Two tragedies connected by youthful responses

16 August 2018

University of Canterbury Associate Professor of Community Engagement Dr Billy Osteen was an integral part of the recent Youth Leadership Summit that brought together American high school students from Parkland, Florida and UC’s Student Volunteer Army to discuss how young citizens can continue to make a lasting difference in the world. He talks about why they came together in Christchurch, what they did and why they inspire him.


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The Youth Leadership Summit featured sessions and workshops with academics and youth leaders, including Associate Professor Bronwyn Hayward (far left) and Associate Professor Ekant Veer (far right).

University of Canterbury Associate Professor of Community Engagement Dr Billy Osteen was an integral part of the recent Youth Leadership Summit that brought together American high school students from Parkland, Florida and UC’s Student Volunteer Army to discuss how young citizens can continue to make a lasting difference in the world. He talks about why they came together in Christchurch, what they did and why they inspire him.

One week before the seventh anniversary of the devastating 2011 Canterbury earthquake, a different tragedy was taking place in the classrooms and hallways of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. There, on February 14 2018, a gunman identified as former student Nikolas Kruz, killed 14 students and three teachers and wounded 17 others during a six minute assault.

Following the 2011 Canterbury earthquake, thousands of University of Canterbury students self-organised into the Student Volunteer Army, providing inspiration and relief to citizens across Christchurch through their uplifting presence and their labour of removing tons of silt. Seven years on, the SVA is as strong as ever with over 3,000 members – the largest student club at UC – organising large-scale volunteering events in the community. Additionally, the SVA’s actions inspired the creation of a UC course, CHCH101: Rebuilding Christchurch, that to this day provides students with community engagement opportunities. While the initial founders of the SVA, Sam Johnson, Jason Pemberton, Jade Rutherford, and Gina Scandrett, all saw it as more than a one-off occurrence and more of a movement, they may have been surprised at its staying power. What has made the SVA endure beyond the immediate response to the earthquake?

It is this question that led student leaders from Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School to travel halfway around the world in late July to participate in the Christchurch-Parkland Youth Summit, which was organised by the SVA, University of Canterbury, Honorary Consul for New Zealand, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Education NZ. Soon after the shooting, and like their SVA counterparts, MSD students responded to the tragedy by self-organising to create the #NeverAgain movement with a focus on considering gun laws. They organised the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC and supported hundreds of other marches that had well over a million participants. While the Parkland students have a goal on the horizon – registering and informing voters ahead of the mid-term Congressional elections in November – like the SVA founders, they want their movement of energizing and activating citizens, young and old, to last into the future.

During their brief time in New Zealand, the Parkland students had the opportunity to learn from the SVA through being matched up with SVA Executive Committee members prior to arriving and meeting with community leaders such as Mayor Lianne Dalziel, Cultivate Urban Farm founder Bailey Peryman, Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy, US Ambassador to New Zealand Scott Brown, NZ Fire risk management officer Wayne Hamilton, EPIC founder Wil McClellan, The Eastern musician Adam McGrath, Associate Professor Ekant Veer, Associate Professor Bronwyn Hayward, and UC Vice-Chancellor Dr Rod Carr. Engaging with these leaders and through a city tour that focused on post-quake innovations such as the Dance-o-Mat, Margaret Mahy Playground, and Cardboard Cathedral, our Florida visitors saw different and creative ways to respond to tragedy. Seeing them dance at the Dance-o-Mat with abandon and energy was proof positive that they had fully bought into the possibility of creating joy on a gray rubble lot.

Similarly, I saw true engagement and enjoyment when the MSD students participated in a morning of leadership conversations with over 100 students from 13 Canterbury high schools and some recognition that despite being 9,000 miles away, high school students in New Zealand and Florida are more alike than they are different.

Amidst all of the fun and learning that was going on throughout the week, we were reminded of why the Parkland students were here during a moving tree planting ceremony where a tree for each of the 17 victims was dedicated at Halswell Quarry. Hearing the stories about each person underlined the serious purpose of the visit and by personalizing the tragedy gave us all an insight into what our friends from Florida are trying to do.

All of this input throughout the week led to an intensive workshop facilitated by the SVA with the goal of emerging from it with a tangible output – a manifesto, a how-to list, a white paper. Sitting in on the end of the workshop, it was apparent that the week in New Zealand had informed both the Parkland students and the SVA members as to specific ways to extend both of their youth movements. One example from a Florida student was to make the process for voting in school elections mimic the actual process complete with registration, deadlines, and voting. This was agreed upon by the SVA as something they could do with on-campus and club voting. A final document resulting from the Summit will be forthcoming from the SVA and shared publicly.

The responses of the SVA and MSD students are affirmations of humanity in the face of tragedy and disaster. This is described as ‘windows of utopia’ by author Rebecca Solnit in her case studies of people’s responses to disaster, A Paradise Built in Hell. She believes that crisis affords us a window of opportunity in which to glimpse utopia through people pulling together and creatively responding to challenge. For both the SVA and MSD students, their week together in New Zealand was an opportunity to keep that window of utopia open just a bit longer. It can be argued that Christchurch is the perfect place for a group like the MSD students to look through that window by visiting and learning about our resilience and unique responses to the earthquakes. 

These tragedies are clearly not events to be wished for, yet somehow they can bring out the best in us and provide common purpose. In seeing these inspiring young people facing different circumstances rise to the occasion, we glimpse who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become.

American-born Associate Professor Billy Osteen, of the University of Canterbury’s College of Education, Health & Human Development, is the director of the UC Community Engagement Hub and a trustee of the Student Volunteer Army.

For further information please contact:

Margaret Agnew, Senior External Relations Advisor, University of Canterbury
Phone: +64 3 369 3631 | Mobile: +64 275 030 168margaret.agnew@canterbury.ac.nz
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