Be. Leadership 2019: Session 3 - Civil Society: "We are family"

by Ite Lemalu

Talofa Lava, Kia Ora and Greetings! Our last Be. Leadership session took place in Wellington at Te Papa where for three exciting days we unpacked the fascinating and complex theme of a civil society.

We were privileged to be joined by four guest speakers, Laura O’Connell Rapira, the Director of ActionStation, Chloe Swarbrick, Green Party MP, Sir Kim Workman, social commentator and Advocate in Criminal and Social Justice, and Brian Coffey, the Director of the Office for Disability Issues.

Each speaker shared their experiences of what endeared them to contribute their ideas to civil society as well as explaining the motivating factors that have helped them persevere through times of immense adversity. These stories prompted our leadership team to reflect and engage further in discussion throughout the duration of the session. Some of us had found the topic of civil society challenging due to our own individual definitions. We were given some thought provoking questions to help guide the process, and the key questions which I resonated with were, 'What view are you forming about what civil society means or looks like for you?', and 'What are the critical components of a civil society?'

A key component that I kept going back to was the influence of music. Laura O’Connell Rapira’s experience with the education system disconnected her from her identity as Maori as she grew up in a predominantly Pakeha society. Laura spoke about being the first generation of Kiwis to grow up listening to New Zealand music on the radio as a result of the Labour government priority to invest in local music. Because of this initiative, Laura began seeing artists such as Black Seeds, Kora and Fat Freddy’s Drop who resembled her likeness and shared her stories.

Chloe Swarbrick shared how the closure of historical venues like the Kings Arms denied local musicians the platform to perform in front of an audience. This was an issue that Chloe felt very passionate about and was one of the significant factors that led to her decision to run for the mayor of Auckland. This is an empathetic predicament for many musos, though I also empathise with the patrons who would also be denied a night's entertainment and live music. Music has always been a way to bring people together and community hubs like the Kings Arms was a central place for the community to gather and socialise.

Music was an instrumental part of our weekend in Wellington, several of us decided to go out and sing Karaoke on Saturday evening. In my experience it was a big highlight. It was there at 'Chooky's Pub and Pantry' where I had my "Aha" moment. I observed the karaoke driven atmosphere and recognised the influence that music had to civil society as a diverse range of people were connecting through song.

During a discussion about the critical components to a civil society, Lesley Slade suggested that one of the components is the ability to belong, and she referred to a Brene Brown reading which advised that we should practice being vulnerable and uncomfortable and to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. In the karaoke setting, our Be. Leadership contingent took a pretty bold move to get on stage. It might have been vulnerable and uncomfortable at first, but those moves were made easy by seeing that other strangers had made the effort to sing, and more importantly the strong support system our team showed to each other. After some great solo performances, we sung as a group the disco hit, 'We Are Family' by Sister Sledge.

Based on the karaoke experience it is clear that music is one of society's great influences. It is massively influential in bringing people together from all walks of life and contributes to the building of a civil society by uniting people in one common cause, the enjoyment of the music. Music can unite people, as the karaoke did, as people tend to put any divisive views such as views on politics to one side. Civil society in the context of karaoke can also demonstrates people’s ability to belong regardless of their song choice, taste in music, and the song's message. It should be remembered that the karaoke night, while it was enjoyed by many, was not accessible to those of our team who are hard of hearing and some could not attend the outing. So our next night out we are hoping to find, if not create, a more inclusive setting that caters to everyone’s accessible needs. Overall the night definitely brought us as a group closer together, we were all able to put our concerns to one side and simply unite as a group through the medium of music. The song we sang 'We Are Family' by Sister Sledge was symbolic as after all was said and done there was a family dynamic of closeness in the group.