Case study: Art ACTion

Leaders are created through Art ACTion

At risk young Aucklanders are unlocking their leadership potential and finding positive ways to effect social change with the support of the creative arts education programmes of Nga Rangatahi Toa Creative Arts Initiative.

Through music, poetry, visual art or performance, students work with professional artists to learn about themselves and their community.  

Since 2009 Nga Rangatahi Toa, led by educator Sarah Longbottom, has provided a range of programmes which support access to creative arts for young people who have been excluded from mainstream education.

Realising the possibilities

A group of marginalised young people were referred by alternative education providers, social workers and community workers to take part in Nga Rangatahi Toa’s Art ACTion programme at Studio One in Ponsonby.  Art ACTion is a 6-week project that runs three times throughout the year, telling the untold histories of Tamaki Makaurau through creative arts. Topics include the Takaparawha occupation and the community movements of the inner city suburbs in the 70s and 80s.

Before this Art ACTion project (focused on empowering the young people to positive effect change in their own communities) none of them had heard of the Polynesian Panthers until guest speaker, co-founder Will ‘Ilolahia, took them on a walking tour of Ponsonby.  He showed them the neighbourhood he grew up in and, in the early 1970s, opened the first office of the Polynesian Panthers – which played a vital and influential role in New Zealand’s history.

The students were surprised that people as young as them – 16 and 17-year-olds – could achieve so much and they saw the possibilities opening for themselves.

In the same session ‘Ilohlahia, also manager of seminal New Zealand reggae band Herbs, demonstrated how creativity can contribute to social change.  He talked them through the band’s political album covers from Bastion Point on their first album, released during the 1981 Springbok tour, and French Letter opposing nuclear tests, to Sensitive to a Smile in 1987 supporting Rastafarian protests in Ruatoria. Based on information from this visiting expert, and others throughout the project, the students then broke into smaller groups to work with their Nga Rangatahi Toa artist-mentors to develop their own creative responses through music, poetry, visual art or performance.

Believing in themselves

Through a variety of resources including books, photos, film, poetry and music, the students explored their local history.  A shy young man in the group, Adrian Sampson, suggested re-creating a photo of a protest on Ponsonby Road in the 1970s. To make banners, the group embarked on a process that began with student-led brainstorming sessions. Original ideas were then distilled into specific, clear messages.

Artist Bonni Tamati,  one of six mentors guiding the young people through the creative process, described recreating the protest one evening, in the run up to the 2014 election, as a “a magical moment”.

“We’d prepared for the worst - people not understanding what they were trying to do. But middle class Pakeha mums and dads were coming up and giving them hugs and shaking their hands and congratulating them. It was just amazing. These are kids wearing balaclavas, standing on the side of the road with banners saying ‘Address Inequality’ and ‘I love NZ’. Feeling understood by people in the community really helped the kids believe in their own ideas. Understanding their cultural history meant they could have something to be proud of.”

Adrian emerged as a natural leader during the course, Bonni says. “He’s decided he wants to be a youth worker. That’s something he’s now really passionate about and working towards.” 

Another of this term’s success stories was 15-year-old Crystal Taratu who wrote her own lyrics to a song about strength, standing up and speaking out.  She’s since worked with Bonni’s sister, musician Ladi6, to develop the song which was performed in Nga Rangatahi Toa’s sell-out season of Manawa Ora held at the Herald Theatre.