Youth Work

#YouthNotes: Chur, Zeal West

This is the first installment of a thing I’m calling #YouthNotes — my journey to learn about as many international youth communities as possible.
If you’re confused, read up here


For our first installment of #YouthNotes, allow me to skrrrrrt it back to the very beginning of our New Zealand jaunt — back when we were still planted in merry ol’ Auckland.

I’ll set the Auckland scene a bit, for folks watching back home:

  • Auckland is New Zealand’s city-est city, the biggest and most bustling metropolis, weighing in at a hearty 1.4 million humans. (That’s almost a third of NZ’s total 4.7 milly population.)
  • It’s also, I think, the most picked-on city in New Zealand. Having spoken to more Kiwis throughout the country, I can tell you that Auckland gets tons of flack for its bad traffic, its too-fast citizens, and, well, its city-ness. When younger generations leave their home Maori and Kiwi communities to seek work, they typically head for the westernized bustle of Auckland — so some folks see it as a place where tradition kind of goes to die.
  • It’s basically the business capital of the country; any major finance company you’d find in San Francisco or New York probably has an outpost here.  Also, there are more Polynesians in Auckland than anywhere in the world. Yep, more than Polynesia itself.
  • And Auckland is super spread out; when you say “Auckland,” you could mean downtown’s city center (the “CBD,” or commercial business district), or you could mean any of Auckland’s 50+ suburbs.


A somewhat apt capture of Auckland atop Mt. Eden: Bustling city life, but also, giant volcanic crater. There are 48 mo-freakin’ volcanos in Auckland, y’all.


Now, I’ll skrrt it even further back to around October 2017, when I was searching for youth orgs in international markets for work. I sent a totally random and fan-girly e-mail to Andrew and Elliot, two managers at Zeal, this incredible-sounding non-profit that serves “creative misfit” youth in Auckland. And, blessedly, they answered. Many impassioned Skype sessions occurred. I set my sights on bothering them forever.

Cut to present(-ish) day: Peter and I take a train out to Henderson, a way-west suburb of Auckland, and finally meet Elliot and Andrew face to face. They walked us through their sprawling youth center and patiently answered our thousand questions.

Zeal is an incredibly digitally-savvy non-profit, so most of their basics can be found on the Innanets — but here are the things we learned that day that stuck with us, maybe permanently:


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Slide 1: Elliot, Andrew and I nailing what Zeal calls “hard styles,” aka, serving up a steaming plate of DON’T MESS. I don’t do as well in the next slides.

Zeal is really about that creative misfit life.

It’s too easy to put some young creatives into artsy boxes: theater geeks, photog nerds, wannabe DJ’s, etc. What that ignores are the young folks who love their art, but don’t fit into the “scene” around them. Maybe the art scene at school is already taken over by people they just don’t identify with. Maybe their school doesn’t have an arts program at all. Maybe they don’t go to school. Part of Zeal’s goals, with their numerous youth worker-led art workshops, are for young people to claim and define their “scenes” independently. 

Not only does Zeal offer up well-equipped art studios, music labs, and mural creation spaces — they offer young people a place to install their art on the walls, outside of the boundaries of school. The impact of a young person seeing their art alive for the first time, not tacked up in a sterile school hall, but at a space like Zeal that they claimed for themselves? It could change a whole life.


Slide 2: Guys, I grew up in the ‘burbs. There is nothing hard about me I can’t DO THIS.

Zeal meets the young people where they’re at. Literally.

One of the most compelling things we learned about was Zeal’s street team of trained youth workers, who literally hit the streets. Their aim is to create a consistent, non-threatening presence at places in West Auckland where at-risk youth typically hang, like night markets and concerts. The goal is to eventually get them through Zeal’s door and, as mentioned, have them define and create a safe space for themselves — away from the influence of drugs, alcohol, gang activity; from the issues that come from idle minds with no parent figures around to engage, which is common in West Auckland.

And these street teams aren’t falsely buddying up to young people, butting in and evangelizing. They’re just there, as much as possible — a part of the scene. That way, young folks might walk by and say hey out of simple recognition. A conversation might start. An invitation might get thrown out about an event at Zeal. I found that to be an incredibly intrinsic and respectful way to weave support into existing youth culture — not to reach in and be a savior, but to simply offer up space.

Zeal takes the same approach with their revolutionary online crisis intervention, where youth workers trained in crisis intervention actively reach out to young people online who are posting about suicide. It isn’t that helicopter-adult voice of, you need help and we’re here to save you — it’s saying hi, acknowledging their expression of struggle, and offering space if they want to talk.

Success here is about showing young people respect; offering them control and empowerment where they might not have any. As Elliot and Andrew mentioned, many of their youth go through the foster system and their whole lives are decided for them. Supporting their young folks means letting them exercise their own agency. It’s meeting them where they’re at, which can be eons more powerful than treating young people in need like lost sheep.


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Slide 3: Happy To Eat & Nerd Out About Youth Programs smiles. This, I can do.


More next time, but one last tidbit: Elliot and Andrew kindly taught us a bit of Kiwi slang, so we wouldn’t be ignorant tourists forever. (But Elliot, Andrew; if I get this wrong, please berate me thoroughly via e-mail, ty.)

Chur is like a casual thanks; thanks for that nice thing you did, friend. Usually paired with broOh, you’re offering me a ride to the airport? Chur, bro. 

As is used almost like young America’s “af” — or like old American’s “as hell,” but chop off the “hell.” Went out for a surf yesterday — waves were sweet as. 

Mean is a good thing. Mean is dope. I made the mistake of thinking I was being rude to someone in Taupo when they kept repeating Mean! after everything I was saying. Turns out I just had a cool story. Mean as.

Till later, 


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