Keeping the fire lit: Reflections from my trip to Aotearoa New Zealand

[Image description: Driftwood on a beach in Aotearoa New Zealand. Foam block letters attached to the wood spell out “DO GOOD.” In the background is the ocean and a lot of clouds. I took this picture with my phone.]

Hi everyone, this post may be rambly not not very deep due to my travel-induced exhaustion, so apologies in advance. But first, October 10th of this week is Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the US, and we should all be reminded that less than half a cent of every dollar in philanthropy goes to Indigenous-led organizations. So to all those funders out there who are releasing statements about this day, please give more money to Indigenous communities. Everyone else, donate to Indigenous-led orgs and mutual assistance efforts and read this article by an Indigenous colleague for more actions you can take.

I just came back from a whirlwind speaking trip to Pueblo Colorado, Halifax Canada, Aotearoa New Zealand, and Monterey California. It’s been three weeks on the road and I finally just got home. It’s the longest I’ve been away from my kids, and I had some irrational fear that they wouldn’t recognize me, and they’d be weirdly formal when I got back and be all like, “Hello, Father. Would you care for some crumpets?” I don’t know why they’re British in this scenario. Luckily that did not happen; they just hugged me and immediately asked for presents.   

While the trip has been exhausting and I got hit with homesickness a few times, it was also magical. In Pueblo I met amazing advocates in the field of child abuse and neglect prevention and services. In Halifax I landed a day before Hurricane Fiona hit, and the conference organizers were so thoughtful in helping me leave immediately so I wouldn’t miss my flight to Aoteroa New Zealand.

I spent eight days in Aotearoa, going from Ōtepoti (Dunedin) to Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington) to Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland). In each location, I was greeted by the kindness, genuineness, and brilliance of the local nonprofit, philanthropic, and community leaders. I met so many people and organizations doing vital mahi (work), from food sovereignty to LGBTQIA youth to historic land preservation to intermediary organizations strengthening the sector.

Most of all, I was awed by the presence of Māori cultural customs and wisdom, from the welcoming ceremonies, to the songs people sang in harmony during gatherings, to the fact that everyone’s remarks started in Te reo Māori (the Māori language). I don’t want to romanticize it too much, since the legacy of colonization is ongoing, and Māori communities continue to face many challenges. But it was inspiring and eye-opening to see what might start to be possible if reconciliation and reparation were more broadly accepted and stolen land and resources were rightfully returned to Indigenous communities.

As the days went on, I started to fantasize about moving to Aotearoa. Here was a world that was in many ways so much better than what many of us have been used to. It’s not perfect by any means; the many challenges we face in nonprofit and philanthropy—the hoarding of resources by the wealthy, the time-wasting grant applications, the lack of funding going to marginalized-communities-led organizations and movements, etc.—are also prevalent in Aoteroa. There are still many societal issues like poverty and homelessness.

But it would be better. I could see myself living in New Zealand. The people are wonderful. There’s less hatred and bigotry and misogyny. There are fewer politicians whose main goal is to set the clock back a hundred years. Most tempting of all, I could drop my kids off at school, knowing that they will much less likely be murdered by a shooter carrying an AR-15, that they don’t have to do active shooter drills.

Last Friday, I had my final speaking engagement of the trip, in Monterey, where I met some wonderful colleagues, one of whom brought her beautiful newborn baby, a good reminder for us all for why we do this work. I was joking about how if the midterm elections in the US don’t go well, I might move to New Zealand. A leader called me out: “It indicates a lot of privilege to be able to move to another country. But it was us who allowed this mess to happen. We let it happen on our watch. We should stay here and help clean it up.”

She was right, of course. Many of us daydream about leaving and settling elsewhere because the last few years have been horrible. It’s been painful watching as the foundations of democracy everywhere get smashed repeatedly by wrecking balls driven by powerful bullies. But what would moving do? Who would be hurt? I think about parents who have the privilege to move their kids out of under-resourced and underperforming schools. As a parent, I can understand why. But often, it’s the poorest, most disenfranchised families who cannot move schools who must bear the consequences of others’ leaving.

Also, escape might just really be kicking the can down the road. Other countries may have much better systems, such as healthcare, but the local leaders I talked to reminded me that what we have been facing in the US has been rapidly spreading beyond US borders. The people who are the worst of any society have benefited from the US’s normalization of terrible ideas, conspiracy theories, nationalism, xenophobia, etc. They see that not only can you get away with it, but you can actually use fear and hate to gain political power. During one of the events I attended outside the US, a local leader nearly broke down, worried about the threats to the safety of his young child. Those of us in the US have a responsibility to try to contain what we have unleashed onto, or amplified in, the world, because it will catch up to us, no matter where we go.  

Anyway, I’m not moving after the midterms, at least not for the reason of avoiding the problems in the US. If the elections go horribly, I’ll do my part and fight to make things better. If it goes well, I’ll do my part to help our communities heal from the collective nightmare of the past several years, as well as to prevent this from happening again. Who knows how effective any one person can be, but if we all play our roles in whatever capacity we can, wherever we are, history has shown repeatedly that it makes a difference.

This trip was a profound experience that made me reflect on how our sector manifests in various locations, as well as how the US has often exerted a negative influence on the world. But it was also incredibly heartening and soul-replenishing. I am full of gratitude for the people in our sector, and for the organizations who invited me to visit on this trip (Illuminate Colorado, Atlantic Presenters Association, Hui E!, Dunedin Community Builders, Foundation North, Philanthropy New Zealand, and AFP Monterey Bay Chapter). Everywhere I went, I met brilliant leaders who, despite countless barriers, continue to work to help people and better our society. There are too inspiring stories to recount here, but I’ll end with one that has stuck with me.

During one of my last days in Aotearoa, colleagues from host organizations brought me to visit local organizations and funders doing important work. They were all amazing. We visited an expanse of Māori land that local leaders were trying for a very long time to get the government to return. The local leaders occupied it for years, and there seems to be progress made on the land being returned soon.

When we arrived, it was raining and cold and we huddled under some umbrellas as the wind whipped at our faces. We met a local leader, Kelly, who told us to gather near a fire on the ground where three or four burning logs were battling the elements. “This fire,” she said, “is really important. It represents the heart and strength of our community. It’s been burning continuously for three years.” 

Kelly gave us a tour of the organization she founded, Whenua Warrior, a food security and food sovereignty org. During the past several years, including during the pandemic, the organization has built over 1200 gardens and has been teaching people how to grow their own food. Kelly has big, bold dreams for the organization and the community.

I ended the visit and tour feeling awed and appreciative of Kelly and all the people in our sector who are doing critical work despite unrelenting challenges. If you’re reading this, that likely includes you. Thank you for helping keep the fire of community and justice continuously lit despite relentless wind and rain.

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