Waves from the green Tasman Sea lapped the black sand and rocky coast outside my windows. As I walked towards the carved wharenui, a traditional Māori meeting house with exotic carvings, I was struck by the differences between New Zealand and my Arkansas home. After two days of genuine conversation about community building, my perspective changed. I was fascinated by the similarities between Otaki, a small community on the shores of the Tasman Sea, and many rural Arkansas towns. We may be geographically oceans apart, but the desire to build and expand thriving rural communities transcended the distance. What did Māori communities in New Zealand teach me about rural communities in Arkansas? It turns out, quite a lot.
In Māori, a Hui is a gathering, a time for listening and learning together. In May, I participated in a Hui in the small town of Otaki, located on the western coast of the North Island of New Zealand. Otaki has gone through an enormous transformation over the past 42 years. This small village of under 6,000 residents rekindled a belief in itself and reversed declining trends in population and economic security, issues that are only too familiar to many living in rural Arkansas. I came away convinced what happened there could help our rural Arkansas communities create a similar transformation.
When the citizens of Otaki embarked on their community restoration and revival plan, they emphasized self-determination, economic independence, and cultural revitalization. They developed “Whakatupuranga Rua Mano: Generation 2000” in 1975, planning for the next 25 years. Over 40 years later, the fruits of their labor were abundantly clear in the vibrant community. Expecting change in the short-term would not have led to the sustainable community they created. The people of Otaki thought long-term and stayed committed to their vision.
As a funder, we often limit our funding to short periods–perhaps as long as three years, but rarely longer. Supporting long-term community change in rural Arkansas is going to require rethinking our funding horizons. I left New Zealand thinking, “How can we support similar tenacity in our work?”
The changes in Otaki were community led. They practiced deep listening and recognized everyone’s wisdom in order to form reciprocal partnerships. Otaki residents:n>
Committed to a series of guiding principles that reinforced the connections between all members of the community
Engaged with people, individually and collectively, to enhance the lives of all involved
Purposefully collaborated in a way that reflected generosity, fairness, respect, and consideration
When I travel around Arkansas meeting with communities, I am often intrigued by who is and isn’t present. I think back to my colleagues in Otaki and ask myself, “Were all residents invited?”, “Did I schedule my visit at a time that makes it difficult for everyone to attend?”, and “What unintentional barriers did my visit create?”
Otaki has a natural beauty, nestled near the shores of the Tasman Sea and rimmed by foothills of the Tararua range. Arkansas’s many rural places offer similar access to wilderness and outdoor pursuits. Interestingly, Otaki has not focused on tourism to revive its economy. They have focused on education–in particular ensuring that their children’s education is first class. The people of Otaki agree, “Our people are our wealth. Therefore, develop and retain them.” Community members, whether parents, grandparents, or non-parents, are all involved in making sure the education system works well from pre-k through post-secondary levels. This emphasis has created a town where families feel supported and young families are eager to stay instead of moving on.
Self-determination is an important principle of Otaki’s revitalization, but so is community-wide self-determination. Over a generation, the people of Otaki have come together with energy and enthusiasm to achieve shared goals. They celebrate distinctiveness, as institutions or individuals, while reveling in shared experiences, understanding, philosophies, and interests. Most importantly, they recognize achievements are typically the result of collaboration.
When rerouting a main highway onto a bypass threatened downtown retail, the town council conducted a study and realized that a surprising amount of revenue was coming from hunting and other recreational leisure activities. Instead of ignoring the future, Otaki invested in envisioning the future, studying trends, and developing a plan that embraced what could be.
Reflecting on my time at the Hui, I realize what I learned in Otaki is just as applicable to community change initiatives in Arkansas as it is in New Zealand. The desire for thriving communities is universal; it is just as evident in Dumas, Clarkesville, and Batesville as it is halfway around the world in Otaki. Do we also have the tenacity to develop an inclusive vision and stick with it for a generation? I am encouraged and hopeful.