The hip hop dancer and ex-All Black working together for young South Aucklanders

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As Auckland heads into day 80 of lockdown, a free virtual event for young people in the south of the city is offering not just an escape from the monotony, but a chance to discover a new creative passion. Justin Latif talks to some of the organisers.

Ex-All Black Pita Alatini and award-winning hip hop dancer, Mele Tapueluelu running a leadership session at Wymondley Road School in Ōtara.

Ex-All Black Pita Alatini and award-winning hip hop dancer, Mele Tapueluelu running a leadership session at Wymondley Road School in Ōtara. Photo: Supplied

Saige Tuua and Seini Vainikolo are a pair of effervescent 11-year-olds from Wymondley Road School in Ōtara and this Saturday they will be co-hosting a unique online conference called The Creatives Labb.

When we meet over Zoom, there are the usual hassles with finding the unmute button and annoying siblings trying to join the call. Like most kids their age, they’ve found lockdown both boring and a struggle due the monotony of online learning and the limits on social bubbles. But unlike most kids, they’ve also been helping organise a one-day event focused on giving South Auckland youth a chance to spark their creative talents.

The Creatives Labb – an “online interactive creative experience”, according to its website – is primarily aimed at 16 to 24-year-olds, but that doesn’t faze these primary school pupils. That’s in large part thanks to the mentoring support they’ve been receiving from ex-All Black Pita Alatini and award-winning hip hop dancer Mele Tapueluelu who both now work for The Cause Collective (TCC), a Pacific social change agency based in South Auckland.

After 18 years as a professional rugby player, Alatini says leaving the sporting world to work for TCC was a big step outside his comfort zone.

“This was a huge step to become a systems innovator, given I didn’t even know what that was when I came into the role,” says the 17-test All Black. “But it’s just been awesome, because I’ve always talked about giving back to the community that I grew up in and now it’s happening.”

The role Alatini holds at TCC is essentially about finding new ways to empower communities around South Auckland, and his current focus is the community of Wymondley.

With a median wage of $22,000 a year, high youth unemployment, and the main type of work being labouring or machinery operation, Wymondley might not seem too dissimilar to other parts of Ōtara. What makes this area unique is its isolation, cut off from the rest of the suburb by a motorway running down its east flank and the Tamaki river curling around its western border. As you arrive in Wymondley you first notice the usual South Auckland combination of a liquor store, laundromat and lotto shop, followed by rows of state houses. Alatini says the closed-in nature of the area means young people can start to think their career and life aspirations are just as limited.

Some of Pita Alatini's students at Wymondley Road school. Seini Vainikolo is in the centre wearing black, and Saiga Tuua is far right.

Some of Pita Alatini’s students at Wymondley Road school. Seini Vainikolo is in the centre wearing black, and Saiga Tuua is far right. Photo: Supplied

“There’s a saying in Wymondley that ‘there’s one way in, and one way out’. So a key mantra in our work is getting the kids to ‘think further than the shops’.”

Alatini says his work in the neighbourhood is about “building capabilities” and resilience, so residents can chart a better future for themselves. But it starts with the children, which is why he’s been running a leadership programme at the local primary school for the last six months.

Judging by the responses to my questions, Tuua and Vainikolo, who are of Sāmoan and Tongan descent respectively, have thrived under Alatini’s tutelage. Tuua says she’s not daunted at all about helping run the Creatives Labb event, “because I’ve become a really confident person”, while Vainikolo sees it simply as a great opportunity “to meet new people”.

Aware of the need to keep mentally stretching his young charges, Alatini says that when colleague Mele Tapueluelu suggested they get involved in The Creatives Labb, he decided it was a “great opportunity for the kids to grow their leadership skills”.

The online conference – and yes, Labb is spelt with two bs in keeping with local slang – will be split into two halves, the first featuring performances and talks taking place via Instagram Live. In the second half, participants will attend Zoom workshops led by South Auckland creatives on topics such as hip hop, singing, graphic design and cooking.

Tapueluelu, who has national titles in the dance style known as krumping, says the event offers a raft of benefits for young people who may be struggling to cope with the seemingly neverending lockdown.

Mele Tapueluelu performing her krumping style of hip hop dance.

Mele Tapueluelu performing her krumping style of hip hop dance. Photo: Supplied

“I think a lot of our young people are craving something exciting to happen, and it’s also important for their mental wellbeing by keeping them connected to others outside their family, especially at a time that’s so stressful.”

Having found her own passion for dance, she hopes the event can act as a similar spark for other young people still trying to find their thing.

“I’ve been able to compete regionally, nationally and also internationally, and it’s been a way where I’ve been able to build my own confidence and it’s ignited a fire in me to know I can actually do something.”

Given the well-reported “digital divide” challenges facing many South Auckland youth, Tapueluelu says TCC has made sure as many young people as possible can be involved in the Creatives Labb event. She says the organisation will be able to lend laptops and mobile phones to families who need them in order to take part.

The Cause Collective has also been working to help families at the centre of the large Covid-19 cluster centred on the Assemblies of God church, as well as supporting the mass vaccination drives in South Auckland. But for both Tapueluelu and Alatini, TCC is the vehicle for them to use their sporting and dancing successes as a means to help others. Tapueluelu says it’s all about “contributing to something bigger than ourselves”.

“It’s about supporting our young creatives to be change makers by finding something they can thrive in, whatever it is.”

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Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers’ Association and NZ On Air.

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