Changing it up

Hori Haweti Barsdell. Photos by ReGeneration.
Hori Haweti Barsdell. Photos by ReGeneration.
Change is in the air for a Dunedin-based organisation helping young people bring the future into sharper focus, reports Tom McKinlay.

Among the faces of optimism on the ReGeneration website is Hori Haweti Barsdell.

The video clip in which he features shows a house sitting alone in a sea of green - farmland and bush.

In the foreground stands Mr Barsdell, a propagator of native trees at his home-based Bay of Plenty nursery.

He dreams big - giant matai, miro, pukatea and kahikatea, the tall stands of Te Urewera National Park coming down to the plains.

"That's the dream, to have forest like that around the harbour one day. Maybe not in my time but my children and their children's time, for sure.

Hopefully," he says, crossing the fingers of both hands.

Another accentuating the positive on the website is Sam Orchard, comic artist and youth worker.

Sam Orchard.
Sam Orchard.
"One of my main goals when I was starting to do the comics was about actually putting positive stories out there," he says.

The blurb next to his ReGeneration video says Sam, who is transgender, has been drawing since he was a little girl..

"It is what we need to break down barriers between communities and to start conversations between people. To get to know each other and to see each other as people," he says.

Among the tens of other "inspiring stories" videos posted is Annie McDonald, a district council environmental educator who has been fighting the good fight for the environment since protesting the discharge of sewage into Tauranga Harbour when she was still at school.

"It was amazing to see the difference we could make when we worked with a whole lot of people. I always remember it was all about the power of one and the collectivity of everyone else joining together," she says.

Annie MacDonald.
Annie MacDonald.
"Unless you are prepared to stand up for what you believe in, you don't learn. And it is often the uncomfortable things that take us to that next point. You know, doing something that's out of your comfort zone that makes you a little bit different to everybody else is a bit scary. But the feeling that you have when you have actually done something like that is just huge.

You just feel a whole different connectedness to something else that you might not have had before."

Connectedness is what ReGeneration is about. It's an attempt to create a network for young "changemakers", and it is driven by Dunedin people Billy Matheson and and Lani Evans, the project co-convenors.

They are not out to push any particular barrows, but neither is this about letting things rest as they are. The website ticks off all the familiar bogeys, such as climate change, peak oil, habitat destruction - the burdens that sit like mountains on the backs of the young and the generations to come.

Lani Evans.
Lani Evans.
Yet what the folk at ReGeneration are trying to build is not a protest movement or a pointedly political force but a support system for those who have the germ of a new idea, a system of mutual support where everyone fans everyone else's fire. It's all designed to be very inclusive, so there's not too much in the way of manifestos or slogans. But there is a mission statement of sorts: "This is a network for young people who are interested in making positive change".

"There are all these young people working on all these different projects all over the place, and a lot of them feel pretty isolated in what they are doing," says Ms Evans. "They might be the only person in their school who is really getting into the environmental issues, and what we do is we provide spaces for them to come together and support each other and share what they have learned and share what they are excited about and share their upcoming projects."

ReGeneration HQ lies behind the anonymous door of a modest wooden house in a quiet Port Chalmers street.

But ReGeneration is not about front - it's more back room. So as you might expect, out the back things have changed. A modern addition to the place extends into the back yard, providing panoramic views of Otago Harbour. The organisation's double act sit together on a couch, not exactly finishing each other's sentences, but certainly sparking off each other's contributions. It is clear that a lot of thought and discussion has gone into where the initiative is now.

Summer Jam 2011 involved 120 young people from as far north as Whangarei and as far south as...
Summer Jam 2011 involved 120 young people from as far north as Whangarei and as far south as Invercargill, at Living Springs, Banks Peninsula. Billy Matheson is at far right.
Mr Matheson, a serious considered presence, originally trained as a designer, and has, among other things, worked at Te Papa when it was being built.

He then tutored at the University of Otago in the design department while completing a masters in adult education.

Ms Evans started out as a film-maker, and became involved in the non-profit sector through working with Youthline. She then spent three years at the Volunteer Centre in Dunedin.

She exudes an infectious enthusiasm. If you had a big enough jar you'd bottle it and go looking for the active ingredients. Which is not a million miles from the ReGeneration vibe.

So far, ReGeneration's modus operandi has included getting people together in camps or "Summer Jams", and taking a vanload of people around the country to spread the gospel of networking. The van trip involved school workshops, overnight youth events, inspiring stories workshops, film screenings and filmings of the changemakers in the places they visited.

ReGeneration's road-trip crew in Plimmerton.
ReGeneration's road-trip crew in Plimmerton.
Ms Evans estimates they have interacted with 10,000 people in one way or another. There's also a book project. But the "jams" remain the centrepiece.

"So in that sense it is very simple," says Mr Matheson. "We run a large national youth event every year and we get young people from around New Zealand to talk about their work and to learn from each other and we might put some ideas on the table that we think are constructive, but it is very much convening a space where people can network and collaborate and learn together.

"The challenge I see is collaboration. That's the crunchy one for me," he says.

Certainly the potential seems broad as Mr Matheson ticks off the areas in which ReGeneration participants are active: the big picture stuff, yes - global poverty and climate change - but also design and engineering, energy and transport, working on solutions to some part of a bigger puzzle.

Others are engaged with issues around violence or bullying, health and wellbeing, he says.

Others still are involved in creative expression or performance.

The first Summer Jam event in Febuary 2009 involved 55 young people at a retreat centre near Taupo. Since then the ReGeneration Trust has worked with thousands of young people from all over the country, running more than 80 events last year alone. They included national youth events and changemakers masterclasses, including one in Christchurch last month run in partnership with the NZ Social Entrepreneurs Fellowship.

The project is something of an offshoot of Enviroschools as well as an extension of a peer-to-peer mentoring initiative Mr Matheson was previously involved in. It had its genesis in a 2008 national secondary schools event Mr Matheson attended where he was impressed by the calibre of people who had been involved in Enviroschools and what they were up to.

The two strands were brought together and ReGeneration was born.

It targets young people just making their way in the world, people who have an idea about something they might like to do but aren't necessarily sure yet how to go about it.

"That's what young people are really interested in - 'how did you do it', 'how did you get to where you are going', 'how did you make the decision to do what you are doing'," Mr Matheson says.

"So it is just about helping them to be more effective. The best way we know of doing that is by connecting them and letting them say, 'what's working for you?'."

Some of the inspiration for the ReGeneration model is offshore - Europe, South America, the US - where people have been doing similar things for years, networking the networks. Mr Matheson also nominates Rotary as an example of an organisation that brings people together in a way that appears to work.

"This generation will do it differently but I still think it's that basic idea of citizens meeting on a regular basis to talk about opportunities and to refine their thinking."

Absolutely positive
One of the hopes of those behind the ReGeneration initiative, is that it will help people explore new ways to find value in their lives, new stuff to be positive about.

Co-convener Billy Matheson says he doesn't have a particular beef with the status quo, except that it tends to be narrow, very economically focused.

Broadening the discourse, fostering diversity, tolerance, a more inclusive attitude - that's what's required, he says.

Lani Evans, the other half of the ReGeneration central committee, says the very process of bringing people together fosters that, while helping to make connections between different issues, and promotes a view of the world as interconnected.

During a national van trip ReGeneration staged last year, Evans and Matheson were interested was to see where young people were fitting into the community initiatives they encountered. Traditionally, the community or voluntary sector has been dominated by those at the other end of the age spectrum.

One possible outcome of ReGeneration that Matheson and Evans would regard as a positive, would be to see more young people involved in those areas - even to some extent as an alternative to chasing a career.

"Obviously it is not going to pay as well but there are massive rewards in other dimensions and there are a lot of young people who are quite comfortable making that decision," Mr Matheson says, leaning back, searching the ceiling or perhaps somewhere just up behind his eyebrows for the next thought.

"If you look at the change-maker films [on the website] that we have been doing it is just about, I guess, showing that you can be successful without having a really high-paid job, or doing corporate work. That is one form of success, but also Hori [see main story] who runs a native plant nursery out of his back garden in the Bay of Plenty, he has a form of success and that is a really valid form of success.

"And I think the same with career choices. The options if you are a bright intelligent school leaver, most well-meaning parents and teachers will push you in some fairly narrow directions. Often based on what will provide you with financial security. And they will do that for lots of good reasons. But we may be selling young people very short if none of those career options include any room for some of those intrinsically motivated things - generosity and compassion and caring, giving and volunteering, and being part of a community. And feeling like you are making a positive difference in the world."

The ReGeneration co-ordinators have found that many young people are already grappling with those sorts of choices themselves, and choosing to invest some time and energy in projects that don't necessarily bring material reward.

Projects about positive change.

Mr Matheson sweeps back his unruly mop, so as to see the future more clearly. It will, he hopes, employ a little more "positive psychology".

"The reason for the ReGeneration project and the ideas at its inception was: what if we took a positive approach to this. What if we had a meeting where we talked about what we wanted, rather than what we didn't want. And what we noticed instantly was that young people responded instantly to that different approach."


More info
The ReGeneration website is at regeneration.org.nz

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