Driven to make a change

Every community has its changemakers, the social innovators and active citizens, who are out there making a difference. In Your World, we meet a man who is not only leading the way, he has written a book about other New Zealand social entrepreneurs.

Back in the 1970s, teenage journalist Vivian Hutchinson interviewed an old Maori woman. The young Pakeha man and the elderly kuia became close friends and he helped her organise a march; one that would stretch the length of the North Island and end at Parliament.

That woman was Dame Whina Cooper, who led the Maori Land March of 1975.

"I was spoilt with my work with Dame Whina - it was transformational," the New Plymouth man says. "I came out of that experience thinking we could do anything."

In 1978, Vivian also worked with Aunty Marjorie Rau-Kupa to create a series of annual gatherings at Te Niho-o-Atiawa meeting house at Parihaka in Taranaki to introduce Pakeha New Zealanders to the world of Maori. "It was not until my early 20s that I found my own work," he says. "I just woke up one day and realised what it was I had to do."

That work has been focused on job creation and economic development, especially in finding employment solutions for the youth of New Zealand. "I don't want to live in a country that has no use for a large number of its young people," Vivian says. "That's the issue I wanted to work on and have been for the last 30 years."

He began in 1979 by working with the Salvation Army to create Community Work Schemes for unemployed young people. In 1985, he established the Taranaki Work Trust and the Starting Point Employment Resource Centre and The Skills of Enterprise business training programmes for unemployed people.

Vivian went on to set up the national Jobs Research Trust in 1984 and published The Jobs Letter, a fortnightly publication on employment, unemployment, job creation and economic development. Then in 2000 he broke down the mindset that unemployment was just a central government problem.

In his book, How Communities Heal: Stories of Social Innovation and Change, Vivian says he teamed up with former Christchurch Mayor Garry Moore to initiate the Mayors Taskforce for Jobs. It was an idea that began from a discussion in his New Plymouth garage, a place transformed into a meeting room, filled with books, chairs, tables and even a screen for watching TED talks and other inspirational documentaries.

"So many things have been incubated out of this garage," he says.

Over the years Vivian has helped people start up businesses and other enterprises, yet he has always considered himself a social activist.

He says that change-makers in the social sector have often been looked on as troublemakers, but in the commercial world they have been called entrepreneurs, so have been saluted and celebrated.

It wasn't until 2000 that Vivian was introduced to the phrase "social entrepreneur" and he realised it was exactly what he'd been doing for years.

In 2006, he was recognised as one when he was invited to set up a support scheme for New Zealand's social entrepreneurs run by the Tindall Foundation, the nation's largest private philanthropic foundation.

Vivian was given the job of finding 14 other leading community changemakers from around the country to join a fellowship. The people he chose are all featured in How Communities Can Heal, and their stories will be told in Your World over the next year.

The Tindall Foundation supported the group for three years, but members became such firm friends and found their kinship so valuable that the New Zealand Social Entrepreneur Fellowship has kept going.

In fact, that's one of Vivian's big tips for fledgling social entrepreneurs - find peers to bounce ideas off and if you have a great innovation.

"That was one of the greatest benefits of the fellowship. Even though some of these people were leaders in their fields in the country, they did not easily have peers to talk to who understood the risks and challenges of this variety of leadership," he says.

"Just getting them in the same room, it became an incubator for what they were working on next. You could share your quarter- thoughts and they could lead to full-blown innovations."

The fellowship has now extended its reach and is running master classes for younger people.

This year, Vivian has been to Hong Kong to run social entrepreneur classes for a Chinese audience.

The Hong Kong edition of How Communities Can Heal is dedicated to Rewi Alley, who walked off a back-country Taranaki farm in 1927 and went to China, where he worked for the next 60 years.

In 1983, Rewi wrote to Vivian, who was then working with unemployed workers laid off after the closure of the Patea Freezing Works, and the two had regular correspondence until Rewi's death in 1987.

These days, Vivian is an iPad man, who has embraced new technology because it makes communication easier. But he still lives simply and enjoys swimming at Back Beach, where he was walking the day he realised there was something wrong with the popular proverb that advised him "not to give a man a fish" but "to teach a man to fish".

"It took me many years to realise that, no matter how many self-help projects I was organising, I still wasn't making much of a dent in the overall levels of unemployment in my community.

"This challenged me to step back and ask myself: What business am I really in?," he writes in the book.

"I remember walking along my local beach at dusk one evening and I could see the lights of the foreign-owned squid boats and fishing trawlers out on the horizon," he continues.

"It struck me at that moment that I had been making a conceptual mistake in my drive for self-help employment opportunities. The fact is that I can 'teach a man to fish' as much as I like but there are foreign fishing trawlers coming into our harbour!

"Over time, this insight became instructive and taught me that unless I could engage in the systemic levels surrounding our social problems, I was never going to create the solutions I was looking for."

Creating real social change can be a tough battle.

The 18th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer says that for innovations to be accepted they go through a three-stage process: first your ideas are ridiculed, then they are violently opposed, and finally they are treated as self-evident.

"Almost every social entrepreneur understands that storyline," Vivian says. "They carry the bruises and scars of their driven passion to make something happen on behalf of the common good. But they keep going."

Vivian has and still does. "I do feel driven to make a change. I feel fortunate to live in a country where you can actually focus your life on social change and you are not going to get killed for it.

"New Zealand has a relatively uncorrupt social system, where we can bring up alternative suggestions. We can be the social laboratory for the world, as we were once proud to be known."

But he would do away with some of the non-labels given to community activities in our society.

"Part of the problem is the community sector is treated as the bottom of the food chain by Government, local government and the media," Vivian says.

"You can tell that by the phrases that are used - not-for-profit organisation, non-government organisation. It makes as much sense as an artist or a gardener referring to themselves as not a rugby player.

"The fact is community organisations are really about much more than profit. At our heart we are active citizens, and we are trying to make things better, and we are pouring into it all the creativity and resources we have at our fingertips."

Some of the harder questions Vivian believes we need to ask ourselves:

1. What can we do to ensure that the opportunities of New Zealand are available and accessible to all New Zealanders?

2. How do we create enough well-paid jobs for everyone?

3. How do we create enough houses for everyone who needs a home and at affordable prices?

4. How do communities reconsider their approach to crime and punishment? And the way we deal with addictions?

5. What can we do to create communities that embrace our diversities?

6. What more can we do to restore and regenerate our natural environment?

7. How do we awaken the active citizenship needed to address our most complex social and environmental issues?


People and organisations covered in How Communities Heal: Brian Donnelly (affordable housing), Vivien Madaborn (improving design of NZ homes for disabled), Emeline Afeaki Mafile'o (prison reform), Gael Surgenor (social marketing to make social change), John Stansfield (social innovator), Stephanie McIntyre (working with homeless), Major Campbell Roberts (Salvation Army, inspiring churches to practical action on proverty), Philip Patston (Diversity NZ), Ngahau and Debbie Davis (Maori community-owned enterprises in rural areas), Malcolm Cameron (youth development), Nuku Rapana (Cook Is enterprise and development), Robin Allison (Earthsong Eco- Neighbourhood).

Taranaki Daily News