Levi Armstrong's dad was a gang member and he grew up poor and did it tough. If he'd ended up in trouble, nobody would have been surprised. But Levi isn't part of a problem; he's part of a solution.

Levi established Patu Aotearoa, a fitness programme that started in Hawke's Bay. I know this because last Wednesday I got up at stupid o'clock in the morning to attend a session.

So did about 30 other people. There were mums, dads, the young and the old. All Māori. And a great many of them, I'm told, have emerged from dark places toward a light that Patu has provided. I was the only one with a hangover.


Among the crew was a bloke who can be described in many ways, but it's difficult not to begin with his tattooed face. It's inked red and black. Even if you're brave enough to stare long enough to read it, you'd do well to see that it says NOTORIOUS. As in Mongrel Mob Notorious.

Puk joined the gang a few years back and used to engage in the popular Kiwi pastime of hitting the pipe, the glass BBQ — smoking pure methamphetamine. It's a recreation that's cutting a swathe through New Zealand and creating health and social harms while costing the country a fortune in lost productivity.

When Puk wanted out of the drug lifestyle, he struggled to find footholds. He needed something to cling to.

It's all well and good telling people to stop something, but what's invariably required is a substitute — something that fills the hole left by the undesirable behaviour.

That's where Patu comes in.

Is Puk still in the gang? Yes. Are we all better off for the fact he's off the drug? Yes. Without question. He's a better man. This might not be an ideal solution in the eyes of those who want to smash gangs out of existence, but we don't live in an ideal world. Around the fringes we operate on small wins.

Others at Patu aren't moving away from meth or in gangs, but it's still a journey of one sort or another. For everyone it's about achieving a specific goal of getting fit and part of a far bigger, more general, goal of being a better person. A better mum or dad, a better employee, or simply feeling better about life. In some communities, these things are all too rare.

This couldn't happen at the likes of Les Mills. This is not a Les Mills crowd. This is a crowd that calls each other "cuz" and cheers each other on with "chuuur". This is for the community by the community. That's why it works.

Here, the Mongrel Mob isn't something strange that's frightening and only read about in the paper. It's a cousin, a brother, a neighbour. This is the New Zealand most of New Zealand ignores unless it sees it in a headline. It's a part of New Zealand that is seen as highly negative. But in this big warehouse it's a place of betterment.

The Government tends to see itself as having a monopoly on solving community problems, but in many areas, communities themselves will be where the solutions are. We just need to enable them.

Puk is a success story, and Levi should inspire us.

The session started with a warm-up game of gridiron. The first two times the ball came at me I dropped it. I was the nerd kid at school PE. The third and fourth times I managed to catch it but fell over. At the end, Levi announced me as MPV.

Yip. I was the kid who got a certificate for participating. And I genuinely loved it.

When the hour-long crossfit session ended, Puk had hardly broken a sweat; I was dying.

Levi invited a guy to lead us in stretching to warm down. Everybody dropped to the floor and assumed uniform positions. I collapsed and tried to follow. Sweat was dripping off my every limb and my lungs tugged for more air than they could process. I resented red wine and all people who make it.

Oxygen-deprived, I managed all of the co-ordination of a newborn zebra. A woman next to me took pity and whispered instructions with a kind smile, "Knee there, leg there".
I untangled myself.

Ka pai, she said.

Thank you, I replied.

Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He has also been appointed to Te Uepū - the Government's Justice Advisory Group.