Late in my time in New Zealand, I was put in contact with Scott Gilmour who has led a youth organisation there for over 10 years. Originally an American programme, Scott successfully translated the model to New Zealand after observing it during time living in the US.
Scott’s programme is built around the iconic phrase ‘I have a dream’, forever associated with Martin Luther King and his work in championing civil rights. The young people selected onto the programme (known as ‘Dreamers’) use the notion of their ‘dream’ as the guiding motivator for their ongoing engagement with school and education. Alongside this narrative other programme elements such as mentoring, tutoring, and career exposure are used to ensure the Dreamers are supported throughout their time in school, in what is a considerable and long-term support programme. Scott indicated that this long-term support and long-term narrative was vital in maintaining the Dreamers progress,
‘We started working with these kids when they were 8 years old. They’re now 19 years old. Every year brings new challenges, but the message of the programme is consistent. And many of the kids have taken until fairly recently to really wake up to the great opportunity they’ve been given – but that’s the reality of the developing child/young adult’.
The striking approach of the project is that individual students are not selected. Instead, the support and opportunity is offered to a whole class of primary school students – and continues until the end of their teenage years. Scott also felt that although there are of course stark differences between the US and New Zealand, there were some important aspects that were in fact very similar, reinforcing the need and suitability for such a programme to his native country,
‘We are clearly based on a US model, and that seems to fit very well in in NZ: (1) Both countries are dealing with deprived / disaffected indigenous and immigrant populations; (2) Both of these groups are growing faster than the (current) majority (white) population; (3) The issues of poverty and educational underachievement are consistent; (4) They are also multi-faceted and multi-generational, so you need to invest for a generation to overcome them; (5) Our project in Auckland has enjoyed successful outcomes for the kids, similar to the experience in the US.’
This raises two critical points for policymakers and governments in relation to how they prioritise such work. Firstly, what are the countries that are most suitable for comparison, and how do we decide this? Is it appropriate to compare ideas (or outcomes) from starkly different environments or only comparable ones? Secondly, if long-term interventions are so vital in dealing with our most marginalised groups, how can these be increasingly developed and sustained? Due to their scale and duration there will always be a significant cost; and in addition delivering longer-term projects in a rapidly changing world must by association be more problematic.
I also asked Scott for his own thoughts on ambitions given the clear connection between this project’s focus and the ‘I have a dream’ narrative of his own programme,
‘Actually, I don’t agree with people that have a “life plan” or a set of goals. I guess I’m aware of general directions that I wish to travel in, but I’m also aware that many paths open up as you travel along, and you need to be flexible enough to go through those doors if they’re of interest.
For example, I ended up living in the US for 15 years, and no intention of doing so. Once I was there for a while, I assumed I wasn’t returning to NZ …. until an opportunity arose to do so …! So, my 56 year old self has little useful advice for my 16 year old self, sorry ….!‘
I found this to be a fascinating response as I had (wrongly) assumed that Scott would be very much a goal-driven person due to the nature of his programme. It reminded me of my earlier article on whether goal setting was a good thing at all. I was keen then to hear Scott’s perspective on the use of goals and the implications for his young people. Was the important outcome for his Dreamers not that they necessarily reach their original dream, but that in trying to move towards it they learn more about themselves and thus are in a better position to equip themselves in the future, regardless if their goals shift and change?
‘Absolutely. It’s important to look forward and think about what you want to study, what field you want to work in (actually, a better term is what your vocation might be), where you to travel and/or live, etc. But I guess the key is to realise that everybody has multiple skills and attributes. For example, we all (mostly!) like music and sport and drama, but it may be as a spectator, as an amateur, or as a professional..’
This felt like a much clearer distinction, and reinforced a number of comments I have repeatedly heard throughout this trip – that its often about balancing a person’s interest; with individuals working out for themselves the extent to which a passion needs to become a 24/7 calling, or just one of many important elements in their daily lives. And that priorities change.
Scott has spoken widely about his work. You can see his TED talk here: