Christchurch Youth Workers Collective

  • Deborah Morris
Youth Affairs


Good morning - it's great to be here to meet you all this morning.

It seems to me that far too often the role of youth workers is undervalued and unrecognised. In some ways that could be a reflection of society's broader attitudes towards youth also. So, in the face of that, it is great that you are working together to improve your skills, communications and support structures. It's also extremely important because if we're going to make a difference, the communication between us is vital - and coordination is a must.

There are some things we all have to do in our work with young people: including being prepared to work with the whole young person and, remembering that youth aren't all the same. We have to listen to young people, inform them and always try to help them to make a difference for themselves.

I'm sure it's no news to you that young people have not always been well recognised in Government and other decision making circles. But it's my goal for that to improve. If we expect to make a real difference we have to embrace young people's perceptions in everything we do - you know that only to well. It's not about tokenism or political correctness. The fact is that most young people will warm to any genuine attempt to have them participate in their communities. And if we're real about wanting to make New Zealand a better place - let's not pretend that the people in Wellington know everything. Both Central Government and local communities have to take the time to listen to young people if we expect to get it right.

I'm sure you are just as dismayed as I am by the constant seemingly negative press that young people get. It's that kind of thing that sends a message to young people that says "we don't understand you, value you or know how to have you participate in our lives".

New Zealanders seem to have a thirst for bad news - especially when it comes to politicians or young people. (And particularly if you're a young politician). Often we see the "appalling attitude of youth and their terrible behaviour" portrayed in the media. But the question has to be asked: if those reports are a reflection of reality, where do youth learn those behaviours, and how does the media contribute to young people's perceptions of themselves and the world around them?

To start with, young people focus on the environment that they know best - their home and community. If they grow up in a negative environment, then that will be the norm that everything is modelled on.

And that's when we see families in which neglect and abuse are passed on to the next generation. Against that backdrop teachers, health professionals, governments, extended family and others try desperately to lift the sights of the most vulnerable members in these families - the children.

Knowing that our children look up to us and that they base their behaviours on ours, it follows that if we don't like the way our children behave, we must look to ourselves to find the solution.

And that is the challenge to New Zealand today.

Over the past few months I have been actively lobbying journalists about the need to be positive about what young people have achieved - I think it's really important that we improve the self esteem of young people. I have been pleased to see recent editorials in the New Zealand Herald and the Ashburton Guardian which have highlighted positive things that young people are up to. I would like to congratulate those papers and any others which promote this.

Young men

One of the things I most enjoy about this job is having the chance to meet so many different young people. Each person is developing and expressing their own unique sense of self through their experience of the opportunities and possibilities presented to them.

For each young person this individuality is developed within a particular social context, bound by issues of gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status. No two people are the same.

We are unique as males and females, and as Pakeha, Maori, Pacific Island or Asian. Where we live, how attentive our parents are, what school we go to, who our teachers are, and who our friends are: it all contributes to the way we see the world and the contribution we make.

So, bearing that in mind, how do boys grow to become men in New Zealand?

What kinds of messages are boys given about being a man in New Zealand society? Are we preparing young men well enough to cope with the rigours of teenage and adult life?

As it happens, young men are disproportionately represented across a range of health-related issues. In particular, young men are significantly involved in risk-taking behaviour and are over represented in anti-social activities. For example:

Violent offences;
Road traffic injuries. (40% of deaths of males aged between 15 and 24 are caused by motor vehicle accidents, mainly attributable to alcohol and excess speed);
Drug abuse;
Alcohol abuse - both drug and alcohol inpatient statistics show an over-representation of young men; and
Even Family Planning Association figures. While they don't have an age category, they do provide clear evidence of a large discrepancy between male and female consultations. Males are far less likely to seek contraceptive or sexual health advice than young women.
The social problems associated with these statistics impose a significant financial and social cost on our society. So we all have an interest in improving this situation.

All of this emphasises the importance of taking an approach to adolescent development that goes beyond purely health issues. We need to develop strategies specifically tailored to young men to prevent these issues from arising in the first place.

This is not a simple or easy process. The high representation of young men in these statistics has not developed in a social vacuum. Indeed, these figures are a graphic representation of what it is to be growing up as a young male in New Zealand today.

Intervention strategies therefore, must take into account this wider social picture. They must also look at the ways in which particular images and meanings associated with being a New Zealand male are produced and reproduced through families, schools, the labour market and the media.

Too often fathers are absent from families - if not physically, then emotionally.

Within schools, particular images of maleness are associated with power, either physically through sports prowess or through potential earning power via subject choice and examination results. Research identifies a particular competitive dynamic underlying boys' communication patterns which is upheld through schools' structures and processes.

In the labour market men predominate in positions of power and influence. Parliament is certainly a good example in this regard.

We need to 'lift the rock' on these particular male issues to uncover the dynamics that contribute to male risk-taking and anti-social behaviours. We can learn from our own and overseas research: making it OK for men to express their emotions in a variety of ways. We need to tap into and encourage young men's potential for being caring and sensitive to others, but also knowing it's OK to take care of themselves.

We need to recognise the ways that young men 'police' themselves and therefore limit themselves and let's find them mentors and role models who give the private and public message that real men care and communicate.

I have decided to place specific emphasis on work dealing with young men in the Ministry of Youth Affairs work programme next year. If we start to deal with some of societies most basic problems - communication, relationships and support, then we will be able to start to turn around some of the horrifying statistics that I mentioned earlier.

It is people such as yourselves, along with parents and teachers who play a vital role. We need to remove the barriers that young males erect around themselves, and help them to develop into adults that are open, honest and understanding.

Many young people have only just realised that a Ministry of Youth Affairs exists and that they have their own Minister. The newly acquired profile of the portfolio has brought high expectations. So I'd like to describe for you the role of the Ministry.

As a small policy Ministry it is necessary to be strategic and direct its expertise into policy work and programmes that no other department is capable or willing to pursue. This is the case with the Youth Suicide Prevention Strategy. Youth Affairs is taking the lead of a secretariat including the Ministries of Health and Maori Development.

They have convened expert reference groups, consulted with the community and are about to make key recommendations to Government. They have also sought to promote responsible discussion of the issue and, for instance, have provided guidelines to the media to prevent further harm.

It seems to me that the key to success in this area, again, is one that requires every single person in this country with an interest in young people's well-being to work together. It's easy to stand on the side lines criticising. But it's not until each of us, at every level of the community, puts our minds to it that we'll get progress.

All the money in the world won't necessarily mean that we have all the answers. Having said that, and acknowledging the complexity of the issue, resourcing will be vital as we do identify the key priorities for government and community action.

The Ministry of Youth Affairs is the only government agency able to consider the lives of young people as a whole - so we have to consistently work across other portfolios and with the departments responsible for delivering the services, to ensure that youth are the priority.

This Government is delivering more for young people. This years Budget targeted over $7 million of new money towards projects aimed at helping youth at risk.

This included $3.13m to boost the successful community-based police Youth Aid programmes which have been working well in Auckland and Dunedin. We will now expand that service to 12 other areas throughout the country.

In schools, as well as the extra $9 million for Auckland schools announced a few weeks ago, we are providing an extra $3 million for drug education to inform students about the dangers of drug misuse and to provide support to help schools identify existing users.

We have provided $10 million to boost our school truancy programmes, giving seriously at risk young people another chance at education.

We have initiated the "wraparound" project in Auckland which aims to ensure that high risk youth are able to access all the services that they require.

And the Ministry of Youth Affairs, in partnership with the Department of Corrections, is piloting the introduction of Conservation Corps programmes into prisons.

Many of these initiatives are targeted at those most at risk. That is good, but we also need to put much more effort into ensuring that children and young people don't become at risk.

That's a challenge for ALL of us.