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NRL All Stars Indigenous Youth Voice Exchange

On Friday 10th February 2023, the day before the All Stars Indigenous NRL game kicked off in Rotorua, we led a Indigenous Youth Exchange for rangatahi Māori from Rotorua and Indigenous Australian youth, from the NRL Youth programme and Youth Leaders from the Uluru Statement from the Heart movement.

We had five working days from being asked, to delivering the event. Not our usual ideal circumstance because when it comes to our rangatahi they deserve the very best and to pull together an important conversation and experience in five days was never going to lead to the best experience for them. Luckily I was half wrong!

Despite some shaky comms and briefings to our team we just had to roll with our intuition and pull together a pilot event that can be built upon in the future. Lucky we aren't new to indigenous conversations (was that a humble brag? lol). Leaning in to our networks, the work we do everyday and our lifestyles we managed to pull off four hours of something that we hope has inspired the youth involved.

The NRL CEO was present to listen to the Youth Voices. Bookended with cultural ceremony we armed the youth with kōrero from an ex-Māori NRL player who has recently completed his Masters Thesis on Māori Culture in the NRL, followed by the learnings of GI (yes Greg Inglis!!) as an indigenous leader and legend of the game. We sprinkled in a panel of contributors including participant youth leaders, Womens Indigenous NRL legend and local League Coach and NZ Māori Rugby League rep Dad. We loaded the front end of the conversation to ease the youth into the part where they got to shine. We also ensured they only saw young faces, from the cultural ceremony to the MC magic, to the facilitation team - it was strategically, all our rangatahi!

The second half of the session was where the youth were broken into groups and asked to design initiatives that could enhance and support their indigeneity in the game and industry. Then they got the chance to tell Andrew Abdo - NRL CE what they wanted to see and where they wanted him to direct his investment and influence.

We ended the evening with Prof Megan Davis (fangirl moment) who is an academic activist for the rights of Indigenous mobs in Australia and who also happens to be the only indigenous NRL Commissioner. Her kōrero was amazing! Her presence at the event was an honour! The video she shared showcasing the Uluru Statement from the Heart was inspiring! This deserves its own post - aka Uluru Statement post coming soon!

Andrew then spoke to respond to the youth and seemed genuine in his willingness to do more - acknowledging and showing that he still has alot to learn, as does his staff and organisation. He wānanga anō tērā.

We then gifted a mauri stone for the kaupapa, and named it (the stone and the kaupapa) Te Rourou. E aii ki taua kōrero: nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou, ka ora ai te iwi! It was my cousins idea to bring the kaupapa to life through its own mauri stone, and to give the privilege and the responsibility to the NRL to carry on with this kaupapa alongside indigenous peoples. And it was the right idea!

It was another moment in our mahi where our ancient systems were required to help guide and carry this kaupapa forward. It didn't just happen in the moment; we had a wānanga beforehand to plan this whole kaupapa, despite the lack of prep time. Just another example of our practices guiding our lifestyles and our mahi - sit still, think deeply, wānanga, discuss thoroughly to find the answers - our practices and ways of being and thinking are relevant in any situation, and can be 'life-saving' in pressure situations!

We learnt many lessons in this experience, some good, some bad. It definitely didn't match our usual high standards of event delivery due to the lack of comms and prep time. It wasn't perfect, but it was still powerful! That in itself is a key lesson from this experience. A reminder that at times when we are not in full control, there is still an opportunity to create value and benefit for our people. This is our reality everyday living in colonial systems that we have not designed nor do we really control, most times, not even a little bit. One day we will not have to engage in colonial systems, but until then some of us have to grit down and continue to educate for change.

Local Rotorua rangatahi (20yrs+) led out the event, they were the faces, the facilitators, the leads, the MCs - the everything and it made me feel very old haha! But more importantly really proud, and I can't wait to see them grow into those roles.

Another lesson was that the youth (15yrs - 21yrs) needed their own space and time. They were being placed inside of an agenda that was not their own, and to be fair wasn't ours either.

The most valuable part for them seemed to be their own conversations with each other. They left wanting much more time together. A lesson for any subsequent Youth Exchange event. Let the youth have their own space, let them lead, let them learn, let them plan it, let them run it. It's their future, they should be the ones designing it! We curated the event to portray the value and the need for exactly that, hopefully next year they have the control they deserve. Btw the All Stars game was amazing!!

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