When I was a local government representative in the mid 1990s, I relied heavily on the wisdom of people I referred to as ‘Community Translators.’ These were people who could instinctively mediate within and between diverse worlds within the community.
Rick Kahukiwa, from Shirley, was one of the most effective community translators I knew. He helped me to appreciate the more communally-based approach to local development of Maori and Pacific Island communities, and to see its value also for wider local development.
I first met Rick when the Christchurch City Council called for submissions on a landscape plan for MacFarlane Park. As one of the Community Board representatives, I had offered to meet with people, like Rick, who might like to make a submission on this plan.
I recall arriving at a church hall by the Park where Rick was located, having read a City Council report on the Park. It referred, in part, to the formal sports codes that made use of the Park for training and competitions, such as soccer and cricket. I arrived totally unaware that there could be so much activity, so much community life going on in and around the Park.
Rick enabled me to see that hundreds, if not thousands of local people were involved in all sorts of informal local activities: rugby league, touch rugby and volley ball; meal distribution systems; after-school care and holiday programs (using various available spaces in the area that were not commercial venues); and a number small-scale work co-operatives (painting and gardening). Rick had plenty of helpers, but as far as I know, he was the only paid worker.
When I visited I was always made welcome and introduced to whoever was around, and offered food and drink.
I still remember the weekly communal meals in the hall and how good it felt to be included. I recall at one of these meals being introduced to a young man who was described as having been ‘inside’ – inside prison – and I was impressed with how seamlessly he seemed to re-connect with others at the table.
I was reminded of this recently when hearing about proposals for tougher prison sentences and more prisons, and proposals for an army type boot camp for ‘problem’ teenagers. Politicians say there will be “intensive mentoring” when these people come back into community. However, such projects will require more bureaucracy, be costly, and with today’s economic pressures, it is difficult to imagine why this would be prioritised and how it could be followed through effectively. Instead, as the principal Youth Court judge Andrew Becroft and many others point out, it is more likely there will be more disaffected but very fit people who have army training for the rest of us to add to our worries (refer to article Judge puts boot into boot camps, The Dominion Post, 27 February 2009).
Rick had worked for many years (I don’t know how many) from the church hall by the Park. Occasionally he would point out the new helping community organisations which had come into the area with their tool boxes and pointed out, rightly as it happened, that these people or organisations never lasted long. It seemed the successive groups were able to keep on convincing funders of the value of the help they could provide. Maybe there isn’t such a turn over now, but at the time it really did seem to be a long succession of short term contracts.
Rick left – or was moved on. I became unwell for some time and don’t know what happened. I regret that there was, and continues to be, very little formal recognition and support for his style of local development. I wonder, have we become so used to the idea of ‘experts’ with their ‘professional tool boxes’ and short term fixes, that we fail to notice, or support as needed, the locally-based community developer who knows how to get local people to connect with one another, to have good times together, and to provide support through the difficult patches as Rick was able to do?
What do you think?
Refer to Ashton, H., Acting Locally, in Monthly Review. 1995. p. 10-11. University of Canterbury for a more detailed case study.