Scrubbing Graffiti And Capturing Prince Harry's Attention
Guest Post by Sam Johnson, Co-Founder, Student Volunteer Army; Serve For New Zealand
I found myself squatting in front of a graffiti-covered wall in Upper Hutt, New Zealand, alongside a small German boy, an entrepreneur and a street artist. There we were together; three of us scrubbing tags and other assorted delinquent creations off an alleyway out the back of a service station. “What a Saturday”, I thought, as I had visions of school detention, or what I imagine it would be like to do court-mandated community service.
To an outsider, I was stuck doing a thankless task with a random group of people on my one day off. Yet the purpose of our back alley activities, couldn’t be further away from punitive. Our diverse mix of older community members, kids, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and artists from around the world were enjoying the sunny day, great company and physical work. We freed a laneway of graffiti, and prepared a space for a mural to be painted by young people.
Within New Zealand, Upper Hutt is to Wellington what the Tenderloin used to be to San Francisco. People occasionally gasp when you say you live there. It's not really known for anything in particular; the houses are cheaper, hipster stores are non-existent, and the boy-racer cars scrape across the speed humps on the main drag. There is even a Lion King meme featuring the view to the elephant graveyard, featuring the words, “Simba, that shadowy place is Upper Hutt. You must never go there.”
To an outsider, this place is seen as a no-go. Yet, our simple act of service had the amazing ability to unite, teach, explore, disarm, and empower both our sense of belonging to the place, and our empathy towards people that most of us had little in common with.
I learned that the lane we were painting was named after a man called Jack Kheller, who wrote the history of Upper Hutt. A proud citizen, grandfather and community man, who would be delighted to today to see a group caring enough to restore the dignity to a space in a place so often overlooked.
Five years ago, I was part of organising a movement that demonstrated the incredible power of community spirit and service, after a major earthquake in Christchurch. The earthquake killed 185 people and destroyed the homes and businesses of thousands more. Some friends and I started an initiative, inviting people to volunteer to help via a Facebook page.
Overnight, this became the Student Volunteer Army, managing to amass 28,000 followers and over 11,000 volunteers who rallied to help clean up the city.
Traditionally, students in New Zealand are a subset of society known for partying, drinking, couch-burning and tipping over the household rubbish bins on the way home from the pub. Yet, when it mattered most, out of nowhere came this massive group of volunteers, who cleaned up all the silt that covered the city from earthquake liquefaction, and shattered the reputation of young people in New Zealand - simply because it was the right thing to do.
These small but significant acts of service helped people who were overcome with destruction and despair. We realised that our service wasn't in the physical work, but in being there for others; listening, learning, and understanding people who are different from ourselves. I know as well as you do what the “right thing to do” is, and sometimes you just need a little extra motivation to get involved.
We searched for a way to continue this movement, outside of a disaster situation. In 1994, the American Government designated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as the first and only federal holiday observed as a national day of service. Every year since, thousands of Americans have marked one of the nation’s most important days through volunteering – under the concept of “a day on, not a day off”.
With this sort of legacy in mind, we teamed up with the Returned Services Association, to launch Serve For New Zealand, to change how New Zealanders perceive public holidays. The campaign encourages people to undertake some form of meaningful neighbourly service on Anzac Day in New Zealand on the 25th of April - the day that commemorates all those who have served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.
So far more than 4,000 people, including Government Ministers and Members of Parliament, have embraced the Anzac spirit and pledged at least an hour of their time towards Serve for New Zealand. Just this week Prince Harry came out in support of the campaign - being especially interested in the partnership between the students and veterans!
While this year is a pilot concept, we are interested in exploring how the concept could be applied to other days of national significance. We’ve had discussions around important but largely unacknowledged days in our history, such as when New Zealand women made history by becoming the first women in the world to win the right to vote in national elections. Other important historical events have slipped off our calendar - such as Parihaka Day, when 1500 British troops attacked and exiled the Māori leaders of a peaceful resistance movement to land confiscations in 1881.
Serve For New Zealand is about shining a light on our national days of significance, and inviting more people to find meaning in them.
In championing innovative approaches to immigration over the past year, Kiwi Connect has tried to further this by advocating that we align our immigration policies to attract people to New Zealand who are committed to having a positive social impact. Deeply connected to this is the spirit of service and community. Why not attract people to New Zealand who drive global impact and serious business, but are not above helping out the local community and scrubbing a wall once a year? Together we are building a culture of understanding and fuelling our international reputation of being a “helpful nation.”
For us, helping out others and giving things a go, it is an integral part of what it means to be Kiwi. We're pleased to have Kiwi Connect as a proud supporter, and we invite you to join us, wherever you are in the world, and together reflect on what national days of significance mean to you.