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Working towards a more diverse NGO sector?

soraiya-daud-1Soraiya Daud

Communications Advisor | National Building Financial Capability Charitable Trust

New Zealanders, in general, acknowledge the importance of diversity. We all know it is important that people working in social services reflect the communities they represent. We know that we need to make space for people to come through that have different life experiences.

Making that happen, is much more difficult.

The NGO sector has challenges around diversity. New Zealand has an array of cultural and religious associations that support people from diverse backgrounds. However, there are very few professional agencies run by and for communities of colour, nor are there enough people working in operational, management or governance roles from minority ethnic backgrounds.

In the last six months of working at a national umbrella body in the NGO sector I have been reflecting on what these challenges might be for people like myself who are second/third/fourth generation New Zealanders and are visible minorities.

The first challenge was expectations from our own communities. For people from long standing historic ethnic communities in New Zealand, we have just got on and done what we needed to do to get by and make our way. New Zealand’s historic Chinese and Indian communities have not had a strong emphasis on activism like in other parts of the world. This is despite the immense legal, social and economic discrimination we have faced. Maybe it is because we didn’t have a critical mass of people living close together that often drives activism. Maybe it’s because our second generation did not have a catalysing moment of intense discrimination like our Pacific brothers and sisters. Maybe it is because of discrimination that people have been faced when trying to get involved. And so, choosing to be “an activist” even if that means a professional NGO role is seen as quite an unusual and not a very acceptable path. It was much more sensible to go into business or take on a profession so that you could take care of and provide for your own family and community.

The second challenge was having a story that was not very inspiring. When looking for young people of colour to be in operational or leadership roles, people are often looking for the ‘inspirational’ story. The story of the person who fled from violence or arrived in New Zealand a refugee. Those stories need to be heard. But they are not the only stories. Overtime, we are going to have a significantly large population of New Zealanders from minority communities that were never migrants or refugees but still find it challenging navigating in a very Pakeha context. Inspirational stories can open doors. The story of the ethnic kid in suburban Auckland doing the same thing as other kids doesn’t really do the same. Yet, these young people often experience unconscious discrimination. They are not authentic enough to do migrant and refugee work, but they do not often know the codes and language that is required by the “mainstream”. They are either not brown enough or too brown.

The third challenge is not having a critical mass of social good agencies to grow up through. The NGO sector in New Zealand has historically been built by churches. People have learnt their skills of how to organise and do social good in New Zealand through church-based organisations. For many people from migrant communities social good was and is done through the family, through close relationships or through cultural and non-Christian religious organisations. Shifting from that into more formalised charitable work, or social agency work is going to take work and require adjustments.  We do not have the social connections or relationships to learn about how to do things in the charitable sector in New Zealand.  We do not yet have the depth of institutions in which to grow in and through. There is a question about whether the western charitable or social agency model is the best model. Does it make sense for people with strong traditions of communal care to have to fit into the formal legal structures of the charitable sector?

For us that are working in the NGO sector, we are going to have to reach out, find each other, make our connections and start to build each other up so that the eco-system of support starts to extend and expand. We need to be deliberate about this. It’s not enough to just hope that people will make their way. Take an interest in young people of colour that are in your sector or in your organisation. Talk to them about the challenges that they are facing. Do it in a way that is respectful, that doesn’t pry unnecessarily, but is based on a relationship of mutual trust and understanding. Recognise our issues and help us work through them. We will all be better off for it.

This blog has been contributed by a member of the ComVoices network

ComVoices is a Wellington based network of national community and voluntary sector organisations. It was established so that sector organisations would have a more powerful voice at Government level and in the community.

Click here for our websitehttp://comvoices.org.nz/