Viva la volunteer

Taking the gap and getting stuck in

JOHN MCCRONE
Last updated 15:48 03/02/2013
Ministry of Awesome
DAVID HALLETT/Fairfax NZ

CREATIVE EFFORT: The Ministry of Awesome, from left, Kimbely Gilmour, Sacha McMeeking, Kaila Colbin, Vicki Buck, Sam Johnson and Julian Cone.

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On a blazing hot Saturday afternoon on the edge of the central city red zone, a group of American university students are lounging under the shade of the trees to hear how Kiwis do things.

It's what we call our No 8 fencing wire mentality, says the Student Volunteer Army's (SVA's) Jason Pemberton, kicking off his jandals and jigging on one leg in excitement as he warms to his theme. Something needs doing, we don't have to ask permission. We just get stuck in.

Well, admits Pemberton, the Civil Defence authorities did try to shut down the SVA three times. But pretty soon, a government minister was phoning with $30,000 scratched up from some discretionary fund to support the students.

Now a major Christchurch law firm is binning any job applicants that cannot list the SVA on their resume and Pemberton has just returned from New York after advising on the mop-up of super- storm Sandy.

A little more bashfully, Gap Filler's Coralie Winn steps forward to plug the same message. Cantabrians just did what seemed obvious after the earthquakes, but apparently this kind of self- organising grassroots response is world-leading.

Winn says Christchurch has become a cool city because of its many citizen initiatives like Greening the Rubble, Addington Action, the Ministry of Awesome and the Festival of Transitional Architecture.

The Lonely Planet guide praises the way it is "rising from the rubble with a breathtaking mix of spirit, determination and flair".

And all these groups have plans to kick on in 2013. The temporary is becoming the established. An alternative recovery is emerging to rival the official one run by the Government's Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera).

Look at how it is changing. With sponsors like Kiwibank providing the financial backing, both Pemberton and Winn now find themselves fulltime employees of their voluntary organisations, working out of an office.

Both have just pulled off their most ambitious projects. Pemberton was in charge of organising The Concert where 8000 people paid for tickets through four hours of volunteer labour. Winn oversaw the building of the Pallet Pavilion meeting space on the site of the former Crown Plaza hotel.

And now both are involved in "next step" groups, the Volunteer Army Foundation and Life in Vacant Spaces, which aim to scale up the community action to another level in the coming year.

Pemberton says he can imagine the grassroots activists eventually getting together to build themselves a container village in some corner of the city - Cera will have its administrative hub and they will have theirs.

It appears the earthquakes have released a youthful energy in Christchurch and things are really starting to move.

The American visitors look rather bemused by this show of Kiwi passion. And is it in fact all just a little too self congratulatory, a little too pie-in-the-sky? The recovery is a $30 billion job, so can the homespun, shoestring, contributions of the likes of Gap Filler and the Volunteer Army count for anything much?

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Half the story is Christchurch is a small city that's well-connected. I am catching up with Pemberton over a cup of coffee the following week when former mayor Garry Moore thumps us on the shoulders and pauses for a chat. This is going to be the "year of the dissident" Moore rumbles, after he hears we are talking about how the recovery is faring. People had to suppress much of their criticism last year so as not to rock the boat. But 2013 is going to see a more robust discussion. "I don't think enough people are speaking out," he says.

You can see Moore represents a generation that relishes confrontation - the one that remembers political change coming through demos and manifestos. And post-earthquake Christchurch has certainly seen a few grey-haired marches on Cera, the council, and even Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee's empty Ilam electorate office.

What seems different about the alternative recovery movement is a belief in collaboration, a desire to work with the authorities. The youth of today appear to approach political action with quite a different mindset.

Pemberton brings me up to date on what is happening with the student army. The SVA is still going, he says, but as a university club. He and Sam Johnson now want to do something much broader with a Christchurch-wide organisation, the Volunteer Army Foundation (VAF), a general agency to connect volunteer labour to small recovery jobs with "surgical precision".

The Concert was the first big effort. To get a ticket to the show at the AMI Stadium in November, people had to donate four hours to a particular project like salvaging wood decking from red-zone homes or weaving a colourful mural in a central city cordon chainlink fence.

Pemberton says the event was targeted at high school students, but a surprising cross-section of Christchurch turned out.

"We had truck drivers, plumbers and tradies. Young parents and many retirees. A couple of ladies in their 70s came along and said the concert was part of their 'bucket list'."

With sponsorship from Kiwibank, the Canterbury Community Trust and others, Pemberton is now based in the city, his voluntary role as VAF operations manager having become a proper job. It is like a start-up business, he says, and the first task for 2013 is to formalise VAF's longterm plan.

One clever idea is for Christchurch to capitalise on a worldwide trend for service learning.

Pemberton says the visiting group of students from the University of Montana and University of Wisconsin-La Crosse had their trip organised by Billy O'Steen of the University of Canterbury as part of a business studies course. The next day those young people put in about $5000 worth of work helping to recycle fencing in the residential red zone.

Students now go overseas looking to take part in aid projects and community work. "It's become massive in the United States," Pemberton says. It is about learning by doing and personal development.

And with Christchurch having become something of a war zone - but probably one that many American parents will feel is safer than Myanmar or Kenya - there is an opportunity for VAF to become a bureau that connects visiting students to local projects, turning earthquake recovery into an export earner for the city.

"Volun-tourism!" Pemberton cries.

This is just one of the possibilities that VAF could get involved in. But Pemberton says it is the entrepreneurial approach that is important - the search for a win-win. Christchurch gets free help and the organising of the volunteers pays for itself, allowing VAF in turn to keep growing its activities to a scale where it really can begin to have a noticeable impact on the city's recovery.

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It should not be surprising. Non- governmental organisations have long been part of everyday life - the church agencies like Presbyterian Support filling the social services space, the environmental campaigners like Greenpeace who have become professional advocates.

Now the Christchurch earthquake recovery is spawning its own local ecosystem of recovery organisations. And in Darwinian fashion, if they work they will stick.

Last year, the Ministry of Awesome was one of those happy- clappy ideas you just knew was not going to survive. A US-born social media consultant Kaila Colbin got together with former mayor Vicki Buck, the VAF's Johnson and some other friends to create a website which would "water the seeds of awesome in Christchurch".

The plan seemed to be that people would go online and brainstorm about jazzy bike rack designs or organise flashmob events.

Colbin had been responsible for bringing the webcast TEDxEQChCh conference to Christchurch just months after the February 2011 earthquake. And with star speakers like former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos, it did mark a Woodstock moment - about the first time many began to feel optimistic about the recovery.

But the Ministry of Awesome did not look like a project with legs. Relentless positivity only gets you so far.

However, like the others, the "awesomists" got organised and are starting 2013 with a sponsorship budget, an office, a paid staff member and a concrete set of projects.

The ministry is based in the same Tradestaff building in Colombo St as Pemberton's VAF. Kimberley Gilmour, a former international human resources manager at Icebreaker, is its full- time event organiser.

As well as its website, ministryofawesome.com, the ministry is running a weekly Monday lunchtime "Coffee and Jam" session at the Epic innovation hub where people with a new business idea can spend 10 minutes pitching it and get feedback.

Then every month there is a Monday night Awesome Evening at Gap Filler's Pallet Pavilion where people talk about the more general recovery projects they have in mind or are already doing.

"It is hugely casual, very relaxed," says Colbin. "Anyone can come and speak for five minutes. But you can only talk about actions - whatever awesome project you are working on.

"The format's 'My name's Joe. This is what I'm doing. If it floats your boat, come have a beer with me and let's talk about it.' So it's about revealing what's going on in Christchurch so people can make connections that they wouldn't otherwise have access to."

It sounds like something for the young and hip, but Colbin says the audience divide is "psychographic" rather than demographic - it is for those who want to get involved in Christchurch's future. National MP Nicky Wagner and Labour MP Lianne Dalziel have both been regulars at the four evenings so far.

"Our role is to normalise a state of aspiration in Christchurch. We're not saying that everything is awesome and there's no problem. But we are saying there is a future we can all strive for and this is how we can help create the conditions for that," says Colbin.

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People are working out where they fit. And while at times the efforts might seem disarmingly amateur, there is a lot of thought going into what the public sees happening.

Lincoln University environmental management lecturer Roy Montgomery, a trustee of the vacant lot planting initiative Greening the Rubble, says the group is at something of a crossroads. There is a tension over how much to become part of the establishment and how much to stay independent, fighting a more ideological fight for urban biodiversity.

When Greening the Rubble sprang up a few weeks after the first September 2010 earthquake, an early decision was to work with landowners. Montgomery says they had to if it was private land. So the plantings needed to reflect what the land owners expected to see.

"Probably the sympathies of most of those involved is about winning back the city for native eco-systems. But we had to be a little more pragmatic."

Greening the Rubble also got a grant from Christchurch City Council to help pay for a co- ordinator. Now the aim is to have 10 sites on the go in any one year.

It is a struggle, Montgomery admits. As any gardener knows, planting needs constant attention, otherwise it can go tatty. There have been some mistakes - like a project in New Brighton mall where the harshness of the sea breezes were underestimated and vandals have been a problem.

"The bones can show through very quick."

Montgomery says perhaps Greening the Rubble is naturally just a temporary response. Gap Filler is about urban renewal and it will have a job for years. But if Greening the Rubble's true priority lies in environmental renewal rather than just prettying up empty spaces, possibly it might have to find another path.

And then either way, there is the dilemma of how to scale up to match the size of the task, says Montgomery.

The September earthquake created only a handful of bulldozed plots in the city. As a grassroots response, Greening the Rubble could expect to have quite a visible effect on the cleanup.

"But the February thing just took it into a different league. Where there were 50 sites, after that there were 500 sites going begging. We were left scratching the surface because the numbers became too big."

It also wiped out the pool of willing volunteers, says Montgomery, because suddenly half of Christchurch had enough of their own housing and job issues to worry about. But size need not be the problem for a grassroots response if rather than trying to do everything itself, it instead focuses on catalysing change, he says.

This is why the modern political model is about action, he says. It's doing something rather than just talking about it, so as to demonstrate what is possible. And why it also favours collaboration over confrontation, partnering up with the authorities and corporate sponsors, as it is only the political establishment that has the capacity to implement change in a big way.

Greening the Rubble, Gap Filler, the Ministry of Awesome and others are small and nimble enough to seed the recovery with their good ideas, their social experiments. Then what works will hopefully stick. But Montgomery warns frustrations will eventually show if expectations are not rewarded.

"The grassroots response is still settling in. People are still acting in good faith. You've probably got another year or two where people will run as they are running now with the same sorts of aspirations.

"But if no-one else is coming to the party, then at that point it might all go lopsided and fade away. Or else turn radical."

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The alternative recovery's question is how to keep building its momentum. It has gone through the first flush where people got stuck in without seeking too much permission. Now it is looking to consolidate and, as Colbin says, create the general conditions for change.

Gap Filler is proving perhaps the most effective example of people power. Winn says its policy is not to try to do everything itself but instead spin off as many projects as possible. It's about setting up a multiplier effect by encouraging others to enter the fray.

One such effort was the wildly successful Festival of Transitional Architecture last October, a week- long celebration of DIY urbanism that opened with LuxCity, a city of lights and installations conjured up among the central city's fallen buildings.

That is intended to become an annual event. Another Gap Filler initiative, Life in Vacant Spaces (Livs), is getting started this year with the help of a $160,000 council grant.

Livs general manager Suse O'Meagher says the idea is to make it easy for anyone to do a gap filler. Livs will act as a bureau to connect landlords with an empty property to people with a project like a pop-up tea room or artist workshop. By handling the consents, insurance and other paperwork, Livs will lower the threshold for those who might want to have a go.

So there is a community-level recovery building in Christchurch with a definite style of doing things. Politically motivated but also collaborative in spirit.

Montgomery says people talk about Cera stifling the recovery by being too "command and control", yet he believes that ironically the old Christchurch City Council and Environment Canterbury were probably more obstructive.

Over the last decade, they had become centralised, bureaucratic and inward-looking. "Certain things had fallen by the wayside in terms of the way committees worked, and community boards worked, which had people feeling the city was less grassroots- sensitive than it had been in the past."

Montgomery says Cera may be a rather blunt institutional instrument, however, there now seems more space in the middle ground of Christchurch politics. So that is encouraging the grassroots to grow.

But is it especially Kiwi? The alternative recovery looks good to local eyes, but are Cantabrians doing something unusual?

Colbin answers we are and we aren't. The kind of grassroots action Christchurch is seeing reflects a worldwide movement - social entrepreneurship - that is arising because of a combination of the internet and Generation Y attitudes to life.

The movement's slogan is "think global, act local". The internet exposes the young to the big international issues - sustainability, biodiversity, inequality. They are then encouraged to get out and do something about it in their own neighbourhoods, take some action that through social media might go viral, inspire others to act as well.

Colbin says after Canterbury's earthquakes, it is only to be expected the response has taken the shape it has.

She says Kiwis are also practical people and so more confident about giving things a go.

"I think we are exceptional. I'm not just saying that from pride. I travel a lot and talk to a lot of people outside Christchurch about what's going on here and they find it really stunning and surprising - this whole wave of social innovators who are stepping up to ask how they can have an impact on our city, on our future, on our environment."

Colbin agrees the problem for Christchurch is the damage is just so great. So the challenge for the grassroots is to maintain heart as it tries to find ways to scale up to match the size of the task.

The good news is that 2013 is starting out with various infant organisations finding funding and offices, establishing their long- term plans and hiring passionate staff. The temporary is becoming the established. So if there was ever any doubt, ordinary Cantabrians now have permission to get stuck in.

- The Press

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