Monday, November 25, 2013

Reflections on 2013: part 3 - By Justin Latif

Here is part three of my reflections on what has been both an exciting and exhausting year as the office administrator for The Salvation Army’s Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit.

The last half of this year has been focused on tidying up odds and ends from Just Action and preparing for the launch of Alan’s Johnson third housing report Give Me Shelter.

But for this reflection I thought I’d look back on some things I’ve learnt from my team.

I hope I don’t embarrass my colleagues too much, but here’s a short summary of the things I’ve discovered from working alongside these amazingly talented men and women. 

These lessons haven’t happened in any structured way rather I’ve been fortunate to have a front row seat as our highly qualified policy advisers, interns, social justice advocate and director debate, argue and critique each others’ positions on a variety of topics. And I’ve had the opportunity to probe deeper over cups of tea, at team retreats or in our humble lunch room. 

One of the most important lessons I’ve garnered has been the importance to ground any high level thinking and policy formulation in practical grass roots activism and community development. Our policy advisers could never be accused of being to ‘heavenly minded to be of any earthly good’. These aren’t head-in-the-clouds, do-gooder liberals as some may assume. I’ve been impressed to hear their stories of volunteering their weekends and weeknights to help a struggling rugby league club, organising events for a university advocacy group, pounding the pavement of our city doing street evangelism or visiting a women’s prayer meeting to spread the message of fair trade coffee. In many ways these are thankless tasks, which don’t attract any media attention like the reports or the conferences, but our team give the same dedication to these relatively unheralded tasks as they do to the attention grabbing ones. 

Bitter cynicism can be such an easy trap to fall into when working for societal changes in such entrenched areas. But staying optimistic and hopeful despite the knock backs and discouragements is also another lesson I’ve gleaned from my work mates. 

Another lesson to be gained is in the way our team encourages debate. The freedom within our team to hold contrary position and defend those positions with rigorous discussion means that often both parties help temper the rough edges of each other's view. This process of discourse and debate leads to sharper reports and speeches and its admirable that our team feel free to disagree without the fear of being ostracised for their positions - however controversial.

Live simply and find time for fun. I think it’d be fair to say most of our team could have taken up jobs within high paying corporate firms or with larger more lavish overseas based NGOs due to their range of skills and experience. However, it seems to me, for the sake of living a balanced life congruent to their desire to see New Zealand be a place where ‘justice rolls down’ they haven’t shifted their talents elsewhere. Another easy misconception of a team which overachieves in many ways, is that my colleagues would be 'all work and no play'. However, this doesn't seem to be the case, as they still find time for relaxation or leisure. Whether it’s getting coffee with friends, doing a big workout at the gym, kick boxing, fishing or growing grapes, all our team have made space within their lives of activism to have some fun. Without creating that balance in their lives, burnout would be a much more likely outcome.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Reflection on 2013: part 2 - By Justin Latif

Over the next week or so, I’m going to regale you with some of my reflections on what has been both an exciting and exhausting year as the office administrator for The Salvation Army’s Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit. So here is part two...

Much of my year has been consumed by the organisational behemoth that is Just Action (click here for more info). This year we planned to put on the biggest and most sensational Just Action ever. We had international key note speakers, a Habitat for Humanity house build, plus a host of other well-known New Zealand experts and practitioners from a variety of spheres. We also attempted something rarely done in large conferences, which was to given every attendee the opportunity to contribute to a final summary of action points through the ReflectioNZ groups. 

The mantra constantly preached in our office was to create a ‘seamless social justice experience’ and to do this we tried to ensure every aspect of the event pointed the attendee towards thoughts of living more justly. It’s hard to say if we achieved such a lofty ideal, but here are some of the things we did to ensure this: 

- each delegate got a piece of chocolate either made by the fair trade business Trade Aid, or by a local businessman who had recovered from addiction to create an organic food business.

- each delegate got a pen made of biodegradable plastic and cupboard.

- each delegate got a jute bag made by Indian women who had just left the New Dehli sex industry.

- all the coffee and tea was certified organic and fair trade and no unethically farmed fruit was used for the meals. 

- the t-shirts were also made in India using organic cotton by workers who were paid a living wage. 

- with our speaker from the USA, we off-set the carbon their flight produced by purchasing carbon credits from a locally owned foresty company. 

- all our gifts were fair-trade or made locally and where possible, used organic ingredients and materials.

Despite all this, I’m sure there were ways we could have done more. 

One of the special bonuses of organising this event was liaising with the great speakers we invited. I had a number of skype meetings with Dr John Perkins. He’s been someone I’ve looked up to for a long time, so to be able to ask him about particular questions I’ve had about his books and ministry was very cool. My wife and I were also blessed to have Shane and Katie-Jo Claiborne stay with us while he was here for the conference. They are such a great couple. Their infectious love of life, pure humility and energy for justice was hugely inspiring. 

There weren’t too many major issues in the preparations, but one that comes to mind was setting up the video conference call for Dr Perkins to address our audience from the US. For whatever reason, the American company we used took an age to find a location in Mississippi that we could have Dr Perkins address us from. And just when we thought everything was all go, I get an email at 5am, five hours before he’s due to speak, telling me they were going to begin the video conference link an hour before he was scheduled. I quickly fired off some emails and a major scheduling drama was avoided.

Being part of such a big and complex event promoting social justice was a real privilege. In many ways, I feel quite lucky, that an ex-journalist with no event management experience, was given such a huge responsibility. So if you went, I hope it was just as enjoyable for you. 

I talked to many people over the two days who seemed incredibly inspired by the event – in particular by Shane Claiborne. He was funny, erudite, incisive and also amazingly accessible to a range of people. His talks made me reflect on how it seems that those of us in the social justice world can be too bashful or self-effacing when it comes to promoting the ideals we believe in. This can actually be to our determent as society misses out on hearing our perspective and instead the louder voices of the hegemony take precedence. But seeing how a high profile event like Just Action connected a wider sphere of people to social justice helped to temper my qualms that we were overly commodifying these messages of justice. Whether people turn their inspiration into action is out of our hands, but I believe such conferences as these serve as sign to what can be, rather than a solution to the problems that we see.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Reflections on 2013: part 1 - By Justin Latif

Over the next week or so, I’m going to regale you with some of my reflections on what has been both an exciting and exhausting year as the office administrator for The Salvation Army’s Social Policy and Parliamentary Unit.

The year began with two reports tracking the social ‘state’ of play within New Zealand as a whole and with Pasifika peoples living in New Zealand. 

It was my first State of the Nation with the Unit, given I only started in May of 2012. It threw up a number of challenges and some interesting learning experiences. 

There was a feeling within the team that given this was the 6th State of the Nation, it might be time to retire this format of reporting. However the resulting media interest, heaving crowds at the six launch events and the on-going positive feedback we’ve received has put to rest any thought to retiring the SOTN in the immediate future.  

My particular highlight from the release events was the Wellington event where, as part of a panel of four MPs, Winston Peters spoke quite eloquently about his own impoverished upbringing and the need for us not to let this be something future New Zealanders to share in. 

One particular learning for me, was always double check with your caterer to make sure they turn up with the food you ordered three weeks prior. With only 30 mins before the launch of the Auckland event we discovered our caterers had lost our order. After some hurried texts, our senior policy advisor Alan Johnson and I managed to purchase close to $150 worth of pastries, while the good folk of the The Salvation Army’s Auckland City Corp set up the coffee and tea. With the crisis averted the show moved on. 

In May, the Unit launched The State of Pasifika Peoples in NZ: More the Rugby, Churches, and Festivals. This was co-authored by Ronji Tanieul and Alan Johnson. My own involvement in this report launch was limited due to my grandfather dying a few days before it was released. However, this did not stop me attending what was a particularly inspiring and moving event. We heard from a number of Pasifika leaders who gave critique and constructive feedback to the report – but also shared their own perspectives on how Pasifika can overcome some of the particular challenges facing them as a people group. 

As I reflect back on these two successful report launches, while it was great that these publications have garnered a lot of attention for SPPU, the better outcome has been seeing these issues receiving hearty debate in the wider public. While it may be easy to say that there’s scant evidence of NZ becoming a fairer and more equal society. The growing debate around improving housing conditions, increasing wage rates and reducing child poverty shows the market-focused neo-liberal ideologies of the last century have failed to completely capture the public’s imagination. Despite the individual-first, ultra-competitive approach of many the Government’s policies through the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, there still seems to be a strong desire amongst everyday NZers for all to receive a fair go in this burgeoning nation of ours. And if we can continue to embody such a spirit of collective betterment then surely we can move forward as a country in these complex times.