He toa takitini: if anything needs fixing, it’s our communities, not young people

Morocco Tai died on 9 October. He was 15 years old and driving a stolen car. He died when the car collided with a tree during a police pursuit. His two passengers are both in hospital, seriously injured. I do not know Morocco Tai, but I do know young people in my community of Merivale, Tauranga, that is like a little Otara or Cannons Creek.

Young people who end up involved in anti-social activities tend to get called a lot of things in our society: youth at risk; youth offenders; lost generation; troubled youth. The closer I’ve walked with young people like Morocco Tai, the more I’ve come to admire their sheer resilience in the face of life factors and abuse and the consistent failure of people around them. I’ve also reached a conclusion that we don’t really need to “fix” young people as much as deal with what’s going wrong in our communities.

The challenge for substantive community solutions is that there are a lot of people who are afraid of young people. On the radiowaves, in the letters to the editor and in the voting booths people want a solution to youth offending.

If you’ve read anything on youth development, then you already know that boot camps are really ineffective and can be quite damaging. So often we rush, with genuine concern and care, to programmes and projects that improve a young person’s sense of identity. Not surprising, given how often we hear that young people like Morocco Tai have no sense of identity and find identity in criminal gangs or the street communities.

Identity is big business (though not particularly lucrative for most). Given the disproportionately high dysfunction amongst Māori young people, then projects, programmes and courses on Māori identity are also big business. Central and local government agencies and philanthropic organisations provide funding towards projects, programmes and courses that are about Māori identity, education institutions try and connect their struggling students with their Māori identity and hundreds of community groups, paid and unpaid, try and provide young people a pathway to discover their Māori identity.

All in all, there are probably hundreds of caring New Zealanders trying to impart a positive sense of self and identity to Māori young people and young people generally. I can’t say for sure, but it’s quite possible Morocco Tai at some stage had been involved in a programme that taught him his pēpēhā, perhaps some mau rākau, maybe a few waiata and haka.The danger is these projects, programmes and courses tend to focus on the individual Māori youth rather than that young person as a member of a whānau and a community.

Where we exclusively focus on individual, we lose sight of the systemic. The systemic is the impact on the modern Māori community of colonisation and assimilation, and the deliberate and strategic dismantling of the connection of Māori to their own culture, language and sense of place over 200 years. The systemic challenge is that whilst individual whānau may indeed have failed their children, their failure is a microcosm of a wider systemic failure.

A challenge in New Zealand is that most funding and monitoring of projects, programmes and courses that teach Māori identity comes from the Crown. Of course they’ll fund Māori young people learning te reo Māori, mau rākau, kapa haka, carving, and weaving; they’re more cautious about revolutionary programmes that educate Māori young people as to why they, their whānau and their community were robbed of that identity in the first place. But young people like Morocco Tai are more likely to make it through if they are taught that, actually, it’s not your fault. That we know it hurts, but we were deliberately stripped of our identity, and together we can take back who we are.

Identity, knowing who you are, is a resilience factor. After all, look how well students from wharekura and kura are doing. But the trick there is the relationship between community identity and individual identity.

Young people in wharekura and kura have a strength of identity because their communities have a strong identity. Māori identity helps us be more resilient if being Māori has a high value. Morocco Tai came from a community where that value is not a given because of poverty, a poverty of opportunity, and the judgement and racism of other communities.

If you are young person who lives in Merivale or Otara, when you come back from wānanga, from kura, from courses, you might have changed but the community hasn’t. People are still just trying to survive. So this new beautiful knowledge of te reo Māori, or tikanga, or kawa can seem irrelevant. If we want to change that, we need to help our Māori communities move beyond merely surviving.

I want us to teach our young people about their Māori identity. It’s an edifying, encouraging work to be involved with. But if we don’t deal with poverty in our communities, if we don’t teach the reasons behind the disparities for some Māori communities, if our communities aren’t transforming, then we are going to continue to struggle to help young people like Morocco Tai to make different choices.

Hope is practical: a warm, dry home; a home without violence; jobs that lead somewhere for Māmā and Pāpā; healthy kai in the cupboards; a car or good public transport to go places; places that are free for whānau to visit and enjoy; real restrictions on alcohol and synthetic cannabis. Once our Māori young people have hope for a future, then they can learn to be truly proud of who they are and where they are from.

3 thoughts on “He toa takitini: if anything needs fixing, it’s our communities, not young people

  1. A brilliantly articulated post.
    As a teacher, I’ve seen much of what you write about – how the connection to a sense of the community being valued, not just themselves, helps students stand taller and to connect more strongly with that community. I hadn’t clicked just how much that community engagement and identity is important. We (my social science and History colleagues and I) try to overtly teach and discuss how systems of injustice and inequity stem from historical and recent colonisations and to show the connections to the impact on them today. It’s a cliche, but knowledge is power.
    Thank you for your post, I always learn so much from your writing.

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