6 Jul 2018

Youth unite to change negative perceptions of South Auckland

2:01 pm on 6 July 2018

When kids in South Auckland get together, it's usually adversarial.

They compete against each other at the annual ASB Polynesian Schools festival, they're often head to head on the rugby fields or other sporting events and historical school rivalries means passionate school brawls add to the heat of the contest.

Mentions of 'South Auckland' are often tied to stories of poverty, crime and violence in the media which reflect on its largely Pacific population.

But in a rare move, hundreds of youth from the area have united this week to push back against mainstream media messages about their community, which they say are wrong.

"I am not what the media has said about me or my people. I am not the criminal that you see on Police Ten 7," Takanini Lafolafo said.

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Photo: RNZ Pacific / Indira Stewart

Named after the South Auckland suburb itself, Takanini described herself as "South Auckland through and through" and is passionate about proving mainstream media wrong.

"I am not the person that you see on the headlines."

Takanini is among the supporting crew behind a show called Heads Held High which has a cast of 80 students from 9 different schools in South Auckland.

Now showing at the Mangere Arts Centre, the production is a collection of raw, unfiltered and real-life stories from students around South Auckland.

The kids in this community are frustrated with how New Zealand media has portrayed them and they say they've had enough.

"Whenever you hear 'South Auckland', we're constantly demeaned by the media" Takanini said.

"We're constantly discriminated against and it's just got that negative connotation to it."

Heads Held High

Photo: RNZ Pacific / Indira Stewart

Punipuao Lavea echoed her claims - "There's so many good things that people in South Auckland do, but the media just emphasizes the negativity.

"That's what hurts us. It's not fair to just portray our downfalls."

Agnes Milford said she is inspired to change things.

"We are not going to let the media continue to belittle our value and belittle our culture and our family. Because we are capable."

Government figures show populations within some South Auckland suburbs are among the lowest income earners in the country and hold some of the highest crime rates. [ https://www.fmhs.auckland.ac.nz/assets/fmhs/soph/epi/hgd/docs/dhbprofiles/CountiesManukau.pdf]

Local high school teacher and Co-Director Siosaia Folau said that often stereotypes of people living in South Auckland can become stereotypes for Pacific people in general.

"Growing up, I used to hear a lot of stereotypes and personally I used to just think 'Oh, it's ok because it's the norm. For years and years I grew up seeing that on TV."

"But now I know, it's not ok to call this norm because it's not. There are so many things that the media and people out there have misplaced. We are misunderstood," she said.

Heads Held High

Photo: RNZ Pacific / Indira Stewart

Tito Finau agreed.

"We aren't just thugs, criminals. We're not just young stupid students looking for a fight. We're kids working hard but that's something you never see in the media."

"We're also good parents, good brothers, good sisters, good children," added Peter Leaupepe

Local high school teacher and Co-Director of the show Denyce Su'a also agreed.

"The media continuously get it wrong and that's the struggle is trying to prove to people that we are more than what the media thinks."

Agnes pointed to a headline in a recently published headline as an example.

"For example, Manurewa High School, they danced their Will Smith dance. Manurewa is obviously in South Auckland and the media said 'Auckland School gets acknowledged by Will Smith'.

"But when it's something like a brawl fight it's 'South Auckland' in a school brawl fight'."

Ms Su'a said she has seen first hand how powerful words can be.

Heads Held High

Photo: RNZ Pacific / Indira Stewart

"How do people learn about South Auckland? They learn about it through the media. And people who live in South Auckland know how dangerous that can be," she said

"It creates deficit-thinking within the minds of young South Aucklanders."

"Whenever we hear it, we start to believe it" added Peter

"When you see something on TV or when you see someone you know that has a lot of power and they say something, you end up believing it. Because you're like 'oh that person's on TV, so that person must be telling the truth," echoed Punipao.

Creative Director of the Black Friars Theatre company who is behind the show, Michelle Johansson, said they want to give South Auckland youth a chance to reclaim their own stories.

"If you really want to disempower a people, all you have to do is tell their story for them," she said referencing Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti.

"Recently at the Education Summit, the keynote speaker from Ngati Whatua said "If you do it without me and for me, then you do it to me. And we're sick of South Auckland having things done to them."

So over the last two years the Black Friars have gathered a 200 strong waka of locals who are working hard to change those negative perceptions about their community.

Mr Folau said giving the students an opportunity to reclaim their story is inspiring.

"I come from a generation where there were no such platforms and it's overwhelming. It's definitely fakamafana (heartwarming)."

Ms Johansson said that change is coming in South Auckland and the show is just one platform they're using to raise up a generation of strong leaders in their community.