19 Oct 2021

Former Oranga Tamariki security guard turned social worker hopes to make changes for Māori, Pasifika

7:32 pm on 19 October 2021

A former Oranga Tamariki security guard has decided to change his life by studying a bachelor of social work at the age of 47 and earlier this year graduated with a Master of Social Work with first class honours.

From Left: Massey University Provost Professor Giselle Brynes, James Cherrington and Dean Pacific Professor Palatasa Havea. Picture supplied by Massey University

From left: Massey University Provost Professor Giselle Brynes, James Cherrington and Dean Pacific Professor Palatasa Havea. Photo: Supplied

Now 56, James Cherrington hopes to make changes to the way social work is taught to create systemic change for Māori and Pasifika.

His thesis called Te Ara Whānau Ora (A Pathway to Whanau Wellbeing) focussed on exploring the practice of kaiwhakaaraara Whānau Ora navigators.

He works in one of these roles at Te Tihi o Ruahine Whānau Ora Alliance and He Puna Hauora in Palmerston North.

His work as a security guard influenced his decision to become a social worker.

"When you're an Oranga Tamariki security guard, quite often you are pulling the social workers' butts out of the fire so to speak, they call you into the room because someone is escalating, someone wants you to physically calm the situation down. I would think 'jeez, I could do a better job than that'," Cherrington said.

Cherrington, of Te iwi o Ngapuhi, te hapū O Ngati Hine descent, identified as Māori, Niuean, Sāmoan, English and Irish. Cherrington said he was not "part" anything but rather "there are many worlds that are part of me".

"My dad thought it was very important for us as kids to know all the ethnicities we whakapapa to.

"He would tell us if you whakapapa to an ethnicity, you are that. It's about whether or not you participate in that world. He encouraged us to participate in the Māori world, and took us to Niuean and Samoan gatherings in South Auckland and he made me play soccer in an Irish soccer team. I didn't really want that, I wanted to play rugby with my Māori cousins."

He attributed those lessons from his late father as to why he was able to be who he is and do what he does.

"It means I can walk in many worlds. I was taught to be a bridge-builder between the different parts of our whānau. I think that has transferred into my job as a social worker."

Cherrington decided to study after encouragement from his wife, Sherileeane, after he told her that he wanted to pursue a better life for himself and his whānau.

He would work six days a week, 12 to 14 hours shifts a day and was barely seeing his whānau.

"Life was all work, work, work, and trying to provide for my whānau."

When he thought about changing careers, he realised he wanted to work in a role that helped other people, like teaching or social work.

But his dad said to him he would make a better social worker than a teacher so he pursued that.

Cherrington secured a scholarship through Massey University's Te Rau Puawai academic support system and said now it was about giving back.

He has now mentored 10 Māori social work students through Te Rau Puawai, two are doing their masters. He also mentored several Pasifika students outside of the programme.

Going to university as a 47-year-old was a bit hard and scary, he said.

"I had no idea how to use a word document or a computer. I would write all my assignments out by hand and Sherileeane would type it into a word document for me, put it on a USB and I would sort it out on the university library computers. I had to learn how to write academically and use a computer."

Cherrington attributed making it through his first four years of study because of the support from Sherileenae - "I was very lucky to have such a supportive wife".

Security work paid the bills but he was not getting up in the morning to do what he loved, as he was now.

"We lose focus of doing something you love as a job. You have a partner, children, bills, mortgage you have to manage, rather than doing what you want to do and what's meaningful for you."

As a security guard, he would say hello to everyone that would come in but he remembered about 60 percent of the people he would come in contact with treated him like he was not even there.

The difference for him now was that when he went somewhere for his mahi, they gave him a seat and listened to what he had to say.

"I just want people to actually acknowledge the security guards when they walk into Oranga Tamariki, or Work and Income, because they might be walking past the next Massey University scholar," Cherrington said.

He did not see himself as an academic.

"I don't think I'll ever be an academic sitting in an ivory tower. I love to work with people and be on the front line."

To anyone in a similar situation or thinking of making a big change, Cherrington said you needed to find support.

"Massey can be, for Māori and Pasifika students, a real foreign place. But there are support networks there. I managed to find what I call an academic kaupapa whānau.

"I don't think of myself as an overly bright person, but what I did do was work harder than anyone else to achieve what I wanted."