The Feathers We Need To Fly

— some thoughts for the Community Conversation

by vivian Hutchinson

June 2021 17 min read download as Masterclass PDF

COMMUNITY IS A state of well-being that emerges after we have got a whole lot of basic things right.

These basics include very tangible things like having access to good work and income, housing, education, health, and a thriving environment.

And the basics also include such intangible notions as a sense of safety, and a sense of connection and belonging to a particular place.

These tangible and intangible threads of “getting the basic things right” all weave together until one day we realise that it’s a community. It has become a “We”. It has become a place that we want to live in and belong to, raise our families, work and trade and create, and discover friendship with one another.

Of course, the details of just what constitutes getting things “right” can be a source of much contest and debate. That’s also the nature of community. A shared notion of what we understand to be “right” is a constantly moving target and the discussion and dissent around this becomes, in itself, part of the warp and weft of how the “We” is created.

The reality of “community” is often completely missed in the mainstream media and in political debates, largely because community is not an ideology. Communities are complex and messy and full of contradictions and paradox. They are hard to pin down because they are living things which learn, adapt and change. And if it’s a community, then it probably looks and feels a bit all over the show. You’ll be struggling if you are trying to find the person in charge. There’s certainly not a CEO.

And yet communities work ... or perhaps more precisely, they have important work to do.

Communities do this work through its active citizens — the people who are taking care of the things we value, and are also constantly trying to make things better. The active citizen makes a critical contribution that should never be disregarded, or side-lined or taken for granted.

When our communities are thriving and strong, it will usually be because we have a thriving and strong network of active citizens. These people will be making an impact on all the practical indicators of well-being that touch our social, economic, environmental and cultural lives.

And with a thriving network of active citizens, a great many of the issues and challenges that are affecting us as individuals and families, and as a nation, just become so much easier and much less expensive to sort out.

A Kereru in flight in the Brooklands Bush, New Plymouth, Taranaki

THERE IS A common whakataukī that is often heard at public meetings or at Kohanga Reo: Mā te huruhuru ka rere te manu. (Without feathers, the bird cannot fly).

I see the bird in this proverb as a symbol for community. Its feathers are all those light and fluffy and subtle individual and cultural competencies, all those slowly-built personal connections, all those aspects of shape and design that are unconscious, or hidden, or under the surface, and all those matters of wisdom and insight that are a shared understanding of the best way to make things happen for the common good.

It is all these things that knit together to enable our communities to fly.

These feathers are not found in a marketplace. They cannot be bought and bolted on afterwards. They are grown.

As we all know, the ability to fly can be forgotten. Our national bird the kiwi, and many other birds of New Zealand, paid that price when they came to these islands of predator-free abundance.

I would argue that when it comes to “community”, we have also been slowly losing our abilities to fly. But, in our case, it is the abundance and comforts of our consumer culture that have become the predators of our active citizenship, and of our natural structures of sharing and belonging that underpin a thriving community.

The full price of this loss has come in our forgetting. An amnesia starts to spread and strip us of all the competencies that enabled us to grow and exercise the feathers of our community selves. We forget that communities have important work to do. And we forget that one of our jobs as citizens is to actively step up to that work.

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I HAVE BEEN a community activist for all of my adult life. At various times I have been described as a community adviser, or a social entrepreneur. But these days, as I grow into my own elder years, I simply prefer to be known as an active citizen.

The journey of my active citizenship began in Ponsonby, Auckland in the mid-1970s when I took my first job as a community and city council reporter for the weekly City News newspaper. I also became a member of the Ponsonby/Herne Bay Community Committee, and a volunteer at the Ponsonby Community Centre which was running New Zealand's first Citizen's Advice Bureau.

I was still a teenager at this time, and I soon fell into the friendship and guidance of two very impressive Ponsonby community activists — Betty Wark and Fred Ellis. Together, we initiated or got involved with many local campaigns on housing and homelessness, unemployment and job creation, the community care of psychiatric patients, and doing what we could to stop the police intimidation of Pacific Island immigrants.

For me, these projects became an education in the “how-to” of community activism, and the beginning of a deeper understanding of the craft of community development.

At this time I also joined with Whina Cooper and her family to help organise the 1975 Māori Land March on Parliament. When I met Whina, it was like meeting a force of nature. She was already nearly 80 years old and had been a catalyst for social change over several generations. I, on the other hand, was young and very naïve and completely in awe of her. So it was a surprise and honour to be asked to help out with her next project.

Whina explained to me that the Land March was not going to focus on historical grievances, but would be protesting about the ongoing alienation of Māori land that was still taking place in the 1970s — through the many reinventions of land-grab legislation like the Rating Act, the Public Works Act, and the Town and Country Planning Act. Her purpose would come to be summarised in the cry of “Not One More Acre!”

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It turned out that I was the only Pākehā on the organising group, which Whina had called Te Roopu o te Matakite, a name which can be interpreted as “the people who can see ahead”. Little did I realise that our month-long walk from Cape Reinga to Wellington would uncover for me many of the community themes and issues that I would continue to be working on for the rest of my life.

The Māori Land March has since come to be regarded as a pivotal moment in modern New Zealand history. I went on to contribute also to the land rights campaigns at Raglan/Whāingaroa and at Bastion Point/Takaparawhā. But I was also keen to return to my home province and mountain of Taranaki, and explore other aspects of my active citizenship.

Unemployment was just emerging as a significant national issue and I was sure that community groups would have a critical role to play in addressing it. So I began what became forty years of activities in running employment schemes, establishing training programmes, setting up job creation initiatives, and creating schemes to help unemployed people run their own businesses.

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This work also included establishing the Jobs Research Trust, being editor and publisher of The Jobs Letter, and later a co-founder of the Mayors Taskforce for Jobs.

All these activities saw many wins and losses over the years as schemes and programmes and alliances and colleagues came and went. But it has often felt as though we were just organising our community problems rather than healing them. And there have been many times when our advocacy for the very idea of “community” felt threadbare and marginalised.

After four decades of working on community initiatives to address unemployment, I slowly started to recognise that the thing that was most in danger of becoming unemployed was the concept of “community” itself.

So the next stage of my active citizenship became one of focusing on the craft of community development.

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OUR PUBLIC LIVES have changed more in the last four decades than they have in the last four generations. And these changes have not always been for the benefit of our communities.

Some of the changes have to do with the success of the neo-liberal economic project that began to take over most of our public and political lives in the mid-1980s.

Some of it has to do with the breakdown and abandonment of the social contract that had been forged between us as New Zealanders during the years following the Great Depression and World War II.

And some of it has come more recently as a result of the impact of new social technologies which have simply amplified the trend towards self-interest and isolation, and a disconnection from our sense of the common good.

The public changes have had social, economic, environmental and cultural consequences that can be seen and felt in our communities in very diverse ways — the persistent underfunding of public resources such as schools and hospitals and social housing; the privatisation of those public assets and the selling off of public spaces to developers; the infrastructure of roads, bridges, water and power networks being allowed to deteriorate; the continuing pollution of our environment, with lakes and rivers that we can’t swim in; historic low levels of trust in all sorts of established institutions; a low level of civic engagement in terms of voting rates and volunteering; and a fundamental change in the traditional role played by the media in public affairs.

Many of the community impacts of these changes have felt very close to home — there are a growing number of our young people that seem less likely (compared to their parents) to find a good job or can afford somewhere decent to live. And too many of these young people are caught up in ballooning levels of loneliness and depression and other mental health challenges.

The curious thing is that these public changes have been happening slowly enough for most of us to completely miss the important story that they are telling. We just keep adjusting to the new realities.

The changes haven't happened like the 2020 Coronovirus Pandemic where every aspect of our community and national lives had to respond to the threat of a deadly new virus in the space of a couple of months.

Instead, when it came to these fundamental changes to our public lives, we have been like the frog in the notorious 19th-century science experiment.

When they dropped the frog into a pot of boiling water, obviously it had the common sense to get out of it as soon as possible. But when they put the frog into a pot of cold water and gradually raised the temperature, the frog did not sense its calamity, and it just sat there and allowed itself to be slowly boiled alive.

I believe it is much the same as we have faced our slow-moving public transformations. At a time when we should be responding to the profound changes in our shared lives, there are just far too many citizens and institutions who find themselves stuck and immobile, or hopelessly distracted.

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AMIDST THE AUSTERITY policies that followed the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, many of our political and government department leaders were telling community groups that, as a country, we were broke and that we needed to be much more creative with what we've got.

At this time, I was organising a fellowship of some of our leading national social entrepreneurs, and we had taken the opportunity to promote the concepts of community entrepreneurship and innovation in the face of this nation-wide belt-tightening.

But 2011 saw the rise of the international Occupy Wall Street movement, and a new and disturbing picture emerged of what had happened to the distribution of wealth in our communities. We could no longer be in denial about the consequences of the social and political changes that had been happening since the mid-1980s. And as businesses recovered from the 2008 crash, it was shown that most of the gains in new wealth were going to the top 1%.

Distribution of wealth in New Zealand (2015)

A graph that summarised the distribution of wealth in New Zealand (above) shows the systemic reconfiguration of inequality and opportunity in our country. The graph is not the picture of an ideal or fair distribution of wealth that most New Zealanders carry around with them in their heads. It is a picture of a very different New Zealand where we have clipped the wings of our own neighbours.

For over half the country, it is no longer fundamentally true that if you work hard or study, and play by the rules, then you will get ahead. This is the social contract that has changed, and it has serious implications for all of us working at the front lines of community development and social services.

The distribution of wealth graph also shows us that, contrary to what we were being told, we are not broke.

What is broken here ... is the “We”.

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COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT is about awakening citizens so that they can play their part in getting the basic things right. It is about re-forging the fundamental connections of “We” so that a fairer picture of our common aspirations can be pursued. And it requires us to face some difficult issues, and have some courageous conversations — while also remembering and celebrating the things we are learning and getting right.

One of the people who has influenced my thinking about community development is the Italian social entrepreneur Ernesto Sirolli. He visited Taranaki in the 1980s and shared his insights on how to support small businesses with a process that he called Enterprise Facilitation.

Sirolli challenged our thinking by pointing out that many of the ideas we had about “development” needed to change. Those of us running organisations and programmes needed to become a bit more humble about our own sense of agency as facilitators. We needed to understand that an economy or a community are living and complex systems. They’ve got a mind of their own.

Sirolli argued you can’t “develop” anything any more than you can “flower” a flower. But you can do a lot to create the conditions in which that flowering can occur. And when we get those conditions right, the flower quite naturally unfolds.

This is much the same with community development. The transformation of ourselves, our families and our neighbourhoods is a gardening job. If we create the right conditions — supporting a basic infrastructure of skills and intelligence for the common good — then people will awaken their own active citizenship and create the communities they want to live in.

The cultural competencies involved in active citizenship and community-building are a set of skills and tools that need to be grown and renewed with every generation. It’s not as if you are building a piece of infrastructure like a bridge that may well last for hundreds of years before you need to think about it again.

These competencies are living things. They are matters of wisdom and maturity that need to be fostered in our young people and further developed as adults. This is a continuous process of education in which every generation needs to find a way of making their own.

And if we do get it right, then we just might notice that the feathers we need to fly are starting to sprout and stretch.

 

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Notes and Links

vivian Hutchinson QSM is a community activist and social entrepreneur who has worked mainly on issues of race relations, social justice, job creation and philanthropy. He is a co-founder of Community Taranaki www.taranaki.gen.nz, and author of How Communities Heal — stories of social innovation and social change (2012. He is also one of the creators of How Communities Awaken - Tū Tangata Whenua - a Masterclass for Active Citizenship which is run in partnership with Tu Tama Wahine o Taranaki www.tutamawahine.org.nz.

First published online in June 2021

This paper The Feathers We Need To Fly is part of a larger series of essays by vivian Hutchinson entitled How Communities Awaken. For more information, visit www.taranaki.gen.nz/hca

Tū Tama Wahine o Taranaki and Community Taranaki were awarded the ACE (Adult and Community Education Aotearoa) 2020 Award for Community Programme of the Year for the Masterclass for Active Citizenship. For more information, visit www.tutamawahine.org.nz/masterclassguide

Kereru in flight ... photo from The Brooklands Zoo / Facebook page

1975 Māori Land March ... See Hikoi: The Māori Land March (2016) documentary directed by John Bates. Available to view on demand at www.tvnz.co.nz/shows/hikoi-the-land-march. This film marked the 40th anniversary of the 1975 Land March which, under the leadership of Dame Whina Cooper, travelled the length of the North Island to protest the loss of Maori Land. Made with the support of NZ On Air.

vivian Hutchinson interviewed by Kim Hill on the Māori Land March 40th anniversary, Radio NZ National Programme 10th October 2015 www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday/audio/201774095/vivian-hutchinson-the-maori-land-march

Photopage: Matakite — THE 1975 MĀORI LAND MARCH and the CITY NEWS — The 1975 Māori Land March from Cape Reinga to Parliament Grounds, Wellington, organised by Te Roopu o te Matakite (top left) The start of the March in Te Hapua, in the Far North (photo by The Auckland Star) (top right) Marchers at the Paraparas near Wanganui, and on College Hill in Ponsonby, Auckland (middle right) Marchers enter Parliament Grounds (middle left) Matakite leader Whina Cooper speaking in Hamilton during the 1975 Land March. (photos by Christian Heinegg) (bottom left) vivian Hutchinson Community columnist in the City News, Auckland's inner-city independent newspaper (bottom right) vivian Hutchinson interviewing the Mayor of Auckland, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson in 1977 (photo by the City News)

Photopage: Jobs — STARTING POINT and the SKILLS OF ENTERPRISE BUSINESS COURSES — projects of the Taranaki Work Trust (top) Starting Point Employment Resource Centre, St Aubyn St, New Plymouth. The Starting Point team, with some of the Skills of Enterprise and Be Your Own Boss classes held at Starting Point. (centre) An Enterprise Facilitation interview (bottom right) free Employment Wanted advertisements in the Taranaki Daily News. The free Job Help booklet by vivian Hutchinson containing advice and support resources for Taranaki jobless.

Our public lives have changed more in the last 40 years ... this is a conclusion similar to that made by Guardian Editor Katharine Viner on the state of journalism ... see “A mission for journalism in a time of crisis” The Guardian 16 November 2017 www.theguardian.com/news/2017/nov/16/a-mission-for-journalism-in-a-time-of-crisis

The boiling frog ... science experiment see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_frog

the gains in new wealth going to the top 1% ... for more see Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labour, "Inequality for All" documentary directed by Jacob Kornbluth (2013)

The picture of Wealth Distribution in New Zealand was based on the 2015 Statistics New Zealand Report "Wealth Disparities in New Zealand". Wealth inequality has only got worse since this picture was drawn (see below for the figures).

wealth inequality ... writer and artist Toby Morris has teamed up with Max Rashbrooke to imagine all the wealth in New Zealand as a ten-storey apartment building. See "The Side Eye – Inequality Tower 2018" by Toby Morris and Max Rashbrook thespinoff.co.nz/society/31-07-2018/the-side-eye-inequality-tower-2018/. The 2018 figures show that 1% now own 22% of NZ wealth (up↑ from 16.4% on the 2015 figures), 9% own 37% (down↓ 2%), the middle 40% own 39% (down↓ 4%), and the bottom 50% own 2% (down↓ 3.4%). The 2018 figures come from "Statistics New Zealand Net Worth Survey"

not the picture of an ideal or fair distribution of wealth that most New Zealanders carry around in their own heads ... see research by Peter Skilling (2014) of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at AUT. “Attitudes to inequality in 2014: Results from a 2014 Survey”. New Zealand Sociology, 29(3), 38-50. Retrieved from https://search.informit.org/documentSummary;dn=898622121009415;res=IELNZC and “Wealth split worse than most realise” Sunday Star-Times 25 August 2014 www.stuff.co.nz/editors-picks/10416461/Wealth-split-worse-than-most-realise

Also see www.inequality.org.nz. This website includes a useful calculator which lets you find out how much you earn compared to everyone else – and how much better (or worse) off you’d be in a more equal New Zealand.

Dr Ernesto Sirolli ... is a legend in local economic development who has worked in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom, Africa, Latin America, USA and Asia. He pioneered a system of Enterprise Facilitation a unique economic development approach based on harnessing the passion, determination, intelligence, and resourcefulness of the local people. http://sirolli.com

a matter of agency and humility ... see also Ernesto Sirolli at TEDxEQChCh Christchurch September 2012 “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!” https://www.ted.com/talks/ernesto_sirolli_want_to_help_someone_shut_up_and_listen

ISBN 978-1-92-717632-0 This paper is licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/nz/deed.en

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