Sarah Longbottom is an ideas machine – and she feeds a fair share of them into Nga Rangatahi Toa, an organisation she founded and now directs. It’s an alternative form of ngagement and transition that supports marginalised youth – often those expelled from public schools – through creativity, arts and aroha. With an assortment of awe-inspiring mentors and refreshingly hands-on modes of learning, Sarah has created a safety net for young people.
I grew up in Governors Bay, on Banks Peninsula, just outside of Christchurch. It was a truly amazing place to grow up. Me and my bro, Richie, ran riot together. Days were filled building forts, exploring the coastline, visiting the beautifully generous Margaret Mahy and our other favourite neighbours. We were totally blessed, fully engaged, constantly learning.
My family has always been active in the community – it’s just part of who we are. My granddad mentored men in prison and my grandma got heaps of community awards for her volunteer work. From when I could walk, my bro and I were out doing street appeals, and our fam was heavily involved in the Halt All Racist Tours protest group and the nuclear-free peace movements. When I was 11 we started volunteering at the Christchurch City Mission, mainly at Christmas time. I coordinated the lead-up and the event on the day, and I have only missed two years in the last 29!
When I was working in alternative education in South Auckland, I saw a lack of creative arts access for kids who had been kicked out of school. I thought that was ridiculous, so I took action and established Nga Rangatahi Toa. That’s how this all started.
I believe in human capacity with a whole heart. The mahi we do at Nga Rangatahi Toa is transformational for all involved. Kids have found their peace and mothers have found pride. Mentors have been reminded of what really matters, and have had their own artistic practise impacted through the catharsis of our projects.
One of our kids was particularly challenging in his behaviours and attitude. When he came to us he began working on a piece with his mentor, Pana Hema-Taylor, that required him to write out his whakapapa. Pana was transcribing it and wrote down one of the words with a particular iwi spelling. The young person was unsure of the spelling to use, but the next day he reported back that he had spoken to his grandma. They had chatted about his whakapapa and she had given him the right spelling for his iwi. On the face of it, it may not seem like much, but in this situation it was massive!
Our projects gives kids the reason, the opportunity, and most importantly the belief in themselves to have those kinds of positive, important interactions with loved ones that are a world away from their ‘hood life’.
Some challenges arise, such as resisting the urge to go where the money is and knowing when to make the hard calls on those involved in the organisation. They can come with strings and restraints, so the hard road is often the best road. Hard calls have gotta be made when adults are not well enough in themselves to do the challenging work, and with kids who need support beyond what we can give.
Nga Rangatahi Toa is something I have grown, but now it has a life of its own. It’s been an interesting process to get to this position, to be able to objectively look at it. As I change and refine as a human, so too does the organisation. In this regard, it is a mirror to ensure I walk my talk. Nga Rangatahi Toa is a gift that has made me more myself.
The future of Nga Rangatahi Toa is the future of education in Aotearoa. We have worked with alternative education kids for six years now – after school and in the holidays. Next year we will open an alternative education classroom, and flowing from that, we will open a school. We hope that in the future we can impact the education system as a whole.
I have exceptionally high expectations of myself and my inexhaustible capacity for work and for living this life. The whole thing is what gets me up in the morning – I love the entire process, from start to finish. That’s what I really love. Knowing that I can really, really make shit happen.
He aha te mea nui? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. What is the most important thing? It is people, it is people, it is people.
Words by Larissa McMillan. Photography by Tobias Kraus.