#3 Leadership NZ Dinner

After spending the week exploring the urban jungle that is Auckland’s CBD with several fellow Be. Leaders as my tour guides, attending the Leadership New Zealand dinner at the stunning Auckland Town Hall along with most of the Be.Leadership group was the perfect way to end my trip. With speakers including 2010 New Zealander of the Year, Sir Ray Avery, founder of the Student Volunteer Army, Sam Johnson, and Be.’s very own Minnie Baragawanath, it was bound to be a night full of wisdom and inspiration as leadership in New Zealand was celebrated according to the theme of “building a nation on courage, compassion, and commitment” – things which not only the keynote speakers showed, but indeed, all of those present had.

Being a typical university student, the closest I usually come to black tie dinners is wearing black track pants and eating Thai from the local takeaway, so being surrounded by people in suits, bowties and long dresses was something different – in a good way – and having a choice of four different wines when usually the cheapest plonk would do, was a learning curve too. I must say, though, that I could quite easily get used to such glamorous affairs and that everyone, especially the Be.Leadership team, did look very glamorous!

While it was indeed a formal occasion, the conversation flowed easily as everyone mingled casually before dinner, and I enjoyed both talking to people whom I hadn’t met and talking to friends whom I’ve known for years. I also really liked the fact that the Be.Leadership team was quickly and warmly accepted as part of the Leadership New Zealand whanau. As fellow Be.Leadership member, Anna Nelson, mentioned, “it was really cool because [she] didn’t feel like an outsider on the night” – something I definitely agree with, and I’m sure others there would, too.

After being seated at our tables and introduced to the night’s MC, Maori TV Presenter Julian Wilcox, we were treated to an awe-inspiring performance by the Dilworth School cultural group. The school, a private boys’ boarding school where all boys are attending on scholarships, is “for making good boys better”, according to the school website. Going by their performance, boy, they were good and I don’t know if they could have been made any better!

Next on the agenda was a performance by the renowned Touch Compass mixed-ability dance troupe. Featuring Be.Leadership’s very own Suzanne Cowan and Alisha McLennan, I think it was a highlight of the night for me and was well-received by the audience as a whole, as Touch Compass challenged perceptions of what dance is and who can do it – something which demonstrated the courage, compassion and commitment the dinner celebrated at its core.

Someone else who demonstrated this courage, compassion and commitment, was first speaker, CEO of the Be. Institute, Minnie Baragawanath. Having heard Minnie speak at our very first Be.Leadership retreat, I knew she was an excellent storyteller and that her speech was bound to be inspiring, but it impacted me on a deeper and more personal level than expected. Minnie began her talk in the year 1981, telling the rather embarrassing, yet poignant anecdote of how she came home from school as an 11-year-old one day, to find out that her mother had been arrested and taken to Palmerston North jail for protesting against the 1981 Springbok Tour and more widely, the Apartheid regime. This was immediately personal and impacting to me, because as some will know, I was born and grew up in South Africa until age eight, and hence, my parents lived with and through Apartheid.

Growing up in South Africa, I knew the basics of what it all meant – how people were discriminated against and segregated for decades, how Nelson Mandela, whom Minnie mentioned several times as one of the world’s greatest leaders, fought so hard for his freedom and justice and equality for all, and how, at the time I started school, he was President. Still, when recall how hard my parents had to fight to allow me to attend my local school after they would not accept me on my first day, because “it was not for people like me”, I couldn’t and still can’t help but draw comparisons between the Apartheid regime and the struggle that people with disabilities have faced and continue face in gaining equal access in all areas of life.

This is what made Minnie’s talk, her work in founding the Be. movement, and being at the dinner as a group for the first time so incredibly promising and exciting. Here we all were, 30 years after the 1981 Tour in the year of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, celebrating the contributions and leadership of all New Zealanders – disabled and non-disabled alike, together for the first time. As Minnie, a graduate of the Leadership NZ programme, said herself, “Standing alongside another leadership programme made us feel part of a much wider leadership community and there was something strengthening and inspiring about that.” Indeed there was, and I think maybe, no, make that definitely, that this year is the start of something extremely powerful as we begin to move towards a 100% accessible society for all, and with an innovative, vivacious, and shining leader like Minnie, who stated, “it is about possibility, not disability!”, it seems impossible to go wrong.  

Following Minnie, Sir Ray Avery, someone whom I knew very little about, apart from the fact that he is a “Sir” and is apparently very trustworthy, topping New Zealand’s “Most Trusted” list for 2011, was next to speak. Turns out he is a rather famous scientist and inventor of technology to produce low-cost intraocular lenses, allowing 20 million people to regain their sight. While the people Sir Ray has helped have not always had their vision in the most literal sense, it is clear that Sir Ray has always and continues to always have a vision of how successful both he individually, and New Zealanders as a whole, have been and can and will be, even if we don’t always promote ourselves as much as we should. An engaging speaker with a talent for storytelling, I thoroughly enjoyed Sir Ray’s speech and took a lot from his stories about what is possible when we “Be.lieve” in ourselves as people, leaders and perhaps most importantly, as a nation.

 Last, but surely not least to speak, was university student, founder of the Student Volunteer Army, and recent recipient of the Sir Peter Blake Leadership Award, Sam Johnson. As a fellow Cantabrian, University of Canterbury student, and post-earthquake volunteer, I was very much looking forward to hearing what Sam had to say. He has become somewhat of a local, even national, celebrity, so I was not surprised when I was asked more than once if I had the privilege of knowing him personally. Truthfully, I have only met him briefly a couple of times, but I do have him as a friend on Facebook!

In all seriousness, I have a great amount of respect for Sam and what he and his Student Volunteer Army team has done and continues to do in post-quake Christchurch as well as in Japan, and I am very proud to have been a part of the local volunteer effort. He is undoubtedly a well-rounded speaker and a remarkable young leader with a great future ahead of him and as a young person, I identify with and look up to him as a role model for how I can become a better leader. Clearly I’m not the only one, as Sam received a well-deserved standing ovation after he spoke, demonstrating just how much respect other leaders in the room had for him and what he has done.

It’s incredibly hard to sum up the night in a couple of sentences, but considering I’ve probably rambled on for 500 words too long, I suppose I better. So, if I had to sum it up, I’d say it was a night of formality, but also, friendship, fun and most importantly, the future. I am and will forever be honoured to be part of the 2011 Be.Leadership group, and now, of the wider Leadership NZ group, whom fellow participant Rena Savage said she “couldn’t wait to invite to the Be. table.” As Shakespeare famously wrote in Hamlet, “to be or not to be, that is the question”. I’m nowhere near as famous as Shakespeare, nor can I compare much to a summer’s day, but I think that this dinner showed that “to Be.” is in fact not the question, but the answer!