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.

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