Our partner charity Ngā Rangatahi Toa (NRT) is known up in AK for doing things differently. They take no shit, and they reckon education needs to evolve. For founder Sarah Longbottom it's all about the human connection – good teaching happens when it comes from a place of compassion, love and kindness. So what's her story, and what does it look like behind the scenes at NRT?
Written by the wonderful Charlotte Adams of Part Of Your Stories, who works to highlight inspiring women in the community.
In a previous life
I used to work in advertising and the tech sector as a copywriter, then retrained as a high school teacher in 2003. While the kids I taught were amazing, and I worked with inspiring teachers, I found the education system itself to be really challenging; it was risk-averse and lacking in innovation. By 2008 I swore I’d never teach ever again – I’d just had it with institutionalised schools. At the last school I taught at there were 13 bells a day, it totally drove me crazy.
Long story short I tried to go back to freelance copywriting but couldn’t – I realised that I did love the act of teaching, if not the institution. I loved scaffolding kids into new knowledge and new ways of seeing the world, and I loved the relationship that evolved with walking that path with them. I think the relationship of ako, of reciprocal teaching and learning, is the truest form of human development we have. It’s deeply rooted in human connection.
I moved up to Auckland and decided to commit to why I had retrained as a teacher in the first place - to get into ‘second chance’ and alternative education. I worked in residential youth justice, the kids were aged 7-12 and had been referred to us by the courts or police or by CYFs. The kids were amazing, however it was still very much ‘a system’, very fixed rather than limber, and therefore not able to respond to the needs of the kids. This made it very challenging and frustrating. These kids needed love, kindness and compassion and that system wasn’t equipped to do that.
Before you teach me you have to reach me
Before you can begin to open an exchange of ideas, to teach, you need to be able to reach that other human. You need to empathise and have compassion for a set of life circumstances and life view that may be entirely different from your own. You need to first recognise and acknowledge, and then let go of your own cultural and social paradigm so that you may imagine other ways of seeing and being. This is my jam – human connection. I was headhunted for a role in south Auckland where I developed a teacher-training program for the youth workers who are employed to look after the kids in these alternative education programs. We aimed at developing critical pedagogy in alternative education and emphasising that human connection.
Fit for purpose
There’s no doubt in my mind that alternative education is not fit for purpose and that things need to change. There is a dual system running in this country that means those excluded from mainstream schools simply have less educational, cultural and social opportunities. In supporting this system we are actively supporting the creation of an underclass. It is simply not acceptable to cut off a 13, 14 or 15 year old, most of whom have survived life circumstances that would have broken me at that age, from the opportunities their peers enjoy. At NRT we don’t sit around complaining though, we are innovating within this sector and doing something about the current inequities.
Strength in the Sistas
Takatū is our program we are developing with the support of the Tindall Next Gen Fund. It focuses on providing a positive education experience for our rangatahi, through our classroom-based teaching-artist model. As part of the Matariki celebrations in Tamaki Makaurau we have been invited to exhibit at Studio One Toi Tū art gallery in Ponsonby. The Strength in the Sistas refers to the seven sisters of Matariki and will consist of photographic works from the young women of NRT, and poetry from our young men. All works will be in response to the kaupapa of Amber Hahipene, a talented Māori artist, based in Melbourne. Amber is also exhibiting in the gallery and her Matariki works are around atua wahine, or ‘the goddesses’.
Our young women will be mentored by female artists, reflecting on the attributes of a goddess and how to bring the goddess into their everyday. The teaching-artists will guide rangatahi to really look at peer-to-peer relationships and the importance of having solid connections with other females, creating together and using critical conversation and a therapeutic environment. I don’t know where I would be without my girlfriends, these relationships are very high trust, there is a deep connection and amazing support. Sometimes our young women don’t have these relationships in their own lives, so we want to give them the space and opportunity to reflect on this and build positive relationships. They will then use this knowledge to communicate through a photographic medium.
Similarly, our young men will be mentored by male teaching-artists. Through a similar process, they will be reflecting on the strong women in their lives and responding through poetry. It is of equal importance for our young men to acknowledge and value the feminine, and vice-versa. At NRT, we create an environment of brothers and sisters – knowing how to celebrate both our similarities and our differences, the masculine and the feminine.
With us it’s never art for art’s sake. It’s about creativity, the world around you, and finding a different way to share your story.
Our aim by 2019 is to have opened a school within the mainstream system, catering for those who need a different approach. This will be a collaborative, community-based school. My main driver is not for NRT to open this big school and for it to be egocentric or for us to see ourselves as ‘the answer’. With NRT and our teaching-artist model at the core, our school will include many points of view, many narratives, many ideas, and it will be a celebration of the south Auckland community. We are the platform for something way bigger than us. Where the scale will come, beyond Southside, is in the teaching-artist model. This is something I see as impacting the whole education system, not just our little corner of it. That’s my vision as an educator.
It was a funny year last year. We ran at a loss for the first time, due to the Creative New Zealand funding cuts, which is never nice but I always see it as a challenge. We can’t not run our projects, we work with the same young people throughout the year and each project is catalytic for their personal transformation and development of educational success, so if we only do half of our projects then they don’t see the same change – simple as that. So, it’s a no-brainer, we have to run our projects.
We don’t take funding from gaming foundations or breweries because we see ourselves as part of the solution, not as part of the problem. We also haven’t made a habit of tendering for government contracts. We are innovative and we take risks, and our model is pretty different to the norm, so most of the time we don’t fit government criteria that well. Also, tendering for contracts generally means that ‘what works’ and ‘what’s best’ has been decided for you – by people I don’t always consider experts. We don’t want to be inhibited and instead choose to develop funding relationships with funding bodies, businesses and individuals who don’t place a huge number of strings on their support. Rather we develop a relationship of constant communication and high trust. This allows us to be flexible and responsive to those we serve because the funder is committed to our work on a macro level.
Around 80% of the money we raise goes to paying people, not paying for ‘stuff’ or admin. People are the most important thing, no doubt. I can hustle other things, food, transport, resources – I can network and build relationships to get us what we need. We work under a very different model than the typical government work contract. It’s never faceless, it’s always connected.
Sometimes I just stop to give thanks, to be grateful and humbled by the fact that our entire organisation runs on the generosity of human beings. How cool is that, we give the opportunity for people to do good, and amazing humans are attracted to this in a deeply authentic way. That’s the realness right there.
A huge thanks to Charlotte Adams of Part Of Your Stories for putting this article together – if interviews with inspiring women sound like your cup of tea, look no further.
Ngā Rangatahi Toa are a partner charity of ours, meaning you can easily support them with 1% of your income to do their thing. If you love what they do, go check them out and give your 1%.