience.

Just before lockdown, in Porirua’s Te Rauparaha Arena, a reversal of fortunes took place. At the People’s Voices conference, organised by Wesley Community Action, the nine keynote speakers were all individuals living in or with poverty, trauma and addiction. The audience of 160 NGO workers and public servants just had to sit and listen.

The idea was to foreground the voices of people that the public sector supposedly serves; to flip the usual power dynamic, to spark change in the way the government works. On the day, it was undeniably effective. The audience, sat around circular tables under a high-vaulted ceiling, listened with an attentiveness rarely extended to boilerplate PowerPoint presentations.

It was clearly unfamiliar territory for some of the speakers, too. Nicola Adams (Nix) – 33, born in Kaitāia – told the audience, “I’ve taken about five Rescue Remedies, so if I fall asleep, you’ll know why.” Instead she shared a harrowing story of teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, and a four-and-a-half-year spiral of addiction, drug dealing, prostitution and fraud. But she also talked about her recovery, the Facebook page she made to document it (now on 190,000 likes), and her 2019 Inside New Zealand tour, which doubled as a platform for people’s stories of recovery and the promotion of local businesses.

Too often, she said, people going through the same kind of trauma as her found that government help simply wasn’t available. And she had a plain message for public servants: “Surveys and census forms are absolutely useless. It’s a lazy way to accumulate data … [So] get out of the office. Conduct research at the ground level. Keep the communities informed at every step of the process. Maintain the integrity of your stance. [Then] people are more likely to work alongside you rather than going to their grave fighting you.”

The pervasive – and destructive – influence of meth was a recurring theme. Dennis Makalio, a local community leader, noted the absence of anti-meth programmes. “It’s been 30 years we have been asking for them … [So] let’s not blame the gangs … Let’s blame yous.” These are not the kind of words normally delivered from the conference platform.

But if more government support was invoked, the speakers – mostly female, mostly Māori and Pasifika – were clear that it couldn’t be delivered in the classic top-down manner by agencies claiming to “fix” people. Public services should be run by people who’d “been there” – recovered meth users leading support classes, for instance – because they’d be listened to and trusted by the community.

Agencies also needed to let families succeed on their own terms. Referencing the Heke whānau from Once Were Warriors, Lizzie Makalio McMillan said bluntly: “We will never, ever, be the Brady Bunch. It doesn’t work like that. We are going to be the Hekes. We just need to be a better version of the Hekes.”

Perhaps the most powerful story belonged to Tricia Walsh, an East Coast grandmother of 13 who described the way that her own parents, battling multiple demons, had passed their trauma onto her. By the time she was 12 she had had 50 different abusers, including her father.

“There was no joy in my childhood,” she told the conference. Her mother pushed her through windows and kicked her in the head. “She would beat me until she had no breath left in her … [with] the continuous, unrelenting blows of a mother who couldn’t show that she loved me.”

The audience listened in pin-drop silence, with the attentiveness of people who are profoundly uncomfortable but cannot look away. Some cried. All were implicated, indirectly, in Walsh’s story, the delivery of which alternated between resignation and a kind of flat anger.

Confronted with situations like hers, the public sector response – placing people in family homes and other institutions – was a further abuse, “raping us of our mana, our voices, our choices”. She condemned agencies for perpetuating a “spray and walk away syndrome … You come into our lives, you spray, and you walk away.”

She told the audience: “We need you to go back to your spaces and to your systems and to see us as human beings, because we have been dehumanised. We are a number, we are a case. We are not seen as people any more.”

Walsh’s own experience had fitted that pattern. “Nobody ever said, ‘What’s your story?’ No one asked what was going on [in my head].” Too often the responses had been functional, medical. “Did I need pills? No, I needed love, I needed aroha. I needed someone to provide the environment where I could be the best possible version of myself.”

Walsh ended on a note sounded by several other speakers. “Yous don’t have the answers,” she told the attendees. “We have the answers. We are the experts in our lives.”

There was no question that the people had spoken. But what did the attendees hear? And what changes, six months later, have the speeches sparked? Steve Flude, who has worked in both the government and NGO worlds, says he appreciated the forum’s “extremely powerful speeches and experiences”, though he queried the focus on meth. “Using meth is a reflection of something else,” he says. “Providing people with meth treatment services is definitely part of it [the answer]. But if people are coming from a broken community that’s been broken for generations, experiencing colonisation, poor housing and the rest of it, you have to think about all of that.”

At the forum, Flude adds, “People were saying, ‘Great day, but I’ve got to go back to my ivory tower – and am I actually going to be able to change anything as a result of today’s conference?”

His thoughts are echoed by a central government worker who – speaking on condition of anonymity – says that hui like People’s Voices “are really powerful, they move people, and people want to make change”. But, they add, “We all leave, and after a day we get caught back into our grind. What I think is missing is, how are those that attended held accountable for change? And what changes?”

How, in other words, can government be made more answerable to communities in a permanent sense? “Until those elements are also put on the table at these gatherings, I feel it’s almost unfair to ask people to share their stories, to be so vulnerable to groups of strangers.”

Turning around the ship of state, in other words, is a slow process. And the speakers’ demand – that government spend more, while giving poor communities more control over that spending – may be a hard sell to a middle-class public that generally doesn’t like either of those ideas, let alone both of them at once.

But a more optimistic take is offered by Phil Dinham, Oranga Tamariki’s director of youth justice development. The forum, he says, lent weight to attempts by the agency – which has come under intense criticism from Māori – “to do everything in partnership with communities, especially Māori communities, and have the community co-design anything new …. Big government can have its policies, but unless funding gets to the grassroots in a way in which people with lived experience [of poverty] can access and use and get benefit from, we aren’t doing as well as we could.”

For Dinham, a clear message had come from those recounting their experiences of trauma and recovery: “It was the people who identified with them who helped them, more [so] than people from the state agencies.” This encouraged him to think, “What if some of the funding I have got, some of the resources I control, rather than just putting those into fixing a broken individual, we spent instead on family-centric approaches, on people who can actually, with authenticity, reach into those families and be trusted and work alongside them?”

To that end, he has been talking to Oranga Tamariki colleagues about whether they could help Makalio and others expand their “New Zealand P Pull” anti-meth community movement. A small change, potentially – but one which, if replicated across government, might start to honour the voices of those who spoke so powerfully back in March.



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