Change better for the

Gael Surgenor
Gael Surgenor

Using the power of words and images, Gael Surgenor has helped lead the way to social change in New Zealand.

She has worked on three high- profile campaigns that challenge the thinking of New Zealanders - "Like Minds, Like Us" to break down stigmas around mental health; SKIP: Strategies for Kids - Information for Parents; and "It's Not OK" to change perceptions about domestic violence.

Surgenor studied law at the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, but decided to become a youth worker.

In that role, she collaborated with a group of young people to create comic strips on legal rights which she photocopied and handed around. She found these were an effective way of communicating legal issues and realised she had a passion for developing information that helped people gain better access to their rights and entitlements, and enabled them to create change and live better lives.

Surgenor went on to work with the Mental Health Foundation where she worked on the Like Minds, Like Mine campaign, a social marketing programme aimed at reducing the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness.

She soon found herself in the middle of a rapidly growing field that drew upon many of the skills she had developed.

"Social marketing is about using marketing and communications tools to achieve a social good rather than for selling consumer goods. It is not just a form of social advertising, but is centrally about how to communicate messages to audiences that would lead to an attitude and behaviour change," she says.

Surgenor was then recruited by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) to work on a new parenting campaign.

In 2004, the New Zealand government was concerned about the high levels of child maltreatment in the country, and the numbers of children dying from abuse and, in response, SKIP (Strategies with Kids - Information for Parents) was created. Its purpose was to communicate positive parenting messages and support community leadership and action to change the way children are raised.

The new SKIP project team embarked on a community development approach that meant getting alongside the leading parenting organisations such as Plunket, Barnados, Playcentre and Kohanga Reo.

"Our belief was that the solutions for changing the way we raise children in New Zealand already lie within local communities. Our role as a government organisation is to enable these solutions to be unleashed, get alongside them and support them," Surgenor says.

"We created the conversations with these community groups where we could focus on a shared vision. We tried some things out together, and then adapted them. The SKIP projects grew out of this process, rather than the government doing the thinking and the community groups just doing the doing."

This change in approach was hard at the beginning for many of the community organisations. And Surgenor concedes it took time to build up the trust that SKIP was not going to be just another "tack-on" project with some government funding that they would be asked to deliver on.

"We were genuine in saying we wanted the community organisations to stop and think. We wanted them to look at the ways that the opportunity with SKIP could strengthen what these organisations were already doing," she says.

The SKIP team took advantage of research from the Children's Issues Centre at the University of Otago, which had brought together the main research on effective parenting and had come up with a useful set of six principles that could change the context of discipline between parents and children.

SKIP embedded these principles into all its strategies and marketing messages: 1. Love and warmth - help children have loving relationships, and positive self- esteem.

2. Talking and listening - taking children seriously and giving clear messages, which are suited to their age, build confidence and healthy relationships.

3. Guidance and understanding - non-judgmental straightforward, respectful explanations inspire co- operation.

4. Limits and boundaries - clear rules keep things fair and safe for everyone in the family.

5. Consistency and consequences - consistency involves predictability.

Related, reasonable and respectful consequences teach self- confidence.

6. A structured and secure world - safe, supportive environments provide security and reduce conflict.

In developing communications and advertising strategies, the SKIP team directly asked children and parents for their ideas, rather than just relying on the views of traditional experts.

"We enabled children to take an influential role by making a DVD called Children's Voices for the launch, interviewing children aged 4 years to 7 years for their ideas. That little resource became the heart of SKIP and one of our most popular resources. We asked parents for their ideas and stories, and all the publications and pamphlets use quotes and stories from the parents."

SKIP also established a Local Initiatives Fund which was designed to be "tight" on what the purpose of the fund was, but "flexible" about how communities did it.

In the first five years, $6.76 million was provided in funding to 174 organisations who established parenting networks, ran seminars and workshops, and hosted large-scale family days.

By mid-2005, the SKIP programme was fully operational and already gaining a reputation as a government initiative that was working well with community organisations. It was starting to make a positive difference for parents.

That same year, the government became particularly determined to address the family violence problem. One in three New Zealand women reported that they had experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner during their lifetime. On average, the police responded to a family violence incident once every seven minutes, and every year an average of 14 women, six men and 10 children died as a result of this violence. It was believed many thousands of cases of family violence went unreported.

The government decided to bring together chief executives of government and non-government agencies in order to co-ordinate a major new effort to address these issues.

As a result, the Taskforce for Action on Violence within Families was established, and Surgenor's team was given the job of creating a new community- based social marketing campaign addressing the issue of family violence - drawing on what they had learned from SKIP.

The philosophy of the campaign was summed up with the theme "It's Not OK!"

Surgenor soon found this message proved to be a disarmingly simple thing to say about this difficult issue. It immediately put a "stake in the ground" about family violence, and it became one of the key success factors of the campaign.

"Research showed us that the perpetrators of violence usually disassociated, minimised or excused their violence," Surgenor says.

"We also found that these people don't respond well when blamed and shamed - they would say 'that's those people over there, that's not me'. So we did advertising that established that family violence was a serious issue, but there was also the positive possibility of change."

Surgenor reports that family violence in New Zealand is no longer considered a private issue. The term "It's Not OK" has quickly become part of Kiwi vernacular, and the question "Are You OK?" has become a very soft introduction to a subject that had been too hard to discuss.

The "It's Not OK" campaign evaluations show that there has been a significant increase in people, particularly men, seeking help to change behaviour and more women saying it's OK to leave violent relationships.

The campaign has engaged with a wide range of individuals and organisations including sports teams, businesses, local government, youth groups and churches. Celebrities and local leaders are increasingly offering to get behind the campaign.

Community groups working with the issue of family violence report an increase in morale and better understanding of their work.

In 2007, Surgenor was presented with the Ministry of Social Development Outstanding Achievement Award for her work with SKIP and "It's Not OK". In presenting the award, MSD chief executive Peter Hughes described the campaigns as "becoming part of New Zealand's collective conscience". Edited from How Communities Heal - stories of social innovation and social change by Vivian Hutchinson and the New Zealand Social Entrepreneur Fellowship.

Taranaki Daily News