On a balmy Friday evening, Ponsonby's funky watering-hole Golden Dawn gets busy as those who work in advertising and the media, fashion and the arts, and some of the hipper IT start-ups farewell another working week over cocktails and music.

Twenty-five minutes down the Southern Motorway, it's a different world. Otara or Papakura residents are more likely to be unwinding with friends and family at home - or gearing up for a shift in one of the industries which support the creative sector.

There's also many who don't have permanent homes or jobs and a large percentage of rangatahi (young people) who, despite having talent to burn, can't see themselves working in the creative industries.

But, in an office in the same heritage building as Golden Dawn, South Auckland is very much on the mind and in the heart of educator Sarah Longbottom.


The founder and executive director of Nga Rangatahi Toa Creative Arts Initiative, Longbottom is determined youth in areas like South Auckland get the same opportunities to take a seat at the tables of our creative industries as those growing up in, say, Herne Bay or Mt Eden.

Hers is a mentoring and transition programme that connects New Zealand's top creative talent with oft-marginalised youngsters in alternative education.

Through performance, visual arts and music, ran

Hers is a mentoring and transition programme that connects New Zealand's top creative talent with oft-marginalised youngsters in alternative education.


gatahi aged 13-16 who have been excluded from mainstream school get to realise their creative and leadership potential; it's about them transforming their lives through creativity and education.

From a humble head office, provided free of charge by her friend, businessman Stephen Marr, Longbottom could be about to launch a revolutionary development.

Using the 1989 Education Act, which allows the Ministry of Education to approve schools of special character, she wants to start an educational institute where teaching follows the national curriculum - "after all, it is one of the best in the world" - but is grounded in the visual and performing arts.

The curriculum would be covered by registered teachers with small learning groups led by teaching-artists.

It will be a school by day and, at night and on weekends, a community centre where the wider population - whanau of pupils, for example - can come to explore their own creativity as well as the meditation and yoga encouraged within the initiative's arts programmes.

The school will also be a creative hub, including visual arts and recording studios and rehearsal space for the working artists already connected to the group.

If it sounds like a big dream, Longbottom has had plenty of those and made many of them a reality. What's more, after 15 years in education, youth work, facilitation and creative arts, she's earning attention and accolades from those who believe she may be on to something.

The idea is loosely based on youth programmes run in New York, where theatre professionals and young people join forces to tell new stories.

In 2010 Longbottom, then pedagogical leader for South Auckland alternative education, was awarded a US State Department scholarship to visit the US and look at alternative education models, with a specific focus on the arts.

In 2012 she won an Arts Access Aotearoa National Community Partnership Award and, a year later, was named a Vodafone World of Difference recipient and used part of her scholarship to undertake a month-long research project on youth mentoring programmes in New York.

This year she was named the NZ International Woman of Courage and in August became the Auckland Arts Regional Trust's emerging creative entrepreneur.

The cash prize is going toward international research into the school she wants to start where, instead of focusing solely on NCEA credits, youngsters will be encouraged to develop the critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork and creative skills we're told will be most highly valued in future working worlds.

At present, the initiative has a social worker, counsellor and youth mentor, who take referrals from alternative education classrooms and provide support to rangatahi and their whanau while artist-mentors ensure stories are shared through performance-based projects.

The scheme came out of Longbottom's work with the AIMHI (Achievement in Multi-Cultural High Schools) group of nine South Auckland secondary schools, which looks at different ways to raise achievement levels among their predominantly Maori and Pasifika pupils.

"If we don't set high standards and expectations for these kids, it's like admitting we don't think they're capable of great things," she says.

"Clear guidelines and our wrap-around work with whanau alleviates the immense stress our rangatahi deal with.

"It means our rangatahi know someone has got their back - is in it with them - and they can just get on with learning in a safe environment."

Seeing the success of early projects, Longbottom became increasingly aware of the need for greater acknowledgement of the arts as a teaching tool and as a viable pathway for rangatahi.

She went about researching, planning and talking with friends and former colleagues to recruit artist mentors and launch her creative initiative. Ultimately it meant giving up a regular job with a regular pay packet; Longbottom gave up her lease and "couch-surfed" for nine months so money she might have spent on rent could go into the scheme. She and relied on part-time relief teaching to get by.

In six years, the initiative has become a respected and valued partner for many alternative education providers, one recognised for innovation and success. That recognition now extends to the wider arts and education communities.

"To me teaching is an act of love - you have to love those you connect to in this way if it is to be truly transformational.

"I thought we were all there because we were committed to the kids and making a difference, but there seems to be an ever-widening gap, in some cases, between teachers and their students."

Longbottom says close friends had talked about their school days being dreadful because their teachers didn't seem to like or understand them, let alone to be able to teach them.

She's inspired by the many excellent things about our education system, but also by the need for change that the inadequacies highlight, and is determined to use core values like love and acceptance, energy and creativity, collaboration and community to build something new for a new world.