Amanda Malu: Glimmers of hope in tough times

Throughout the country people are uniting to help out families.
Te Puea Marae farewells cancer patient B, wearing a beanie, after stepping up to offer her homeless family an emergency refuge while a permanent solution was found. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Te Puea Marae farewells cancer patient B, wearing a beanie, after stepping up to offer her homeless family an emergency refuge while a permanent solution was found. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Amanda Malu is acting chief executive of Plunket. The report: Child Rich Communities: Aotearoa New Zealand's 'Bright Spots' can be found on the Every Child Counts website.

Te Puea marae in Auckland has stepped up to meet a community need - providing short term housing and support for homeless families. Their practical response to an urgent need is inspirational. Community-led initiatives are not new. However, their importance to the social fabric of New Zealand is slowly being recognised.

Our country, so rich, green and clean-looking on the outside has entrenched difficult and dark issues to deal with on the inside. Family violence, inter-generational unemployment, gang life and all the by-products of poverty impact on far too many of us. Government agencies, community groups and individuals have struggled for decades to make a difference to the lives of those who have been overwhelmed by this dark tide.

Talkback callers, social commentators, government ministers and agencies all acknowledge that it appears to be getting worse.

But throughout New Zealand there are glimmers of hope, bright spots of humanity. People who care about what is happening to children and families in their neighbourhood have banded together to deal with a common issue.

Plunket, along with Unicef, Inspiring Communities and Every Child Counts, recently funded research to find out about what makes these small projects, known as community-led initiatives, successful.

We need the answers because it's become increasingly clear that dozens of government and community agencies can only do so much to help. Change must come from within, it cannot be imposed.

The research examined 21 community-led projects and services that have been making a difference to children and families, for between one and 26 years.

It found there were several essential elements to success. Local leaders, networks, local knowledge and culture were integral to change at a grass roots level. The very people many well-meaning agencies consider "poor" or "broken" were often the asset and resource that led and fuelled change.

Bruce Madden of Te Aroha Noa Community Services told the researchers, "Always see the community as resourceful. Join with them where they are at." Paula MacEwan of the Cannons Creek Koha Shed said, "Everyone has a little flame in them - the wind ignites it. I'm here to put the wind up them."

Our country, so rich, green and clean-looking on the outside has entrenched difficult and dark issues to deal with on the inside.

These are the people within communities who drive change. Success depends on these people and agencies must walk alongside them and become part of their micro-community.

Think holistically. Yes policies are right to be child-focused but we must keep in mind that children live in families and neighbourhoods. Positive changes in parents result in positive changes in children and to communities.

Counter the culture of disempowerment, encourage people to dream again, to talk about their aspirations. Too many have given up.

Annette Toupili of Gisborne's project to build community trust and caring, Tiakina Ttou Tamariki put it this way: "We are working to counter about 40 years of non-engagement by residents and over-reliance on outside agencies. We want people to realise we've got what we need and it's right here within our streets and neighbourhoods, our people."

It's also important that any community-led project is without strings, without judgment and completely co-operative.

Julia Milne from the Lower Hutt urban farm Common Unit Project told the researchers, "People have become accustomed to being 'service provided to'. If I was a hungry, broken mother, there are 53 different organisations in my area that I could go to. At Common Unity, we are not here to give out anything to people. We believe everyone has something to give, to share. We are asking people to join us and contribute.".

Success takes time, patience and trust. It can be years before the results are obvious. The results can range from reduced crime, fewer truants, more parents wanting to learn about child development, better nutrition, a strong sense of community and caring, and lots of stories of personal development.

We hear of people who started out as a sole parent and went on to university, of those who set up a group and went on to establish a small business, or people who wanted help with their children who went on to lead parenting programmes. The individual and community successes show how people, working together, can make a huge difference.

Plunket, Unicef, Inspiring Communities and Every Child Counts have all worked with and within communities for many years. We believe this research will help us, government and other agencies provide assistance in more effective and positive ways. It is pleasing to see this type of approach acknowledged with a recent commitment by Community and Voluntary Sector Minister Jo Goodhew for ongoing funding of selected community-led projects.

Inspiring Communities' experience with community-led development shows longer-term funding that is flexible works best, as does working in genuine partnership, which ensures decisions are made jointly with affected communities to build their strength. We believe it is time for a bit more risk-taking, a bit more of an inside-out approach where locals drive the change supported by integrated, strengths based social services.

And when it isn't working, adapt, don't dump. Most of the communities in our report have made changes to their approaches as they learnt what was working and what they could do better.

We encourage others to examine our research, talk to communities and consider ways to support and encourage grass roots initiatives to bring positive changes to families and communities.

- NZ Herald

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