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TRUST: A True Story of Women and Gangs
Book launching – Hon Tariana Turia
Thursday 23 July 2009; 7pm
Te Puni Kokiri House, Wellington
‘Heading in the Right Direction’
The front cover of the book says it all.
There they are in black and white –the gang girls in their jackboots, the jeans, the swannies. There’s the sign of the clenched black fist on the t-shirt –the universal symbol of black resistance, the struggle for liberation.
It’s a photo taken some thirty years ago, at the 1979 United Women’s Convention in Hamilton – the women are hard, tough, strong.
But then it hits you. There in bold capital letters. The colour pink. Pink – the colour of bubble gum and candyfloss. Pink – sugar and spice and everything nice –feminine, delicate, gentle, soothing.
How could this happen? How could there be such a disjunction between the words and the photograph?
Perhaps the colour designer got it wrong and it was meant to be red. Or maybe it started off red, and became watered down after a protest from Black Power?
Or maybe, just maybe, the pink is deliberate. A sign of the love, the tenderness, the unity that came with the sisterhood.
And when we look again, the word in pink makes it all fall into place.
Trust – meaning on one hand the Aroha Trust – the name of the work co-operative that forms the subject of this book.
But trust is also about the enduring bonds, the shared loyalty, the mutual respect, of a community of women who worked, lived, cried, fought and partied hard.
This book is an amazing story of universal values such as trust and truth. It demonstrates courage, the brave journey of eleven women, and those around them.
The book lets us into the extraordinary lives of the women who challenged the gang movement over their attitude to rape.
And just as we admire the bonds that link these women together, we as readers are also being trusted to make up our own minds, to allow the voices to be heard, to respect the stories.
The stories are told by a pint-sized pakeha; an Irish Pippi Long-stocking called Pip Desmond who was there, back in the day, when the Aroha Trust got going.
I mihi to you, Pip, for your amazing work in bringing these stories together. You have bridged a gulf in public understanding through the compassionate creativity in which you have told the truths that need to be heard.
In your own words, you said it best, “I learnt to jump the barricades that, in our fear and ignorance, make us see difference as other, enemy, inferior”.
You have reached out and allowed the women’s voices to be heard – and we are better people for hearing them.
The book takes us through a fascinating period in our political history, a time when the National Government enabled gangs to be employed on community projects for government agencies.
It records the legacy of Rob Muldoon in the Temporary Employment Programme which created the space for work co-operatives like the Aroha Trust to emerge.
The Aroha Trust was a remarkable initiative for its time.
It brought together funding from the Wellington Education Board and the Labour Department in a joint venture with the City Council. A guy from the Engineers Union found them a house. Depending on the type of work, they could attract a 75-100% wage subsidy.
The work was plentiful – gardening, scrub-cutting, spraying weeds at primary schools, renovating houses. Hard physical work.
But it was more than a labour of muscle. Bruce Stewart, one of the pioneers of another gang work trust described it well: “Dignity and pride start when your sweat is dripping into the ground together and you are having fun together”.
The Trust gave all the women an opportunity to experience leadership – the person in charge was rotated every week. That way, nobody would be seen as the boss, and everyone learnt about being responsible. And it was also about connecting communities. Te Aro School even put on afternoon tea for the girls to thank them for a job well done.
But this book is more than a story of a work trust. It is about social activism; community development, the Maori renaissance. And it is about life, precious and raw.
Early on, one of the women, Charmaine, says “I’ve sorted a lot of stuff in my life, but underneath there’s still a river of tears”.
The river of tears comes from stories of pain, of violence, raging alcohol-infused anger.
It flows from the poverty of circumstance – living in a hovel, hungry, unsafe; sleeping under bridges, stealing just to have a kai.
It flows out of lost childhoods traumatised by sexual abuse. Too often there are the tears of grief, parents who left, parents who died too young leaving young girls in situations which rapidly became tragic.
Children who overnight took on the mothering role, looking after younger siblings, cooking; and unwillingly took on other roles, living either in terror or shame.
The stories are one and the same - violence, sexual assault, running away, getting caught, trapped in state care; into what Gini calls ‘locked up loneliness’; attempts at self-destruction.
Their stories are chillingly consistent – the impact of sexual abuse tearing at the very souls of each young woman; the experience of being a state ward causing hearts to harden.
And it is no coincidence that this book is launched on a day, when the Minister of Justice has announced his plans for reform of the criminal justice system to address the underlying drivers of crime.
You can’t go far in understanding the pathway to offending without stripping back the damage done by that chronic breach of trust; the abuse that erodes the spirit.
Junior sums it up, “Society didn’t see the abuse. A hiding was a hiding. You never talked about sexual abuse; it didn’t happen”.
As each of the women tell their stories, the book tells of lives punctuated by nights at the cop shop; police raids, hazy memories of too many parties, getting wasted; socialising which revolved around the gang, the home they never had or had lost.
And the isolation and the fear. What goes on in the scene stays in the scene. That is until this book came along.
There was always the probability that stirring up the past would be intensely painful, memories too hard to recall. But one of the amazing features of this book is the capacity of the women to reflect back over their experiences and gain perspective over their journeys.
Charmaine describes her life as the consequence of a generation caught in the wave of confusion. Confusion created from a history of tradition and tikanga Maori being absolutely mutilated by what she calls “acts of cultural genocide”. Confiscated lands. Being bashed at school for speaking Maori. Parents quickly learnt, being Maori wouldn’t help their children.
And yet remarkably, from out of the place of fear, also comes the place of love.
In those days, every party ended with the Renee Geyer anthem, am I heading in the right direction for your loving and affection?
One by one the women return to the pull of family, seeking whanau; the spiritual food that would protect them; the knowledge of things Maori. Within their whanau they have rebuilt their whakapapa, regained their cultural connections, committed to a better future for their mokopuna.
For some, like Jane, the possibility of damaging her own children became the catalyst for dealing to stuff buried for too long. For others, the promise of their faith led them in that new direction.
And I think this is where the great turning point appears not just in the women’s lives, but also in the book.
The women were resolved that this book would not feed into, what they called ‘middle-class perceptions about gangs’. The middle class weren’t there for them – it wasn’t the middle class that gave them food and shelter, that protected them.
The Aroha Trust did that. And so too, did the gangs.
Sometimes the gangs were the enemy. But they were also brothers, cousins, partners, mates – joined together, in the fight for survival.
I am sure that what will draw people into reading this book, is the sense of public and moral outrage at the impact of gangs on our community.
You won’t find anything in here to demonise the Blacks, the Nomads, the Mob, The Highways or any other gangs – there’s enough of that already.
But there are no two ways around it, there were some horrific things done. We must continue to be disgusted at gang rapes; at any excuse for a rumble, at a preference for violence; the treatment of women.
And I want to acknowledge Nayda and others from Aroha Trust, who took the step of lodging a historical claim with the Waitangi Tribunal on behalf of all Maori women affected by gangs.
You have stood tall and laid the challenge that Crown failures have led to the cultural alienation, economic despair, impoverishment and violent abuse of Maori women and their whanau in gang environments. It was a brave move and we will all watch its progress with interest.
Ultimately this book is very much about its title – Trust.
It is about the lifelong costs of broken promises, of secrecy, of lies, of sexual abuse, of violence, of crime.
It is about a society scarred by those who seek to destroy the innocence of children. It is about people who look away, who don’t want to know.
The thing is – none of these facts are exclusive to gangs.
But this book is also about the conditions of a community which can create trust.
For all of the women who came to the Aroha Trust, our families, our communities, our society had let them down, over and over again. And yet together, they achieved a sense of purpose, a pride, which helped them to heal their broken spirit, to regain strength.
And so my final word is to the women - those brave, resilient women who have displayed such courage in naming the injustice, in speaking about things some would prefer remain unspoken.
You have given us hope – reminded us that connections are the key to enduring relationships.
Your connections with each other span thirty years and more – but your strengths also come from the connections to your whakapapa, your whanau, your histories.
And importantly, your stories connect to many other women, to many other lives, who have endured similar experiences of alienation, loneliness, abandonment.
There is one thread that runs through all of the stories – the impact of a significant person in each of your lives.
For Charmaine, her Tuhoe nanny was her mountain, her world, she was everything she could ever dream of. For Gini, it was Candleman, a Jewish immigrant with snow-white hair who was the most influential adult in her life.
For Jane it was a teacher; for Amelia her Mum was the centre-pole; there were the Mikes; the Wombles; each of you had someone who believed in you – and for many of you, Pip was also that someone special who came along and helped you to restore faith in yourself.
You have shown us all, that together we can be invincible; that our greatest hope lies in restoring our responsibilities to each other; that our transformation lies in our solutions.
You have survived.
Thank you, for sharing your stories, for inspiring us, for showing us there is a better way.