Creating a Culture with a Backbone

I was recently asked to talk about ‘creating a culture with a backbone’ at an even run by Seed Waikato, an organisation that connects young people with their city (Hamilton, New Zealand).

Initially, I wasn’t sure I was the right person to talk: my mum is from the Carribbean, my dad is from Belgium, I was born in the UK, and raised mainly in Germany. Quite frankly, I don’t feel allegiance to any particular country, and can barely scrape together a cultural identity. I actually only moved here, to Aotearoa and to Hamilton, about 4 and a half years ago, knowing no-one except my partner and his immediate family.

So what could I possibly contribute to a conversation about culture in New Zealand, and in Hamilton? 

Well, I decided I could offer a story of creating a community for oneself. Communities create culture, and by far the strongest community I have ever had in my life is the one I have here, in Kirikiriroa Hamilton.

As I just mentioned, I came to this city knowing no-one except my partner, and his family that I had met once before. I also happened to be very pregnant and was pretty daunted by the whole parenting thing. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I had no village; I didn’t know where to find support, I didn’t have friends, I was in this new country, with people I barely knew, it was pretty dire for a little while.

And so out of sheer necessity, I went and ‘put myself out there’, and here I am today with more social capital that I have ever had in my life, surrounded by aroha (love), manaakitanga (caring), people that have got my back, and groups that will be there when things get tough. That is an awesome community to be part of; that is an awesome culture to be part of.

So how does one do it? How can we create a strong, resilient, caring community; a culture of compassion, respect, and love. A culture with a backbone? Well, I have 5 ideas that I believe are key. (I should make it cleat: I am not trying to suggest this is a step-by-step plan or anything, it’s not ‘follow these steps and thou shalt find your community’, I guess these are maybe… things to look out for, factors to consider, opportunities to seize, or something like that.)

So, in no particular order, here are 5 ways I believe we can create strong communities:

Number 1: Value diversity

This one is important because it is easy for us to find our comfortable circle of friends: the ones we hang out with because we share interests, political views, religious beliefs, cultural backgrounds, or experiences of life. It is great to talk to people that think the same way as we do; we get our ideas confirmed, we know what we are supposed to do and how to act, we feel supported, validated, that is all great.

It is also important that we get tested sometimes, that sometimes our beliefs about the world get challenged, and that sometimes we are put outside out comfort zone. When we hang out with people whose language, or socio-economic background, or lived experience of the world is different to our own, our perspective gets widened. And it is through this I believe we get a better understanding of the world, and of people. And that in turn helps foster more compassion, less misunderstanding, less fear, and more peaceful, mutually-respectful relationships in our lives, and in wider society.

1) value diversity.png
For me, two organisations I have been involved with that have helped me diversify my social groups is IHC (who work with people living with intellectual disabilities and have a brilliant befriending programme through which I met my friend Gail, in the top-right photo), and also the Red Cross Refugee Resettlement Programme (who link volunteers with refugee families new to the country, and your role is to welcome them and help them settle in their new home). 
Through both these organisations you start off as a volunteer, but you may find yourself building long-lasting friendships with people that, let’s face it, you might otherwise never have the opportunity to meet and hang out with.

Number two: Be inclusive


This photo was taken at The Serve, which is a community meal that takes place every night in town. I love this photo because my daughter, right at the back, started off by saying ‘mum can you take a photo of me with my new friend’ (the guy that’s holding her). Then someone else joined in, then more and more people started photobombing… I had to zoom out and step back to get everyone in, it was brilliant; she was just taken in to, and embraced by, this community.

And I feel the photo epitomises the purpose of this community meal; because anyone and everyone can come. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, it’s not divided into the people that receive food and the people that provide food; there’s just people that come and cook and serve food, and people that come and eat food, and people do a bit of both.

It’s free, it’s 365 days a year, no strings attached, just people coming for a kai and korero (food and chat) from all walks of life; poor and rich, all genders, all ethnicities, all ages, people working, people unemployed, all of us just together as people. Thing like that makes a strong foundation for a society in which we can all thrive.

Number three: Use your talents (or just your interests, if you don’t feel you’ve got many talents)

3) Use your talents

I suppose I see this as finding something you enjoy and doing something with it. I don’t really mean “find your passion and live every minute doing it” (by all means try, but even if you can’t make your passion your career or spend all you time following your dreams… that doesn’t mean you can’t do it at all!).

I am a bit passionate about looking after the planet and I am lucky enough to work doing the thing I love; I work at Go Eco, the local Environment Centre, and basically I get to spend my days talking to people about nature and caring for the Earth. But it isn’t full time work, and, like many millennials, I have accepted a lower income and less hours in order to have employment that I feel is meaningful.

But, you know, even if you still are in a grinding job you don’t like, that doesn’t mean you can’t find your niche and a community that supports you doing the things you love. And when we spend time doing things we love (or things we enjoy) -whether it is an hour a week or 50 hours a week- and we find people that enjoy doing it with us, well those relationships build you up; they build your community.

Number four: Educate yourself

4) educate yourself
Graduating from my first Maori language course, at the Kirikiriroa Marae.

Ignorance breeds distrust, and distrust breaks communities. I believe we need to understand our local community if we want to be a part of it.

When I came to New Zealand and to Hamilton I had no knowledge at all of any local or national history; I knew nothing about the customs and culture of Aotearoa. But, once I started learning the story of this place, once I began to understand a bit more about the history and culture of the people here… it’s like you access a whole new level in this place we call home.

For example, for my first year here I didn’t know anything about the strange and beautiful building that was just around the corner from where I live. Turns out, it is pretty darn spectacular! I am talking about the Kirikiriroa Marae; a Matawaka marae, which means they welcome all people, from all iwi, ethnicities and nationalities. It has a kohanga reo (total immersion Maori early learning centre), which my daughter attended for a few years, they have emergency accommodation, a rehabilitation centre, a centre for people living with disabilities, and a health clinic where you only pay $10 to see your doctor. They also grow food, make carvings, and have a meeting space… all these things that make for a strong community: right there, and accessible as soon as we take time to look and learn about what’s happening around us. So, I’d like to challenge anyone who doesn’t know their neighbourhood that well to take a walk tomorrow, or in the next few days, and see what you find.

Number five: Give, generously

5) give generously.pngThis photo is of me still at the Kirikiriroa Marae. I go there every week to sort their rubbish and rescue things that can be recycled. It isn’t very glamorous, but the reason I do it is because I get a lot from the Marae services and community, and so it is important to give, too. Because it is not fair to get, and get, and get, but not give back.

I got to send my daughter to daycare there for two years and I didn’t pay a cent. I go to the doctors there, and pay a fraction of what I would pay in other places nearby. They have a table there with free stuff; where you can get clothes and food and all sorts of things. I could pay money for these services in other places but here I don’t have to, so I repay in time instead.

I think reciprocity, and not taking things/services/people for granted is definitely the backbone to a strong community, and a strong culture that has caring for people at its heart. And to be honest I think it doesn’t really matter what people give to their community: giving can be money, time, resources, anything… anything we have in surplus.

We currently have a culture that is very much dominated by the idea of the accumulation of material wealth, and getting as much as we can for as little as possible. I don’t think that helps create strong communities. In fact I think it does the opposite. I personally feel if we have our needs met, why not use the rest, that surplus, to help others meet their needs?

So those are my 5 ideas for creating strong, loving communities. I think if we want to create a culture that cares for people (and for the environment) it is important to start with ourselves, and by being welcoming of diversity, being inclusive, doing our part, continuing to learn, and being generous… well that’s a great place to start!

And I am just going to end with a call to action: your community needs you just as much as you need them, and I have found that when volunteering you receive just as much as (if not more than) what you give. So please, if you are not already volunteering your time in your community… join something! 🙂

Arohanui (huge love) ❤


Other speakers:

Kylee Black

Kylee is a social entrepreneur who is committed to cultivating community and enabling the best in others. In 2009, Kylee founded the not-for-profit Spirit Sparkplugs in order to mobilise community awareness and support of young people with rare disease. Volunteers made items for over 1200 care and encouragement packages, which were sent to nine different countries. Kylee identified a need in this area through her own journey with rare disease and, in 2011, she received an International Heart of Gold award for her contributions. In 2016, Kylee shared her own story in a video for Enabling Good Lives, which became a catalyst for building the platform she has today. Kylee takes every opportunity to use this platform to speak out about important issues facing our society.

Kylee now runs her own speaking and consultancy business and is currently involved in projects with MyCare, the Ministry of Health, and the Ministry of Social Development. As an established public speaker, Kylee has addressed a variety of people within different settings, including parliament, national and international conferences, and a range of local events. Kylee’s goal is to see young people encouraged and supported in redefining their own circumstances, challenging perceptions of how we view others and ourselves, and enabled to live the best life that they can.

Parekawhia McLean

Parekawhia has been with the Transport Agency since September 2016 after five and a half years as the Chief Executive Officer of Waikato-Tainui. Parekawhia has more than 15 years of public policy and public sector management experience including being an advisor to three Prime Ministers whilst at DPMC. Additionally for 7 years she was director of her own company dedicated to advancing the creative potential of Māori knowledge, people and resources.

She brings significant stakeholder management and governance experience to the Transport Agency. Parekawhia is a member of the Waikato Means Business forum, a Director of Sports Waikato, the National Science Resilience Challenge and a Trustee of the Momentum Philanthropic Foundation. Parekawhia has Masters’ degrees in Social Sciences from the University of Waikato and in Public Administration and Development Policy from the University of Wisconsin. In 2014, she received a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Waikato for public policy and business.