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Empowering Rangatahi Through Active Southland’s Innovative Leadership Programme

Active Southland’s commitment to fostering youth development is shown through its innovative Rangatahi Leadership Group. This programme, designed to address the needs of Māori, Pasifika and disabled youth facing barriers to participation, has emerged as a transformative force in the lives of its participants. Through a combination of sports training, life skills workshops, and holistic support, the Rangatahi Leadership Group is not only shaping athletes but also nurturing future leaders.

Filling a gap

Active Southland, in collaboration with Academy Southland and Southland Secondary School Sports, identified a significant lack of representation from priority population groups, particularly Māori, Pasifika, and individuals with disabilities, in Southland secondary schools.

Rangatahi Lead at Active Southland, Steve Gear, says, “For Māori and Pasifika in particular, the systems in place didn’t meet their needs. We recognised pretty quickly that there was a massive gap in that area, and a lot of young people weren’t being given the opportunity.”

Recognising a gap in opportunities for young Māori and Pasifika participants to progress in Southland’s sports development system, Active Southland started on a journey to address these systemic challenges. By collaborating with stakeholders and closely engaging with the community, they identified opportunities to do better such as financial support, building stronger networks and utilising cultural frameworks and connections. The ‘Rangatahi Leadership Group’ was established to not only provide a pathway and equitable opportunity for these young people, but also to challenge the status quo of what talent identification and participant well-being needs to look like in Aotearoa New Zealand into the future.

The Rangatahi Leadership Group aims to provide the opportunity and environment for rangatahi Māori, Pasifika, and disabled participants to grow as people through sport and develop as role models, if they so choose, across the community. The group’s key objectives are to:

  • Provide young people with the tools and support to compete, perform, and excel at the highest level both in sport and their lives
  • Enhance the mana of rangatahi in the programme
  • Influence positive change in the system to be more inclusive of all young people.

Using the Mana Taiohi Framework to co-design a programme for rangatahi

The Rangatahi Leadership Group programme is co-designed to fit the various needs of the rangatahi involved. Commenting on the design of the programme, Steve Gear says,

“We understood that Māori and Pasifika and disabled young people’s needs were not being met by the existing systems in place. The next piece was really around how do we as providers, identify those important things such as whakawhanaungatanga and creating safe environments, acknowledging whakapapa but also how we use our knowledge and experience to help shape these young people, but let them be the ultimate drivers of the initiative.”

Steve Gear

Unlike traditional sport academy-style programmes primarily focused on performance outcomes, Active Southland’s team chose an alternative approach based on the Mana Taiohi principles. These bi-cultural principles, developed by Ara Taiohi – the peak body for youth development in Aotearoa – acknowledge the mana that young people have, and actively work to uplift that mana. The Mana Taiohi framework has evolved from the principles of youth development, has been informed by young people, and reflects a Te Ao Māori worldview. The programme also aligns with Sport NZ’s evidence-based approach, Balance is Better .

Led by Liam Howley from Active Southland, the Rangatahi Leadership Group is built on four pillars: strength and conditioning, nutrition, mental skills, and life skills. Beyond traditional sports training, the programme integrates workshops on CV writing, cooking classes, and assistance with obtaining driver’s licenses. This holistic approach aims to equip participants with essential life skills, regardless of their athletic aspirations.

Howley, a former Southland Stags halfback, outlines key aspects of the programme, stating, “from the outset, we make it clear that not everyone will reach the professional level, nor might they want to. However, we aim to instil skills they can carry forward, like time management and communication skills, which will benefit them beyond the programme.”

“We conduct workshops every two weeks, based on our pillars. They are in the gym two to three times a week. They train at the Mike Piper Training Centre, which is a really cool space for them, because that’s where all the high-performance athletes down here train. The Sharks, Steel, Stags and all the individual sports so rowers, cyclists, everyone’s based on that same sort of complex. It gives them role models. They get to rub shoulders with them and see how those athletes operate as well,” Howley says.

The Rangatahi Leadership Group started in 2022 with eight members. At the beginning of this year, they received 75 applicants for 15 spots. The group includes a mix of Māori and Pasifika participants from a variety of sports.

According to Howley, participation in the programme fills participants and their families with pride. “For these kids, being part of a sports academy or leadership group fosters a sense of belonging and pride in their identity as Māori or Pasifika athletes,” he notes.

Collaborating to identify talent

The initial application process underscored challenges such as limited access to technology and negative perceptions from schools regarding the potential of certain students.

“At the outset, we reached out to schools, and they returned with hundreds of applications, but none quite matched the profile we were seeking. They were mostly the students already receiving opportunities, so we had to dig deeper to find the ones we were looking for,” explains Gear.

In collaboration with schools and community organisations, Active Southland honed its approach to identify candidates.

“Some of the students we’re targeting lack access to computers or the support to navigate the application process. So we learned to liaise with the RSOs [Regional Sports Organisations] and schools, discussing which students would really benefit from the opportunity. They typically have insights into the families and backgrounds, helping us target the right candidates,” notes Howley.

Focusing on individual needs and building relationships

Central to the programme’s success is the emphasis on building trust and relationships with participants and their whānau. Understanding the individual needs and cultural backgrounds of each participant allows the team to tailor support and interventions effectively. Through the principles of whanaungatanga (relationship building) and manaakitanga (respect and kindness), the programme creates a supportive environment where participants feel valued and accepted.

“The key is that it’s a partnership. It isn’t ‘we’ll do this, and you’ll do that’ – it’s actually built on a mutual understanding of ‘we’re on the same level and we’re working together.’

“I think there’s a part there where they feel truly valued. A lot of the time in their lives they’ve never had that feeling of feeling truly valued around something. And being given responsibility and assuming their own agency,” Gear says.

Making an impact

Gear and Howley are thrilled to witness the programme’s impact on athletes in a relatively short time frame.

As Gear highlights, “Initially, some people thought it was a bit crazy, but the way the programme is structured…these kids have just developed so much – it’s unbelievable. Just giving them that little bit of purpose and direction. And it’s not just about the sport. It’s about their development as people, and so far, the response has been immense.”

The impact of the Rangatahi Leadership Group is evident in success stories like rugby player Kiseki Fifita. Fifita transitioned from struggling with attendance in Rugby Southland’s academy programme to representing New Zealand at the secondary school level last season. “They knew he had the potential but couldn’t seem to track him down. We ended up bringing him into our group, but I didn’t see him for the first two weeks. I went to the school, found the first XV coach, who I have a relationship with, and we tracked him down. We sat down and had a good chat for about an hour about what was going on for him. He ended up joining the Rangatahi Leadership Group and didn’t miss a session all year,” says Howley.

By taking a holistic mana enhancing approach and providing personalised support, the programme unlocks the potential of young athletes like Fifita, enabling them to thrive both on and off the field.

Howley emphasises, “One of the significant aspects of building relationships with these kids is whanaungatanga and manaakitanga. Some of them have trust issues, and if we can build a relationship, I don’t expect them to engage fully in their work if they don’t have a connection with me or with the other kids in the group.”

For the second consecutive year, a participant has progressed from the Rangatahi Leadership Group programme into Academy Southland, offering another pathway for talented young people to achieve their goals. Academy Southland provides a two-year programme aimed at offering crucial support to predominantly senior high school-aged athletes capable of representing Southland on the national or international stage.

The latest athlete to progress into Academy Southland is Sualo Lafoga, a Year 12 student at Southland Girls High School.

Lafoga, a rugby and rugby league player with aspirations to play professionally, reflects, “The Group has helped me a lot. It’s prepared me for academy stuff, helping with my confidence, independence, organisation, and just everything. The Rangatahi Leadership Group is a really cool environment because it’s like a family that Liam creates.”

Lafoga also appreciates the programme’s financial support, which has facilitated her participation in various rugby league events. Summing up the Rangatahi Leadership Group, Lafoga describes it as an eye-opening experience that provides opportunities for sports-specific goals and overall personal growth. She emphasises the programme’s impact on her confidence, organisation, and overall development, praising Liam Howley’s approachability and the group’s whānau atmosphere.

“We hype each other in there. It’s a fun environment, and we’re all just there for each other. Everyone’s got the same goal.”

Sualo Lafoga
Anasta Price (left), Kiseki Fifita (centre), Sualo Lafoga (right).

Getting support from the community

The programme has been able to grow with support from key funders Te Rourou, One Aotearoa Foundation and Invercargill Licensing Trust  Foundation. This funding is used to minimise barriers to participation faced by some young people. By providing access to free physiotherapy, financial assistance for fees and equipment, and support for obtaining driver’s licenses, Active Southland ensures that participants can fully focus on their development without worrying about external challenges. These partnerships not only provide financial backing but also validate the programme’s alignment with the needs of Southland’s rangatahi, as recognised by local leaders and funders.

One fund within Te Rourou and the Vodafone Aotearoa Foundation that has endorsed the Rangatahi Leadership Group is Te Ōhanga Tīwhera—a collaborative fund established to support the aspirations of Māori youth throughout Southland. Led by eight rangatahi aged 14-18 years, this fund is responsible for distributing resources to groups that support rangatahi in connecting with Te Āo Māori.

Mandy Smith from One New Zealand (formerly the Vodafone Foundation) emphasises the strong community support and recognition the programme has received following presentations to the One New Zealand Foundation Board. Positive feedback from community hui attendees, especially kaumātua who advocate for its expansion, underscores the programme’s effectiveness.

Smith attributes much of this effectiveness to Liam Howley’s leadership and relationship-building skills.

“The rangatahi that have funded it absolutely love the programme. I think it really comes down to Liam Howley, who runs it. He’s the one who talks to them, and they really believe in him. So I think his role in all of this is really important,” says Smith.

Below are some comments from the rangatahi funding group leaders about the Rangatahi Leadership Group initiative:

“We loved how this programme is all about empowering and motivating Māori and Pasifika rangatahi. We feel that this programme is creating a safe environment for rangatahi to be themselves, meet new friends and express themselves. Liam’s own experiences have given him the passion to do this. We really love this project and can’t wait to see it grow in the near future.”

“I think what he’s doing is good for everybody, making a difference in people’s lives.”

“I like that it’s not just about sport, but about life skills, your whole life can’t just depend on sport.”

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