Local Government Magazine

Sam Johnson – Looking for local heroes

Sam Johnson was the driving force behind the Student Volunteer Army during the Christchurch earthquakes. Back in town to launch the Community Guardians Project at this year’s LGNZ conference, he called on councils to play their part in a scheme that shifts control away from institutions and hands decision-making and actions back to local people. He spoke with Ruth Le Pla before the conference.

Local Government Magazine (LG): Why launch the Community Guardians project at the LGNZ conference?

Sam Johnson: The Community Guardians project is true to the ethos of what I’ve done with the Student Volunteer Army and am now doing at Mycare. [The online Mycare service connects carers with people needing some help.] Much of it is about local people doing what they want to do in their own area with a sense of permission and trust. I love local government and think it’s a great tool. I was on the Riccarton-Wigram community board in Christchurch. I just want to try and introduce the concept to the people at the conference.

LG: What is the Community Guardians project?

Sam: It’s a Student Volunteer Army project in partnership with maintenance and construction firm Citycare. The project aims to further the spirit that’s always evident after a disaster, but without the disaster. We mobilise and equip people to care for the places and spaces around them.

This year, for example, we have a primary school programme going out to 1000 classrooms and 33,000 primary school kids around the country to do a volunteer project in their local area.

These are usually in parks near schools. The kids do planting, painting, bird counts, clean-up projects. They go and visit retirement homes, they create little signs in a park where people don’t know where the path is. Little things. A lot of them work with local councils to do these things.

It’s based on the Student Army ethos of working with people you don’t know and learning new skills. It’s in partnership with the community. You’re learning project management skills and doing something that matters to the community around you.

The school project is a mobilisation part of the wider concept of Community Guardians.

Community Guardians bridge sustainability gap

When hundreds of volunteers come together to get their hands dirty and plant trees for a local community, it is an amazing achievement. But what happens after that?
Nige Cottingham is Citycare Group executive general manager – strategy, marketing and business development. He says it is crucial these efforts are sustained in the long run. That is why maintenance and construction organisation Citycare Group has joined forces with Sam Johnson and the Student Volunteer Army on the Community Guardians project.
The scheme intends to link thousands of local community members nationwide to a safe operational delivery model through Citycare and to ensure that local community volunteer projects are not just delivered but sustained for years to come.
Nige says the magic of Community Guardians lies in the nationwide shift towards more active engagement with local communities.
“Instead of traditional sponsorships where corporates hand out cash – we call it spray and pray – this is an entirely new concept. It’s all about facilitating true community partnerships.
“Citycare’s customers and partners are also able to use this model locally, regionally or nationally to work alongside their respective communities, so it’s a win-win all round.”
He says the project chimes well with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s vision of “a country where everyone is earning, learning, caring or volunteering because that’s the basis of strong communities”.
Nige says two events, both in Christchurch, have already been delivered since Sam launched the new scheme at the LGNZ conference in July.
“The first was a collaborative native tree planting day at Ouruhia Reserve, where a combination of students, schoolkids, and staff from Christchurch City Council (CCC) and Citycare planted 3300 native trees, shrubs and plants in just over three hours. There were 105 volunteers and 244 volunteer man-hours spent.”
This was part of the Ministry for Primary Industries’ initiative to plant 350,000 trees to commemorate soldiers that had served overseas – and part of the Government’s billion trees initiative.
Another event in Linwood saw a huge clean-up by volunteers at a cemetery, with graffiti removed and litter picked up.
Nige says the community spirit at these types of events is palpable. “From the face-painting, to the sausage sizzle, to the band playing at the end of a hard few hours volunteering, the whole event has a viral feel-good factor and that is exactly what we know we can capture wherever the community action project is.”
At the time of writing, a third event is locked in for August, planting coastal species around the Southshore Spit Reserve. Citycare has been running this annual event for several years.
“Returning to the same spot year on year and seeing the progress made is part of the stimulation for the Community Guardians idea,” says Nige. “It’s that notion of sustainable volunteering, as distinct from ducking in for a day and then leaving it until someone puts it on the rounds for another day of action.”
Nige says Citycare wants to discover the community guardians out there.
“You know the sort of people: the ones who lead community action groups, who have a passion for the environment and feel a genuine sense of responsibility for the community they live in.
“These are the people we are looking to empower with this programme. They are the eyes and ears after the happy helpers (like me) have put down their shovels and left feeling warm and fuzzy about the three to four hours they have just spent helping to address climate change.
“The real community guardians are the ones that keep a watchful eye on the trees that have been planted, on the waterways that have been cleaned. Every now and then they might reach out and ask for some more help from the happy helpers. And it doesn’t matter that it’s a whole new batch of people.”
Nige adds that Community Guardians has also been talking with The Southern Initiative (TSI) in Auckland.
“The ultimate goal for Community Guardians is to build in both education (awareness around issues such as native tree planting and waterway dangers) and vocational training – ultimately seeing volunteers receive ‘credits’ for their involvement.
“Couple this with TSI’s impressive movement around engaging a certain socio-demographic and trying to build community sustainability and / or back-to-work programmes. If we get the Community Guardians scheme right, we will be able to add real value and substance to some of their activities.
“The first project we have discussed is the idea of clearing an overgrown nine-acre plot between two Muslim state schools in Mangere, with a view to building community areas and a community garden that will notionally give back to the communities.”
Nige says his personal ambition for the whole programme is for 30,000-plus volunteer man-hours delivered by this time next year and the first two vocational training courses written and underway. “With Sam at the helm, I’m confident we’ll treble my ambition by December.”

We use Mycare as the tool to deliver the wider concept behind Community Guardians. The idea is that instead of just the people from Citycare going along to try and look after the trees in the local park, for example, in every park and every street around New Zealand there is someone – a retiree, a young person – who would love the job of helping look after those trees or weeding or being a steward for that area.

Sometimes they can do that voluntarily and sometimes you can pay them to do it. We’re introducing a new model of allowing the community to look after the areas around it, in partnership with experts like Citycare.

LG: You’ve been working with Citycare along these lines for a while. Does Community Guardians formalise that relationship?

Sam: It’s the next step. At Mycare we’re really good at mobilising people who want to help. We’re not good at doing the health and safety, the traffic management plan, and figuring out what to do and how to do it.

So, the partnership with Citycare brings together people in the community and experts to work on projects and interface with councils.

The government’s Billion Trees Campaign is a perfect example. We can mobilise people to grow seedlings, plant trees and look after them on a large scale.

LG: Are there some projects that you would say no to?

Sam: We wouldn’t work on anything requiring technical expertise or anything hazardous or dangerous. And we are really careful that we’re not exploiting volunteers to do for free what a paid contractor does. We’re interested in leveraging. If Citycare has a contract, we’re interested in helping shift the way they deliver it.

LG: What are the criteria for selection?

Sam: This example will probably answer your question. There’s a guy who mows a section of the red zone in Christchurch every couple of weeks. He doesn’t need to, but he does it. It gives him a sense of purpose, he really likes doing it, it’s his old neighbourhood. He’s a great example of a community guardian. He’s doing something locally and it’s a public service. Community guardians will help take care of some of the costs such as paying for the fuel for his lawnmower.

LG: It sounds like you have a similar ethos to the IOBY [In Our Own Backyards] initiative in the US.

Sam: Exactly. The Student Volunteer Army has been very good at sending large numbers of people to do something once. We’re not very good at engaging. That’s what the Community Guardians partnership is about. We sign up 3000 members to the Student Army every year and we do 10 projects throughout the year. But many of those students would love to do something on a more sustained and ongoing basis.

Similarly, at Mycare we’ve signed up 1500 people around the country who are interested in part-time home help work. They all join our site and click ‘I want to volunteer’ too. So, just like after the earthquakes, we have to create new types of volunteer work and give people the permission to do something. Let’s do a community garden. Let’s do up a run-down dilapidated council area and bring it back to life.

LG: How can councils get involved and what’s their role in this?

Sam: We want councils to partner with us to help identify projects that we can do. Or identify people who are already doing things that we can support.

There’s a big shift happening right now away from institutions and back to individual choice and control about neighbourhoods and social connection. I see that all the time in my work in healthcare. But I think the same trend applies to local government: people want more control and more sense of agency over the way they do things.

We’re coming to the end of being told ‘this is how it’s done and this is the way it’s happening to you’. In the future of work, people will have different expectations that are not institutional. Trust is shifting. In medieval times, trust was local. Then we put all our trust into institutions, governments, churches, councils. Now it’s swinging back the other way.

To maintain their social licence to operate, councils have to start working in an empowering way. Empowerment is not consultation. It’s about helping solve social and community-based issues with funding.

Community Guardians project, Ouruhia.

LG: You’re talking about localism which is a very interesting theme in local government right now.

Sam: Here’s a concrete example. We’re doing a project right now in Ouruhia Domain in Christchurch. There’s about $35,000 to plant 3000 trees, then monitor and look after them for five years. We proposed to contract a team of locals to look after that area, do the weeding, do the things they’d like to do, with professional supervision from Citycare who can oversee what happens.

Or think about how busy the traffic is in Auckland and a storm is on the way. At the moment, somebody in a truck with a sweeper has to go around and clear the drains or read the water meters.

Why aren’t we contracting a local person who, for $20 every week, reads the water meter and sweeps the drains? For $20, that person – maybe a retiree – or we work a lot with people with mental health challenges – would feel so empowered. It would give them a role, a purpose, in their local community. But you can’t do that under an institution.

Where do we get to a point where people can decide what they want to do at a hyper-local level?

We see this spirit of community after every single disaster: the Edgecumbe floods, the big land slide in Roxburgh last year, the Christchurch earthquakes, the Thailand cave disaster. Whatever it is, people react in the exact same way. They want to help. And institutions do the same thing each time. They tell people, ‘we’re in charge, we know what to do, you stay home’.

I get quite opinionated because I’ve seen the same thing happening after so many disasters around the world. In times of crisis, our institutions are not good at supporting people to do what they naturally do.

Next steps for councils

Want to get involved? For more information go to:
Or email hello@volunteerarmy.org

So, we need to focus on non-crisis times and set people up with the confidence, the sense of permission and agency, to be able to take action. We saw this happening after the Edgecumbe floods: people were getting involved in their local decision-making. And it works.

Having been a community board member – and a frustrated one at that – I think it works for people in the council too.

My message to councils is that they don’t have to do everything. Maybe they don’t have to create a programme of work internally. Maybe volunteers can do some things. Councils can have such a big impact by giving people a sense of permission to do things.

Tell them, ‘yeah, if you want to look after that area of the park, why don’t you do it? Great. There are just a few rules: don’t create us long-term costs and don’t hurt yourself.’ 

This is an abridged version of an interview with Sam Johnson.

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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