Community Scoop

Donald Trump and mana

Tess Casey, CEO
Inclusive New Zealandphoto of Tess Casey

In the same way that other people binge-watch TV programmes on Netflix, I’m binge-watching the US Elections.  Who would have thought we would see Donald Trump (a billionaire TV personality) and Bernie Sanders (a self-described socialist) looking like they could have a chance at the US Presidency?  In some ways Bernie Sanders’ success is even more surprising than Trump’s.  Socialists are generally deeply mistrusted in the US.

I think it’s fair to say that most New Zealanders didn’t rate Donald Trump’s chances when we first learned he was going to stand for US President.  I for one, found it hard to take him seriously as a TV personality let alone a political leader.   His speeches and arguments during the Republican campaign have seemed too outrageous to be given any credibility so most of us anticipated he would be soundly dumped once the voting started.

But so far the opposite has happened.  Something in what he is saying is resonating with voters.  They believe that he can ‘make the US great again’.  His main qualification is that he is, in his own words, “the very definition of the American success story, continually setting the standards of excellence in business, real estate and entertainment.”

Several bankruptcies, inheriting a slumlord empire and starring in a reality TV show where you shout “You’re fired!” at people doesn’t quite meet what most Kiwis would consider standards of excellence.  We’ve followed the media coverage of the election process and have gone from being bemused, to confused, and then to being just a little bit terrified.   But at the same time we remain fairly confident that someone like Donald Trump wouldn’t be able to get any traction in our backyard.

A personality like Donald Trump might struggle to impress us, but the ideas behind his rhetoric are founded on things that have some resonance here.  He speaks to a deep weariness and disaffection with the current political environment.  He’s seen as a renegade and not part of the political establishment.  We hear the same mistrust of the ‘ivory tower’, ‘Wellington’, and ‘officials’.  The other factor that gives him credibility is that he is ‘big business’.  A recent poll showed that a number of voters in the US rate him because he runs a large corporation.

This faith in business models is something we hear a lot about in the community sector.  We’re constantly told that we need to be more business-like.  I’m never sure what this means.  Most community organisations I know have demonstrated quite a high level of business acumen over the past ten years.  Income streams have steadily decreased and the environment in which we operate has become steadily more complex. We’ve had to be entrepreneurial, fiscally responsible and agile to keep ourselves viable.

We are encouraged to justify our existence by demonstrating our ‘value add’, and our ‘return on investment’.   It never hurts to test our thinking and to strive to understand the difference we are making.  But sometimes I worry that we have accepted the ‘be more business-like’ line to the extent that we no longer have faith in ourselves and our ‘community-ness’.

Recently I was helping someone put together a workshop presentation for a conference in the US.  Part of the brief for the workshop was to talk about why we do things the way we do in NZ.  We were trying to think of a way to explain the concept of mana to an American audience, so we watched Tama Iti’s excellent Ted talk.  He talks about mana coming from knowing who you are.  It grounds us and connects us to our past, present and future.  With mana we are all equals – all on the same level.

I’m not sure that’s how we feel in the community sector at the moment.  And if we don’t then the challenge is with us.  Have we accepted a language and way of thinking and operating that has diminished our sense of knowing who we are?  How can we fully contribute to a discussion about the challenges facing the people and communities we serve if we are trying to frame what we do in ways that don’t fit?

I have more questions than answers.  But one thing I’m fairly sure of is that we are only going to find the answers by talking and working together, and speaking out about what is important to us.

Inclusive NZ is a national umbrella organisation for organisations and individuals providing employment and community supports for disabled people.

This blog has been contributed by a member of ComVoices

ComVoices  actively promotes the value that community sector organisations and their people, both paid and unpaid, add to New Zealand’s economic and social wellbeing through information, and political advocacy and dialogue.

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  1. Stephanie Pope, 9. March 2016, 14:08

    Thank you Tess this article resonates deeply with me personally and professionally. As an accreditation agency for many community agencies we audit and review their quality and business systems. We find on the whole a sector that is efficient, effective and yet still caring and holding firm to community values and principles. They do this in an environment as you say of increasing complexity and reduced incomes often in a manner more transparent and accountable than any government or for profit business. Community mana is well overdue for recognition of its mana.

  2. Ros Rice, 9. March 2016, 14:17

    Interesting read Tess, and yes the language forced on us is one that does not resonate well. The questions are important.