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Nga Rangatahi Toa - Manawa Ora.

“I could never do that” my friend told me as we stood in the foyer of the Herald Theatre waiting to see “Manawa Ora – Courage is Contagious”. I agreed. The idea of performing something in front of hundreds of people with just one week to prepare was terrifying, yet backstage nine young people were gearing up to do just that. Evidently their courage had not yet reached us.

The annual, live performance is the flagship project of Ngā Rangatahi Toa, a creative arts initiative that provides intensive and long-term wraparound support to Auckland youth who have been excluded from school. This year the show had sold out – a great result.

“I bet they’ve never done anything like this before” I remarked to Sarah Longbottom, director of Ngā Rangatahi Toa, “They’ve never done anything” she responded. I thought of my own children whose days are filled with outings to the zoo, farm parks, playgrounds, swimming lessons and couldn’t think of anything to say.

We entered the theatre, unsure of what to expect, and applauded as the nine young artists and their mentors took their seats on the stage. What followed was a multi-media medley of song, dance spoken word and art, each performer finding their own unique way of expressing their experiences, fears and hopes for the future.

Some took us completely by surprise demonstrating incredible talent that was so unexpected that I was forced to question what unconscious assumptions I had made about these South Auckland teenagers. But what really struck me even more was the support they gave to each other. As each performer stepped into the centre of the stage there were cheers and shouts of encouragement from their peers and mentors.

One young girl performed a rap – her cap pulled down so far I couldn’t see her eyes. She didn’t have the openness of some of the others on the stage – perhaps due to nerves or a sense of self preservation, but when the whole audience stood and cheered as they walked off the stage for the last time, I saw her leap into the arms of a lady at the front like a small child, bursting with joy.

A participant from a previous year wrote:

“It’s not just me on the stage, that’s why I can do it. I know that when I am on the stage my mentor is there with me and so is the love of my Ngā Rangatahi Toa whānau. I have this love and the love of my whānau and tipuna. It’s never just me, so standing on that stage makes me brave in the rest my life” (Rangatahi participant, NRTb, 2014)

Sarah Longbottom describes the core focus of the project as addressing and reversing the harm perpetrated by the universal rangatahi experience of being “shaped” in an image not of their own making. She told me that it’s often a very emotional journey, greatly dependent on the level of connection and trust built between participant and mentor. There is fear of being judged, of assumptions being made based on their skin colour, clothes, address…

But as a result of its singular focus on releasing potential, the vast majority of Ngā Rangatahi Toa alumni currently successfully transition to tertiary study, re-entry to mainstream or employment.

Maybe it’s too soon to say if this experience has changed the lives of these nine young people but whatever happens over the coming years I hope they can continue to draw upon the love, support and courage that they found on that stage this week.