I first came to live in Wellington as a university student over 25 years ago. I remember that day clearly. The first in my family to go to university, it was a big step to leave the farm in the mighty Manawatu and head to the big smoke of Wellington.
My dad dropped me off. Me and my addidas sports bag, containing my oversized knit jerseys and trusty Doc Martens. At Weir House up on the hills overlooking the city. And while I recall being totally terrified and utterly homesick, I had no shortage of belief in the possible.
I believed that through hard work and persistence, I could do anything.
And so Wellington became the city where I first learned the craft of being a lawyer, where I first held a steady job, where I first owned a car, first owned a house. First left to go overseas. First headed to study in Canada on a Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship.
Yet effort and determination were only part of the story.
In any community there are rules of engagement. Rules that enable the realization of potential. Rules that tell us how to speak appropriately. How to express ourselves confidently. How to exhibit body language that is interpreted positively. How to prepare a CV. How to dress at a job interview. How to get to work each day. How to budget and manage money. How to open and use a savings account.
And I knew these rules. I had been raised watching my parents live them. My teachers instill them. My friends follow them.
But I now believe these rules of engagement are often
unknown to many disadvantaged people in our community.
Spend some time sitting in the public gallery of the Wellington District Court, or walking between cell units at Arohata Women’s prison, or talking to some of the homeless who sleep rough in our town belt and I suspect you will agree with me.
The rules of engagement that I know intuitively, that I follow instinctively, may as well be written in a foreign language that these people do not know.
I recall working on a pro bono basis several years ago with a young mother who wished simply to provide a safe home for her children. CYFS, as it was known at the time, was involved. And the mother’s relationship with her CYFS’ worker was strained, to put it mildly. But the more time I spent with this mother the more I realized that what the CYFS worker had interpreted as hostility and anger on the part of the mother was simply how she communicated. How she spoke. She was neither hostile nor angry. She was simply tough. As was no surprise either when she shared the story
of her own childhood experiences. She had no understanding or experience of how to converse with her CYFYS worker in a positive way. She simply did not know the rules of engagement.
That case and others like it have taught me some simple things.
I now know that success and opportunity in Wellington – indeed, in our country – are shaped much less by hard work, intelligence or drive than by an understanding of the rules of engagement.
I now know that disadvantage cannot properly be defined solely by the lack of income or material wealth. It is characterized by a lack of access to opportunities to realize you even have potential. It is fuelled by an absence of positive networks and connections – such that it becomes nearly impossible for individuals or indeed entire generations of families to escape.
Which is where my impossible dream for Wellington comes in – being a place where everyone, including all women and children can reach their full potential. Not just through hard work. But with support to navigate our community’s rules.
While it is true that tomorrow’s future is sitting in our classrooms, it is equally true that those young people who skip school and sit elsewhere will also influence Wellington’s future. As will the people who beg on Lambton Quay, those who seek to wash windscreens on Vivian Street and those who loiter on Courtney Place.
Unless we are prepared to accept the need to help these people to positively participate in Wellington, the future of our city and region will be constrained by their actions.
Until Wellington becomes a place where all people can overcome wherever they began in life to enjoy a warm and safe home, a steady and proper income, and a healthy family, our collective potential is comprised.
My dream for Wellington involves a place where the inequality gap – measured not only by income but also by access to opportunity as well – can be bridged by anyone. And bridged by everyone.
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of attending a career evening that had been arranged by the incredible teachers at Holy Family primary school on Mungavin Avenue in Porirua. All the students and their families had been invited to attend. And there were volunteers from a huge array of different jobs and professions who had given up their evening to set up a stall and be available to the students to answer questions about what they did for a living. Our group from my law firm – Minter Ellison Rudd Watts – had a truly inspiring evening. The future lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, caregivers, nurses, Air NZ staff – just to name a few – who were there was just extraordinary. And they were all learning the rules of engagement.
That evening makes it easy for me to imagine that my dream could come true.
Now I want you to do the same thing.
Imagine for a moment that every Wellingtonian – from the rich tapestry of peoples and cultures who live here – could navigate a landscape of opportunity beyond their letterbox. Beyond their street. Beyond their postcode.
In 2013, McKinsey released a report entitled “How to make a city great.” It is a review of the steps taken by city leaders around the world to transform their cities into great places to live and work. And it found that a great city’s value proposition is not confined to luring businesses or financial wealth. It offers opportunities to all residents, seeks to reduce inequalities, and it protects the vulnerable.
My dream for our city!
And it is far from impossible.
Who did you help today – which is the charitable trust I founded several years ago – is a social movement that encourages us each to help one other person every day. Through homework clubs in low decile primary schools including in Cannons Creek, the mothers project in all NZ’s women’s prisons including at Arohata and HelpTank – our online digital platform matching skilled volunteers with not-for-profit projects – Whodidyouhelptoday is all about finding ways for everyone to help the disadvantaged. To share the rules of engagement.
Because I believe that where there is help there is hope. And where there is hope there is possibility. And when we pull together to help, to give hope and purpose, to replace impossibility with possibility, to connect with eachother, we all succeed.
And my dream becomes a readily possible dream for Wellington.