How I failed the community of Merivale & how that was the best outcome for our economy

I was the manager of the Merivale Community Centre from 2008 to 2013. The community centre was opened in 1996 by the residents of Merivale to support their young people and whānau who struggled.

At the end of 2012 we had  19 contracts that came from Ministry of Social Development (that covered Child Youth and Family and Work and Income), Ministry of Justice for a time, Department of Internal Affairs, private trusts and then other smaller contracts. Every year (with the exception of CYF) we had provide a report and to reapply for funding; mostly each of those documents ran to over 20 pages. Unfortunately the reports and funding applications were different enough that cut and paste would only suffice for the opening sections.

We would normally put 10 percent in each application to cover management and administration. By the time I finished, most of our providers refused to provide administration costs in the drive to focus on “frontline services.” In 2008, the funding wasn’t enough to meet our administration and management costs; by 2013 it was desparate and we regularly attempted to get emergency support to be able to provide a structure to run our services within.

The core services that we provided were youth services like after school and holiday programmes and social services like one on one whānau support. Our staff were, and are amazing, generous people. I tried to top up their lack of real financial award by supporting them to get qualifications and having a whānau atmosphere so if they had to go to support their whānau, it didn’t penalise them.

Most years our youth workers supported about 80 young people and our social worker about 50-60 whānau, probably 15-20 of those intensively (as in seeing them most weeks for a number of hours). One of our problems was that our numbers were too small, so we started to lose funding and support.

Every year between May and July we flew pretty close to the wind. In 2013, we ran out of money and I had to make us all redundant. I had to tell people who believed in me and in the vision of the centre that I’d failed to get us the money. My key mistake was early on using money for future services to pay for current debts (very common for a lot of providers) and trying to climb out of that hole for number of years with no success.

Every day, my redundant workers came to work. I tried not to make promises, to be honest about how we were going and encourage them to move on. They wouldn’t. I went with our Chair and deputy manager to meet a lot of rich and influential people in Tauranga. We needed a few tens of thousands. Each of those older Pākehā men could’ve written the cheque there and then. They listened, they thanked us, they told us what an amazing work the community centre was doing, and they sent us on our way empty-handed. Eventually, seven weeks later, one of those men agreed and wrote us a cheque (God bless him). I left my job soon after.

To be honest, at that time I felt deeply ashamed of my failure at the Merivale Community Centre: how I let those good and great people down; the heavy yoke that my wife and my tamariki carried; my experience of depression. Now I can reflect on any unparalleled experience of the love of my wife, my tamariki and my friends. I am still ashamed of how I impacted on the lives of my staff. However I have come to believe that whilst I was one factor in the failure of community centre, I was far from the key factor.

I am not sure of the exact numbers of social, health and community providers in the city of Tauranga, but there 277 providers on Linkage, one of that larger and more active databases. The ones I have been to are run by the whole gambit: great people, useless, passionate people, visionless people, optimistic people, cynical people, open-hearted people, racist and sexist people. What connects us all is our failure to change the big picture of poverty and inequality in Tauranga. Like the Merivale Community Centre, these providers work hard. Like the Merivale Community Centre, there has been no fundamental change in the face of their community.

To paraphrase Mereana Pitman, we have industrialised misery, not resolved it. The poverty of our communities is the same or worse today than it was 10 years ago. The poverty of Merivale is the same or worse now as it was when I started at the Merivale Community Centre.

In 2006, the median income for people aged 15 years and over in Merivale was $18,000 (compared with $22,600 in the Bay of Plenty). By 2013, that had risen to only $19,400, while the overall median income had risen to $27,100. Our most common occupational group remains labourers, compared with professionals in our city.

In 2006, the unemployment rate in Merivale was 10.1 percent for people aged 15 years and over, compared with 6.1 percent for all of Bay of Plenty Region. In 2013, the unemployment rate was 17.9 percent.

In 2006, 36.8 percent of families in Merivale are one-parent-with-children families, compared with 20.2 percent of families for Bay of Plenty Region as a whole. In 2013, 40.8 percent of families in Merivale are one parent with children families.

Our funding structure, our contracting processes, our programmes and projects are not working to transform our communities. The same person with the same issues will come through the door of your provider tomorrow wearing a different face. This would not have changed if Labour and the Greens were forming the government this week. They are just as committed as National to protecting the mantra of growth and profit in our economy from any adjustment. The policies, strategies, funding, contracting and reporting that form our social and health sectors robbed people like me of the tools and support to enact a vision of reducing poverty. I noted above that I realised I was not the key factor in the failure of the Merivale Community Centre. The system of provision of services in health and social sectors is the key factor in that failure.

This system means that we couldn’t rely on the support of our funders. This system meant we were in competition with other providers helping people. This system meant that I needed my community to be in poverty to keep up the numbers I am required to achieve. This system means that the person at the coalface has no voice amongst those who make decisions, whilst those who make decisions are protected from the coalface. This system is designed to protect our economy from the effects of poverty, not use our economy as a tool to create enduring solutions to poverty.

I have lain down upon the altar and offered my throat to this system under the mistaken belief that my blood and sacrifice would see my community and whānau fed, warm, safe and well. When I rose back up, half-dead, drained, I saw my community and my whānau had been sacrified alongside me. Never again; change has to come.

4 thoughts on “How I failed the community of Merivale & how that was the best outcome for our economy

  1. Nga mihi e Te rangatira. A most humbling post, i respect the many strategies you tried to meet the needs of your community. I tautoko your conclusion that the system fails those working with and who live on low incomes. It is time i believe to expect all our maori politicians to press for change to seek community solutions not expect more draconic policies after the other to solve real issues for health an soc service providoes Nga mihi Kia koe, me to hoa Rangatira whaea Jo me ou tamariki

    1. Kia ora Mere, I appreciate your tautoko. I agree that our Māori politicians have an important role to play; they seem to work well together by virtue of a shared culture and language. The solutions they can lead are probably already out there in our communities, languishing in this system. I guess it will be for those who have eyes to see to find those solutions.

  2. Kia Ora Graham, how did i not see this beforehand.
    A very graceful written piece!

    Your words, particularly around the competitive structure of funding, services and the never-ending cycle is why I hesitate to enter into the realm of social work. So, is it worth it? For change to occur on that level would require a restructure and overhaul of ‘oh so much’ of the systems that are entrenched in our daily lives.
    Can change come only from a flax-roots approach – directed by the community and resourced by none? Or is there a creative way where social services/NGO’s can be working for the peoples? Is rogue advocacy the way? Just spouting some thoughts out.

    Mauri ora, Shae

    1. Kia ora Shae, you are correct that for the community sector to work in the sense of protecting the people who work in it as well as encouraging real change in communities, will require a fundamentally different structure. I wonder if it is back to future: communities doing it as volunteers for themselves with no paid professionals. I suspect Merivale will end up here again in the next few years unless some philanthropic person or organisation comes through with a sunstantial injection.

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