“When you’re 17, you need a bit of a scare!”
In March 2016, Jess McVicar, spokeswoman for the Sensible Sentencing Trust was interviewed on TVNZ’s Breakfast programme. She gave her feedback on the proposal to change the jurisdiction of the Youth Court to include young people aged 17 years of age.
Adamant that she knew exactly what she was doing at 17, Ms McVicar suggested that young people of this age would be more likely to change their offending behaviour if they were dealt with in the adult court – that the offending behaviour of 17 year olds would be curbed through “a bit of a scare”.
Youth… and Justice
The youth justice system in New Zealand is world class. It is based on a model of restorative and therapeutic justice, holding young people to account for their behaviour whilst striving to help them address the underlying issues that manifest in offending.
For the last 10 years, I have worked within this system. In the last 12 months, the Vodafone Fellowship has released me to focus on my passion: young people within the legal system and the issues that they face understanding the language associated with that journey.
I’ve had a bit of a scare! The processes within our youth justice system that are designed to be restorative often fall at the language hurdle. Well intentioned agencies and dedicated youth justice professionals fail to account for the fact that the majority of young people we work with have a significant and identifiable problem with oral language.
He sat across the table from me in the classroom. I asked him how his court appearance went. “All guds… [pause] – but what does ‘guilty’ mean?” [16 year old]
A “significant and identifiable issue with oral language” describes young people who struggle to understand what people are saying to them and to express themselves.
Research indicates at least 60% of young people within the youth justice system have oral language problems. Youth justice professionals that I have encountered around New Zealand put the figure much higher – “ALL the young people I work with have problems with language.”
Youth were once children – who were once babies
Issues with oral language don’t start when a young person is arrested. The developmental work vital for oral language competence should have started 17 years previously in the context of whanau relationship. Bonding, attachment, developing language, turn-taking, learning to relate to others, understanding the world of words and using words to express yourself effectively.
When these foundations aren’t established for whatever reason, problems with oral language result and children carry these issues into their ‘young person’ years. There is a strong association between behavioural difficulties and oral language difficulties.
Many young people involved in offending are disengaged from education, training or employment and yet engagement in education, training or employment is a protective factor against offending.
Why the disengagement?
Oral language is at the core of everything.
It is essential for relating, connecting, attaching, negotiating, belonging. Oral language is the foundation for reading text. Reading is assigning symbols to words that we first encounter through talking. If you struggle with oral language, chances are you will struggle with reading.
“They said I was being charged with ‘possession of instruments for conversion’. The only instruments I knew were musical ones – so I thought they were trying to charge me with a ram raid on a music shop… [15 year old]
Young people can struggle to remain engaged in a learning environment where they can’t understand what’s going on and where they keep getting into trouble for not doing what they’re told because they don’t understand. Young people get angry and frustrated, disengage and end up ‘expressing’ themselves physically, acting out and acting up? Stand down. Suspension. Exclusion. The cracks open up and they slip through.
Those who then encounter the legal system enter into a space with it’s own language. They meet a new vocabulary. Custody. Supervision orders. Curfew. Bail. In addition, the restorative nature of youth justice involves oral language – police interviews, family group conferences, drug and alcohol counselling, anger management counselling, family therapy, it’s all a talkfest!
Youth Justice in Aotearoa New Zealand: not perfect… but responding
It’s within this system that I am seeking to affect change. Training youth justice professionals to recognise these issues. Developing an oral language assessment tool for use in the justice system. Assisting agencies to help young people understand and express themselves effectively in the legal system.
“I was in my family group conference. They asked me if I felt remorse for what I did? I didn’t know if I did or not – I didn’t know what ‘remorse’ meant…” [15 year old]
Our youth justice system isn’t perfect, but it is starting to respond to the significant oral language needs of young people, recognising the connection between a young person’s understanding, engagement, sense of justice and readiness to change. It is a system uniquely positioned to respond to the developmental needs of young people.
A young person of 17 can’t legally drink alcohol, buy a packet of smokes, get married without parental consent, vote in elections, buy an Instant Kiwi ticket or get a credit card. We understand that a 17 year old is still developing the necessary insight to be able make certain decisions? We seek to protect them until that maturity is more likely to have emerged.
Why then would we demand that a 17 year old be treated the same as a mature adult when it comes to the law? And as a majority of 17 year olds in the legal system have a significant issue with oral language, consigning them to an adult process doesn’t deliver justice – for them, or the victims of their offending.
He sat across the table from me. Eighteen months on remand. I asked him: “When is your next hearing?” He asked me “What’s a hearing?” [25 year old]
It is appropriate that 17 year olds be included within the youth justice system, a responsive and developmentally appropriate system that is the most effective context for young people who offend.
When a 17 year old offends, “a bit of a scare” won’t do them, their victim or the community any good. The scare suggested by Ms McVicar can actually end up reinforcing the actual thinking and behaviours it is trying to curb.
A 17 year old who offends needs a place where needs are acknowledged and addressed so that they understand and engage, take responsibility for their actions, address offending behaviour and head toward a different future. That place is Youth Justice!
Mark Stephenson, 2016 Vodafone Foundation Fellowship Recipient
I am now six months into a year-long fellowship which has allowed me to work on a resource about marginalised intersecting identities within the sex, gender and sexuality diverse communities.
I have met and connected with a lot of people with many different experiences of identity and am constantly reminded just how connected and overlapping our oppressions and frustrations are.
I think so far, aside from reading a lot about representation and social movements, this has been the biggest reoccurring theme I keep coming back to after talking with people.
How different it is to have conversations about social change that do not exclude identities! How we all have an obligation to try harder, to always be thinking who is missing. To make sure I listen to someone’s perspective even though it might erase mine, or make me uncomfortable.
- Who is not represented and how do I include them?
- How do I not erase perspectives?
- Am I taking up too much space?
- How to uplift people who are marginalised in a way that is not tokenistic and feels safe?
- How do I make sure my work is accessible to people with different abilities and ways of communicating?
I am a pakeha queer trans masculine person with a physical disability. My impairment is not always obvious to other people but it impacts a lot on my ability to do stuff. I’m disabled but not disabled enough, able but not able enough… In-between.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about in-between kinds of people and how we fit into spaces or don’t, whether it be physically inaccessible or that you never see yourself represented. To almost always hear gender or sexuality described from a western colonising framework, not an indigenous cultural perspective. To learn about education but not ever see accessibility given consideration.
What it means to not quite fit into conversations or theories, to always be listening and thinking “yes good point but what about…” or “have you considered…?” To be the exception to the rule. To always preface your point with an apology. To feel too frustrated to bother pointing something out, then feel bad for not taking the time to try and educate… To understand that everyone is at different stages of the conversation, and be kind.
In early November I held my first advisors hui for the project. My advisors are people with a range of marginalised experiences that are different from mine. (Including culture, age, ability, gender identity, sexuality and neuro-diversity) We came together to create a vision for the project and share ideas around how to interview people in ways that are culturally sensitive, preserve anonymity if that is required and is inclusive of the different ways people experience the world. We talked about ethics; support and how I can collate the stories people share in a way that does not filter their own experiences through my own viewpoint and understanding of the world.
Recently I had the privilege of going to Bangkok for the ILGA world conference, this was my first real overseas trip and I was lucky to go with twelve other queer and gender diverse folks from Aotearoa. I felt incredibly supported but also isolated at the same time, particularly in relation to this project, it highlighted the necessity of this work however. Over the course of the five-day conference I heard the words disability or accessibility twice. Once each. Except for the times where I had conversations with people about disability and inclusiveness.
I saw how in many places they are just beginning to talk about decolonisation and indigenous frameworks and I realised how lucky I am to be doing my project with the support of organisations that hold those values at their core.
I thought a lot about the conversations happening in the panels and how they were different to the ones happening in the lift, the lunch breaks and outside in the smoking area, in the in-between spaces.
Who has access to a microphone and who doesn’t?
I thought about all the queer and trans people with disabilities I know, and how I couldn’t recall seeing anyone with a visible disability. I realised how much energy and ability it takes to be able to sit for hours and listen, for five days. I felt frustrated that my body wouldn’t let me, I worried that I was wasting an opportunity. I wondered how many other people were also struggling (with language barriers, dietary requirements, anxiety, different ability) to get through the day and still have the energy to have all the important conversations that made this experience so incredible and worthwhile.
As I move on to the next stage of this project I am excited to continue to learn and share stories with all of the people who have agreed to be involved in this project. I will keep reflecting and wonder what shifting the narrative might look like. I hope to help give space to people who are often left out of the conversation.
“Nothing about us without us.”
Te Uri Mahoe
Ngapuhi, Te Rarawa
As a young girl I spent days on end, at the feet of my Nana preparing Muka as she weaved Kete in her home in Mangamuka. My nana Adelaide Tiari Otene was a weaver and as a child I sat at her feet scraping Muka fibres whilst she mentored me through the process of weaving Kete. The process became a part of everyday life for us as her mokopuna (grandchildren) and unbeknown to me then, would be the guidance that has woven my journey into leadership and development today.
The topic of my fellowship is Intergenerational Leadership Development and the importance of Collective Impact in Indigenous settings.
Caring for the fibres of the Muka
Like the fibres of delicate Muka I liken them to that of our people, diverse in our makeup and easily broken and tattered if not cared for appropriately. Each individual strand of Muka is weak on its own, breakable and bare, but woven together creates a strength, resilience and beauty that can withstand the harshest conditions.
The Collective Mind Set
During my short time on this fellowship journey I have had the privilege of meeting and being in the presence of influential people from diverse upbringings and beliefs. On a recent trip to Hawaii I was invited to speak at the Future Leaders of the Pacific forum and workshop with a collective of young leaders hailing from Australia, Tonga, Fiji, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Cook Islands, Niue, the Solomon Islands, New Zealand, the Marshall Islands, Guam, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, American Samoa and Hawaii. As we shared our stories of adversity, triumph and aspirations the conclusion of the workshop provided collective substance to my fellowship topic. That no matter where we had been as a people our aspirations to achieve prosperity would come from a collective mind-set. So from the floor of my nanas home to the shores of Hawai‘i the aspiration was clear, that through caring for each strand of the Muka we could weave together an unbreakable kete that would house the knowledge and insight to carry our people forward into the future. My exploration of Collective Impact and successful examples in Queensland Australia and here in New Zealand provide a template to action this vision further.
Natural way of giving
“This moment had me reflect on the importance of reciprocity, the natural way of giving and the importance this has on leadership development”
Sometimes the greatest learnings come from the places you least expect, during my fellowship journey I have had the privilege of sharing my life journey. One particular instance stands out for me. I recently returned to Okaihau College and shared my journey of being raised in the far north, the adversity that came with my upbringing and the richness of family and connectedness that then saw me travel the world to explore and gain knowledge to bring home. As I returned to my car after my korero I was approached by an elder from the area, he recognised my last name and asked if I was one of the grandchildren of Adelaide from Mangamuka, he shared his stories of taking my nana fish and how she would always give him beautifully woven kete. This moment had me reflect on the importance of reciprocity, the natural way of giving and the importance this has on leadership development.
“At the heart of their work it is evident that family, a connectedness to who they are and a natural commitment to caring for others is the driving force to leadership in action”
Through this journey I have come across many leaders either in person, through research and through the sharing of stories. The mentorship of Dr Lance O’Sullivan and his wife Tracy O’Sullivan has shown me that leadership is a result of hard work. I have witnessed the leadership of Lance and Tracy as directors and creators of what I believe to be ground breaking innovation that is overcoming health inequalities for our countries most vulnerable communities. At the heart of their work it is evident that family, a connectedness to who they are and a natural commitment to caring for others is the driving force to leadership in action.
“How Courageous are we?”
I am Kohatutaka, Te Uri Mahoe, Ngapuhi and Te Rarawa. As a people we are in a phase of post treaty settlement and at the verge of settlement, Inter Tribal debate and resolution. The time cannot be any more appropriate than now to focus on how we develop leadership of young people now and into the future. We have come too far not to invest in sustainability of our greatest asset, and that is our people. The challenge I believe is how courageous are we? Can we invest in and open the doors to Young People in spaces of Iwi governance, organisational governance and in areas of business and asset growth. My answer is, we cannot afford not to. The reality is that if our young people are not fit to lead then our future sustainability will be grim. How courageous are we to look outside of business as usual and create and action governance and mentoring initiatives that will equip this generation with capability, confidence and courage, to be a growing influence across a range of sectors and regional and national entities. This I believe will create sustainable positive outcomes for our people. Examples of successful initiatives here in New Zealand provide a robust direction towards Youth governance and leadership development. Indigenous leaders Shay Wright and Travis O’Keefe of Te Whare Hukahuka have created Ka Eke Poutama in Taamaki (Auckland) and have recognised that Maori are playing a pivotal role in shaping the future of Taamaki. Treaty settlements are paving the way for greater opportunities and prosperity and empowering the next generation of capable and confident Maori leaders. This is an important next step to ensure successful Organisations and sustainable positive outcomes. A courageous step forward and one that brings together the connected of the past whilst navigating forward, so it is about equipping our young leaders with the innovative thinking needed to navigate our waka into the future.
We should also be brave and open to working across sectors and even more open and brave to explore how we can work with other Iwi to gain collective impact for the development of leadership and growth opportunities.
In closing, our development must happen globally, we cannot afford to be insular in our development and technology enables this to happen. Indigenous structures here and around the world share commonalities’ of inherited structures and the new year will see me explore Silicon Valley in San Francisco to build pathways for the development of Information Technology leadership opportunities. I will also visit Alaska to explore the First Alaskan Institute and Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu and the Ngai Tahu Research Centre. Continuing to fill my kete with conversations and debates that will pave a journey forward for Intergenerational Leadership Development.