Is NZ fair? Young people get creative to join the conversation

It’s almost enough to make me want to go back to school.

The Social Justice Unit is launching a nation-wide competition called Is New Zealand Fair? which challenges groups of young people to find creative ways of communicating the facts about fairness in New Zealand. They can use art, theatre, music, video, writing or anything else to get people talking about inequality in New Zealand. The competition is a sequel to last year’s Cardboard House Building Competition, which attracted entrants from all over the country.income-gap

Competing groups will be given a straight-up fact sheet with a range of info on equality and wealth distribution in NZ. They get to express the facts in a thought-provoking, conversation-starting medium of their choice. Students are challenged to grapple with such fun facts as:

The richest 1% of New Zealanders own more than 3 times as much as all the poorest 50% put together.


In 2010, at least 34 people earned salaries over 500,000. Seventeen of these earned salaries over 1 million. In the same year, 150 NZ children died from preventable illnesses caused by poverty.

Entries will be judged on creativity, how widely they share the facts, and how well they make people engage with the facts. Groups are in to win great prizes for their school, as well as engaging in a conversation about fairness that’s bigger than detentions and sibling squabbles.

Entries may be completed any time before November 22nd. Entrants can be student groups, classes or youth groups of primary or high school age. Multiple entries per school are welcome.

The first twenty groups to register will receive a free copy of Bryan Bruce’s documentary ‘Mind the Gap’.

If you are a teacher or youth leader, contact the Unit and do this with your kids. If you are a parent, older sibling or neighbour to kids or teenagers, pass the details to their school or youth group: help them get involved and help the conversation spread.


More info and updates can be found on the facebook page.

For questions or to register, email

 If groups want to take further action, the Social Justice Unit will help them out. How cool would that be?  


Why Food Banks have failed, and why we need them more than ever

Jolyon White on food banks and how NOT to fix your underpants:

In 1968, New Zealand signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which enshrined an ‘adequate standard of living,’ including adequate housing and food, as a basic human right.

Walter Nash (NZ pm who died that same year), said “I don’t want to get rid of poverty just to ensure that Freedom_from_wantprosperity is maintained; I want to get rid of poverty because it is bad, it is wrong, it is immoral, it is unethical, it is un-Christian, it is unfair, and it is unjust… I mean involuntary poverty – where people are told that their hands are not wanted, and their families will be deprived of the necessary things for health.”

In 1978, the government ratified the covenant, acknowledging that providing adequate food for all citizens was a human rights necessity. Several years later, New Zealand embarked upon sweeping economic reforms and simultaneously saw the rise of a new phenomenon, the church/charity-run food bank, which was emerging across the developed world.

The church had been involved in food charity before– soup kitchens, meals for the sick or bereaved – but there is different assumption behind those services. A prepared meal assumes someone is unable to look after themselves. A food bank assumes that someone has a home, a stove, and the ability to cook – but their pantry is empty.foodbank1

Food Banks were supposed to be a short-term stop-gap measure while economic reforms brought prosperity to the nation.

Meanwhile, back at the United Nations…

The senior U.N official responsible for ensuring government compliance with signed covenants warned governments that reliance on food banks to provide adequate food wdeclarationas a violation of the covenant, and therefore of human rights.

Let’s say that again: a government that accepts charitable food banks as the means to provide adequate food is guilty of human rights abuse.

In 1991, a decade into the reforms, a budget was passed that is infamously referred to as the mother of all budgets. Welfare spending was slashed. In the following year and a half, food bank usage quadrupled. A 1993 food bank conference placed the total value of food parcels at 21 million dollars.

Food banks are now cemented into the landscape. New Zealand has 1 charity for every 172 kiwis. That speaks of a generous nation. But charity does not address the cause of the problem. As noted by someone pithy and notable, “charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”

Reliance on food banks is justice withheld. They exist because of a created poverty, not out of true scarcity. The economic reforms of the 80s were supposed bring prosperity. And they did… for some.


graph4Over the past 30 years the top 10% of income earners have increased their annual income after tax by about 80%, middle-income earners by 20%, but the lowest income earners barely changed.* When increased cost of things like housing, food, power and transport are considered, bottom income earners have at times gone backwards. In 2010, seventeen people took home salaries over 1 million dollars, while 150 children died of poverty related illness.

There is now a cruel new twist on the words of Walter Nash. People are no longer in poverty because the work of their hands “is not wanted.” With the rise of in-work poverty, the work of their hands is wanted, but they still cannot adequately look after the health of their family.

Remember when you did that dodgy repair on the pantry shelf by propping it up with a broom-handle, or fixed the leak in the roof with a bucket, or darned your underpants with duct-tape, and then the existence of that broom-handle, bucket, or tape meant you never got around to actually fixing it? That’s a food bank.hand

We may need food banks more than ever, but (as with the duct-tape on the underpants) we should never become comfortable with their existence. Though we must still support them, they are an indication that something is wrong.

The church shows a growing discontent with inequality, and is joining positive movements toward a living wage. It has also been great at providing charity. However, for an institution whose founding document is one of social justice, the church has not often proclaimed that “charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”

*Source: Adapted from Perry, Household Incomes in New Zealand, p. 218, and figures in the World Top Incomes Database, for New Zealand, 1921-2009. Figure drawn from Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis, edited by Max Rashbrooke and published by Bridget Williams Books. We gratefully acknowledge the permission of the publishers to reproduce this figure.

The Pokie Free Challenge: What would you pledge?

Saving the world a little bit has never been so easy. The Social Justice Unit has a new website that is collecting pledges from the public to find the tipping point at which one awesome bar will agree to get rid of its pokies – for good.


A lot of people – including bar owners – know that pokie machines are predatory and currently adding fuel to a host of social problems. Click here for the Social Justice Unit’s elevator pitch on this. Click here and here for my previous posts on pokies.

The tricky thing is, it is financially very difficult for a bar to give up its machines. The Pokie Free Challenge is about making it possible by providing incentive: alternative revenue generators, extra custom, a reputation boost. The tipping point will be reached when the accumulation of public pledges is more appealing to a bar owner than keeping its pokies.

Because of the sinking lid policy, the pokies will not be replaced. So reaching the tipping point means that one bar will no longer be creating new addicts and will become an awesome, temptation-free venue for those in recovery.

 A Good Story:

  •  You go to the site. You pledge what you can, be it labour, custom or goods.

You could pledge:

To use your skills (graphic design, plumbing, accounting) to help them out for a certain number of hours or a set task that may arise

To tell your mates and initiate Friday drinks at that bar

To bake them a cake

To spread the word through your local newspaper/radio show/church service/school

If you’re a business person you could probably do awesome stuff I don’t know about

There is currently no way to vote on pokies. This is a way to impact the situation.

  •  The list grows
  •  The tipping point is reached. A bar owner makes the call. We changed the world a little bit. You’re invited to the party.


So, what would you give to see a bar give up its pokies?

 What people or businesses do you know who could also pledge to help tip the balance?

 Pass it on.


Excuse me, do you speak activist?

I love finding out I’m totally wrong about something. I interviewed a socialist the other day, after reading Fightback, the magazine he co-edits. It includes sentences like ‘we need to build a movement which can develop alternative, anti-capitalist ideas to create a revolution’. It has us-and-them talk about the workers, the capitalists and ‘our international comrades’. I used to read Adbusters and am still kind of embarrassed at how easily I was seduced by their exciting superlatives. So I had a pretty cynical set of assumptions going on when I went to meet Byron Clark.Image//

Assumption number 1: They’re getting worked up on behalf of the ‘poor proletariat’ who they aren’t really part of and who they don’t talk to.

Byron: The workers are anyone who makes a living selling their ability to work, who makes money by doing stuff, not owning stuff. Also people who do unpaid work.

So people in Fightback are workers, and I should have done my homework. They also have active relationships with worker unions.

Assumption 2: The end goal is some crazy revolution leading to some crazy idealistic

communist system.

Byron: We don’t want to make a blueprint for what a better system would look like because we are just a small group and it should be everyone’s decision. We can only take steps towards greater equality and democracy in the workplace.

Assumption number 3: All talk, no action. No awareness that talk is not action.

Byron: We focus on the magazine, the website, and responding to issues as they come up. We aim to be a voice for workers wanting a fairer system.

Image// When you put it like that, it doesn’t sound so crazy. This begs a question. We are actullay on the same page about a lot of things, so why did the magazine make me dubious?


Lots of different socially concerned people want pretty similar things, but they have translation issues. Animal rights activists often talk about animals in ways I find precious and cringe-worthy. This is probably because I’m not enlightened. They’ve created a language, and not everyone speaks it. We all have language we like using, but if it turns people off to a cause they otherwise sympathize with, it is surely unhelpful. Christians who are interested in Jesus’ vision of social change, not just following rules and feeling superior, also have their own Image// lingo. The rule-followers have theirs as well, of course…but it’s not as interesting.

I while ago someone commented that this blog was a bit too entrenched in social-justice lingo. I didn’t know there was such a thing, so I’m probably in linguistic trouble too.

So what’s the solution? Come on, simple perfect answer, I know you’re out there…

Byron: We do discuss what language to use. It’s a balance, you want to make it accessible but not dumb it down… I’ve found the (Marxist) perspective to make sense. It’s a helpful way to understand the world.

All of our language// s are lenses we’ve chosen to understand the world. And diversity Image// is good – it makes ecosystems healthier and people less ethnocentric and crazy. I guess all we can do is be aware of our language, and open minded to learning the language of others. We all know learning foreign languages is good for our brains. I guess all we can do is talk to each other.

Coffee and Questions

So Beat Street Café on the corner of Armagh and Barbadoes are doing this awesome Image// thing called suspended coffee. It means that when you buy a coffee you can choose to pay for an extra one, and that coffee will be recorded and saved for someone who would struggle to buy one for themselves. The scheme has been hugely popular. Warm fuzzies all round.

While suspended coffee is undoubtedly a nice thing to do, it can also be used as a platform to think about how we do charity in general. I talked to people at Beat St, and to Jolyon of the Social Justice unit about this. The conversations happened separately, but I’ll splice them together. Looks more exciting that way.  

Barista #1: Local homeless guys and prostitutes enjoy the treat, which is great. But IImage// have some qualms about it. The City Mission gives out survival basics. But this is freshly ground coffee – it’s a luxury.

Jolyon: But there’s a certain desperation that goes with never being able to afford luxuries, and not feeling like you ever will.

Barista #1: It does goes against some of my instincts. No one ever gave me anything for free.

This seemed like an odd thing to say since she seemed to have confidence, education, employment and social skills. A lot of people’s circumstances don’t give them these things. I guess you could argue that they are earned, but it seems some are set up to ‘earn’ them more easily than others.

Barista #1: Prostitutes earn more than I do. And I see plenty of people smoking who get suspended coffees, which is obviously more expensive. So yeah, I have doubts. But people love it. It definitely spreads some good will.//

Barista #2: It’s been great, but in a couple of cases I have seen a quickly developed sense of entitlement, which makes me wonder about possible abuse of the system.

Jolyon’s interesting rant: ‘You see that sense of entitlement in so many situations. The charity model puts distance between the haves who give and the have-nots who receive. This is the way we do charity. It’s laudable that people are happy to help, but also clear that we want to help without entering the messiness of lives Image// less functional than our own. After all, we’re busy. Could this distance and lack of connection lead to the sense of entitlement and abuse of the system? Does lack of relationship means lack of accountability?’

Oh I see where this is going. Must you always challenge the status quo? Charity has been doing what charity does for yonks, and business is booming! There’s more demand than ever before! Oh, wait…

Questions this raises

Is the way we do charity a healthy thing?

If not, how could things be done differently?

What would happen if charity in Christchurch stopped over night?

What would happen if the plug was pulled on global aid?

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to try to find out.

Image// Even if the charity model is flawed, suspended coffee seems very much at the harmless, happy end of the spectrum.

// Thanks to Brian and Jolyon, and thanks to Beat Street Café – for talking to me, for going local, for hosting poetry events. They rock the house. You should go there and buy a coffee, or two.


Common Ground

Three years ago, some young people met in a garage. Some knew each other through St. Tim’s church, others through the University environmental club, Kakariki. We shared an interest in living differently.Image

We planned to move into flats scattered around Bryndwr, an area of state housing, mixed ethnicity and economic demographics, and intentionally get to know our neighbours. Some of us had read Shane Clairborne’s Irresistible Revolution and mused that actually knowing our neighbours might be a good first step towards loving them and furthering the gentle revolution. Others saw it as a practical way to enable more environmentally sustainable living.  Also, having forty friends living just around the corner sounded like fun.

We met in the garage several times. We planned, doubted and dreamed. The air was thick with buzzwords, rampant idealism, naivety and hope. Around the time of the February earthquake, we moved in.

Early on, we knocked on our new neighbours’ doors with nervous smiles and plates of cookies, and met people of very different backgrounds to ourselves. In the friendships that evolved from these awkward beginnings, it is very safe to say that our neighbours have taught and helped us much more than we have them. The line is now starting to blur between those who came in search of Community and those who were already here living in community because it’s a nice way to live. This is an important transition. The fact is, most of the garage group are white, middle-class, educated 20-somethings, and I reckon there’s an inherent arrogance that comes with that. It’s not really our fault, nor is it our parents’ fault. But it’s also not helpful for engaging in a deeply unequal society. I hope it can be gradually dismantled.Image

So what does it look like? What do we do? Well, there are a few projects going on – community garden, language classes, kids holiday programmes, the occasional community pot-luck or party…  but while events and organized stuff help connections to happen, it is the network of friendships which feels important and transformative, to me. A friendship starts with tea, is strengthened by the sharing of surplus vegetables. Perspectives widen other peoples’ struggles become our struggles. A neighbourhood is transformed when you can walk around it seeing not just houses but people and stories.

To be honest though, a lot of days it doesn’t look like anything special is happening. This could be because:

  • Living slowly is by nature, well, slow.
  • While subscribing to local community ideals to some extent, we also split our time, energy and resources over study and career and goals, travel dreams and the normal frivolous social lives of young people with no compulsory responsibilities.
  • Laziness or ‘important downtime for sustainability’ (depends who you ask). ‘I could go and engage with people in my community… or I could rent romantic comedy of dubious quality and eat large amount of fairtrade chocolate. Mmmm.’

Over the brief years that we’ve been here, many of us have come to see living slowly, sharing resources and knowing the people around us as a practical, beautiful, and more natural way to base our lives. This community includes a variety of religions, philosophies and priorities. Regardless of theological framing, it’s nice to think we can all share some common ground, and maybe even plant things in it. As Rumi said, ‘Beyond ideas there is a suburb. I’ll meet you there and we’ll grow some pumpkins’ (modern translation).

When Christians and Muslims sit down to tea and banter together, when Hindus and Atheists dance to ridiculous pop songs together, the world becomes a slightly better place. When I ignore middle class sensibilities and have a beer with someone who has tattoos and a very different walk of life, I become a slightly better person. When I see kids helping in the community garden and get to explain that there’s not much point smoking marigold leaves, I know there’s no way I would rather live.

Hook ups

If you want to talk, we want to talk. And one of the few concrete things we’ve achieved is learning to make tasty food, just saying. Email or

Check out the Bryndwr Well blog.

And click the Community page under the goat for other thoughts on why intentional community is maybe as exciting as it is weird.

Finally, when you type ‘community’ into google images, you get a lot of cheesy images in which multi-coloured people hold hands around a globe. You also get this.Image
Thanks, internet.

Pumpkins for Positive Social Change

It’s 7:30 am when the truck arrives.  It’s cold, it’s early, and I’m about to carry heavy things. A nice man from the church is making jokes next to me, trying to lift the mood. Bloody morning people. Crates are passed down, and we start carrying them into the church. I take a large crate of pumpkins. One of the volunteers from the prison grins, flexes his tattooed muscles and says ‘you sure about that, love?’ I say ‘all good thanks’ and try not to stagger. By the time I deposit it inside, I’ve decided it’s too early for feminism. I go for a crate of lettuce next time.Image

Half an hour later, everyone is striding up and down the rows of crates filling bags with set numbers of apples, oranges, pumpkins and onions. Then we give them to others who tie the bags up and arrange them neatly for pick-up. It’s all very busy and efficient. I feel like a worker ant, or maybe a communist. The sun comes up, and all the fruit colours glow. Someone makes a joke about leeks . The prison guys laugh as they halve pumpkins with enthusiastic knife-swings. I’m glad I got up early. At the end of the morning we all have a cup of tea and then I take home a bag of fruit and vege for ten dollars. It’s a great deal. There’s a different selection every week, and sometimes the nice lady who keeps the books gives me recipes. Thanks to the co-op I’ve reluctantly made friends with yams, and less reluctantly made friends with some people in my neighbourhood.

But the co-op wasn’t started for people like me, who would eat veggies anyway because we had parents who indoctrinated us that greens are a must (because we’re lucky), and could afford to buy them from the supermarket (because we’re lucky). Twenty years ago, Craig Dixon was the vicar at St. Aidan’s Church in Bryndwr, an area with a lot of state housing. He noticed that many families were not eating well, because it was cheaper and quicker to buy fish and chips. Craig started to muse about ways to encourage people to explore healthier nutritional territory.

He approached the local grocery shop and asked if the manager would purchase some bulk fruit and vege from the market and sell it on to local families at no extra cost. Awesomely, the manager said yes, and the co-op got underway.  It grew and grew. Craig later took over the bulk buying and spent cold mornings in enormous warehouses of produce, negotiating the best deal for citrus and carrots. He saw it make a great difference in his area, as the co-op provided not just affordable nutrition, but social interaction. I live in Bryndwr, and it is still making a great difference.Image

Being cheap but not free, and asking people to volunteer  means  that it is not just handing down a solution but giving people a way to be part of the solution, and facilitating community. There’s no common ground like food.

The co-op now has four different hubs around the city and feeds 1,500 families. Craig estimates it will be 2,000 by the end of the year. Craig used to get paid by the cathedral to run it, but his position has sadly been disestablished due to the church’s financial strife. The amazing flip side to this is that the co-op is still thriving entirely on volunteers; it’s become self-sustaining.

Craig is now starting a ‘scoping study’, thinking about how to expand the co-op, as well as broader questions around food security, access to wholesome food, and why food is so expensive for locals when as a country we produce so much of it.

VOLUNTEERS. Many of the current volunteers at St. Aidan’s are around 60. Young muscles would be very helpful. There is a 7:30 team and an 8:30 team. Come carry some pumpkins. Wednesday mornings, 63 Brookside Tce, Bryndwr. Talk to Sue about it, she’s really nice 3518075.

Contact list for all things co-op in chch