With goals of bringing Auckland together, Mayoral candidate Efeso Collins talks with Craccum about being the first AUSA president of Pacific descent and how we can improve education and transport.
Lunch with Efeso Collins
Omni Arona Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Wai (he/him)
What was growing up in Auckland like for you?
I have really fond memories of growing up in Otara out South. I’m fortunate because I’m the youngest of six. I think my parents had worked out the system by the time I was born. I had really supportive family structures around me with older brothers and sisters. I felt really supported and loved because they always looked out for me. My memories of growing up in South Auckland are fond memories, we had cousins, and Uncles and Aunties, that stayed really close. So, if Mum and Dad let us, we’d crossed the road to their places. There were a lot of Samoan families on our street. Everyone was kind of family.
When I finished intermediate, my teacher said that he thought I was clever to my Mum, and I think when my Mum heard that she had a heart attack thinking: “oh i’ve never heard any of my kids being referred to as clever”. So, the teachers told us to apply for schools outside of Otara. I got turned down by a number of schools. The only school that accepted me was Auckland Grammar and I think it was a clerical mistake that they accepted. Maybe it was them [who wanted] me in the first 15, maybe they saw a bit of talent. I later found out that I got into one of the top four classes, not realising I was one of the highest Pacific boys. After a couple of weeks, I decided that I wanted to leave and it wasn’t for me. It was just a hard mix, catching the bus an hour away from home was all really new for me, because there weren’t many others in Otara on the same journey as me. So, I ended up finishing school at Tangaroa college and loved it. I was captain of the softball team. I got involved in the debating team, Student Council. There were so many opportunities to try different things.
I acknowledge that it was tough going. My Mum was a cleaner at Middlemore for years. Dad drove taxis and for a short time was a minister of one of our local Pentecostal Churches. So, there were real responsibilities on us as kids to be the good pastor’s kids, to be well behaved, and I swear we were the naughtiest kids. I mean, I was the most well behaved of all my family. I was the one that came out good! But you know, there are those expectations. There’s the Samoan expectation of what’s expected of Samoan kids in the church. And then just living up to the desires that our parents had for us… I was the first to go to university. Because one of us had to go, that was one of Mum and Dad’s dreams.
When your teacher told your Mum you were clever and that you should go to school outside of Otara, how did you feel about that? Did you think “what’s wrong with getting an education in Otara?”
It was a thought I had much later. We were just listening to our teachers. The Samoan way is that teachers have an authority over you. So, if they say do this, we follow instructions. And so we did. Later on when I wrote my thesis, I wrote about Brown flight. It was my critique of the Labour Party’s neoliberal structures. I think we’re still suffering from that today. That’s what I was clear on in my thesis. When it comes to education… I think we’re still suffering from those poor policy directives from what was nearly 40 years ago.
When I reflect on it now, I think yeah, what is wrong with a school in Otara? I married a teacher, and I look at her commitment to young people, to schools, to making sure everyone flourishes. And I think that we made major mistakes in that period. I think it’s now up to us as the children of that period to correct that imbalance.
Many Pacific kids, many Brown kids have grown up with the instilled notion that they are dumb or that they’re stupid. Can you tell me about your personal education journey and if that sentiment was something that you experienced?
That’s interesting, because I talk now about the teacher who said I was bright, but that was never said to me, that was told to my Mum.
In seventh form, we were doing some classes, and at the end of the year, we had about 15-16 people in our Year 13 cohort, so not many. And we went around the room, they said, “oh what do you want to be?” I said I wanted to be a lawyer and my teacher laughed, and she said, “oh you’re too dumb to be a lawyer”. And we all just laughed, the boys were cracking up. But that stuff really cuts, and especially when you’ve come from a cultural background that respects the words of your teachers and understands that they have an authority that we should be paying homage to. So, for many years after that, I actually thought I was dumb. And then later on, I became a youth worker, and 11 years after that incident, my supervisor said “I think somewhere along the line, you’ve believed you’re not good enough, you feel deficient, and not capable”… I’d actually interpreted [my teacher’s] words as meaning I’m dumb, and I’m not capable. I think that’s what many of our young people do. You don’t have to say it to someone, we walk into the classroom and research is really clear: young people know if you don’t believe in them. And as a person who’s a lecturer in Teacher Education, if we don’t practise teaching in a way that sets high expectations of young people then they’re going to know people don’t believe in them. And so they’ll act that out.
You and I are privileged in the sense that we both hold degrees and went to university. But the truth is, that’s an elite group of Pacific people. The rest, if we’re not willing to uplift [them], then they’re going to fail because all they’re doing is acting out the indirect and direct messages that they’re getting. I’ve been so committed to mentoring all my life, just because I realised that if someone doesn’t do it with young people—young men in particular—then we’re gonna act out exactly what the world tells us. That we are dumb. That we’re not good enough. And that manifests in things like ram raids, it comes out in domestic violence, it comes out in the relationship challenges we have. And all of that stuff leads to a future that’s abysmal aye.
When I finished my Master’s, I sat outside my professor’s office and a couple of my assignments were late. And he said, “If you don’t have those assignments before the exam, I’m going to fail you”. I worked like crazy to get my assignments in. We walked out and he threw the assignment at me. And he said, “only because it’s great quality, I’ve given you the mark you deserve”. And I looked at the marks, and I’d got As for these Philosophy assignments, and then just before he slammed the door shut on me, he said “you are capable of a PhD, but you’ve got to believe in yourself to do it”. And then he shut the door and I think he was so pissed off at me for not putting in the effort. But that was probably based on the fact that… why should I put in effort [if] I’m not gonna pass? So I was, what, 22 years old? I think that gives you an insight into how long that pain lasts.
i don’t know if you have heard of dream Fonotonga?. It was that program we ran at the university. I used to be the liaison officer. I said stuff that we were doing. We’re not doing it. It was an old mentoring programs. And when that became a new approach so Tuākana teina programs, that all stemmed from those of us who were there saying, are we going to change? Sp you don’t just go “oh Omni you’re bright, come and do a course” . You’re have to get in way earlier. So that’s what we were doing.
I want to ask you about the education system. Much of what we learn at school is based on Western history, in a system that wasn’t made by us. Do you think we need to move towards an education system that is more culturally responsive and believes in all young people?
The research is really clear in education that young people do much better with education or the system when what they’re learning is relevant. I learned heaps about Tsar Nicholas, about what was happening in the States and Russia and all of those movements, but I would have done better had I been learning about things in Samoa because it makes a direct connection to me. What we’ve got to do is shift the focus of the system towards the learner and their families, and really tailor education to young people.
We are learning within a system that has a curriculum which isn’t relevant to us. When you make it more relevant, you see greater achievement levels and higher success. We’ve got to make it more tailored to young people. We’ve got to have smaller classrooms. I think if you’ve got smaller classrooms, teachers can actually connect with you. Imagine if we did make Te Reo compulsory. Why not? I think being so far in the Pacific and the geographic isolation of New Zealand makes us think we don’t need other languages. Yet we are so close to the Pacific, we should have all the options available to us like Samoan, Cook Island, Maori, Niuen, Tokelauan. The research tells us again, that when you learn your heritage language, you actually do better. Linguist Ferdinand De Saussure said if you haven’t got your language, you haven’t got a culture. Our parents were told to speak English, we’ve lost the ability and the proficiency to speak our languages. I speak [Samoan] okay now, but it’s not at the level it should be. You know? I feel embarrassed. I’ll go into settings with Ministers and I’m texting my wife because she speaks Samoan better than me. We should pride ourselves on Te Reo, in Pacific languages. Another is that the system is designed for kids to go to university, only 30% of kids go to university. So, what are we doing for the other 70%? We got to change and deconstruct a system that hasn’t worked. So yeah bro, I got issues with the education system!
You were the first AUSA president of Pacific descent. You’re now running for Mayor; you would be the first Auckland Mayor of Pacific descent. You have a history of trailblazing these leadership positions. What was it like during that campaign to become AUSA’s president? Were you conscious of the fact that you were the first? Was it a big deal at the time?
I felt the weight of our people and their desire to see one of their own hold the role. It’s something that drives me today, the same way it drove me back then. Back then, when I was running for president, I had people come up and say “oh we don’t want a coconut leading the Students Association”. I look back on those discussions and I think we pushed through. And so yeah, those were tough days. But they were fun. I tell you, man, we had the weirdest, craziest campaigns. But it was great. You know, I had people who came from different walks of life in the campaign—[it’s the] same way we’re doing it now. Whether you’re queer, part of the rainbow community, whether you’re agnostic or atheist, I think there’s room for everyone in the same room. And we’ve got all of that in my campaign. I have people who were Greens, people who are National people, people who are Labour—I don’t care. What I care about is if we can find a way to talk with one another, and be robust and respectful. And yeah, I’ve had some really interesting incidents: I’ve had one or two comments about the colour of my skin. And I just think that we’re growing, we’re an evolving society. And if people still have issues with the colour of my skin, I can’t deal with that for them. But I hope that me standing for Office helps them to reflect.
More and more Māori and Pacific youth see tertiary education as a path for themselves and as the way forward. Do you think there is a new generation of our people that want to be more than what has come before them; that want to evolve from the factory floor positions that our parents and grandparents had to endure?
Yeah. Oh, absolutely. And I think there’s a real aspiration for us to take our people to the next level, and that’s pivotal. We’ve got to learn we come from a background that shares. Our hands are always open, and I’m weary of my generation in particular, who I think have worked out how the system works… [but] I’m abundant, a real sharer, I think we have to take people together with us. And so I think that’s part of my challenge to our own people. [If] you’re holding onto all of the results yourself then you are no different to the coloniser. Paulo Freire talks about how sometimes the oppressed are worse than the oppressor, because we take on all the oppressors, ideas, and ideals, and then we are even worse to our own. We’ve got to be careful that we don’t get there, and I’m all about how we share [and] about how we model leadership that is collaborative and inclusive.
So yeah, man, I look at young people like yourself and think look at how much better they’ll be than me. And I know that my generation have done a bit. And then you come with your generation and you add to that and I think the house, the waka, only gets better and faster and more complex as we add all that intergenerational knowledge. Because I’ve been a youth worker or youth mentor, there comes the time where my time is finished, and I can’t become the ceiling for others.
I’m only going for Mayor because if I give up the counsellor space, someone else comes in. And I’m not going in with some plan B. I’m throwing myself completely at this. If I don’t win, that’s life, man, I’ll have to find something else. But I think that’s our DNA, we are risk takers. And I don’t want to get in the way of someone else doing a better job as the counsellor for the poorest area in the city after the work I’ve done.
You have to share. We lean on you and your generation to take us to the next level and so I hope my bit counts, but we build together and then when I’m finished, now I come out and you run it. You’re younger, you’re fitter, you’re healthier, more handsome, and that’s all we’re gonna need. That’s how the system should be working.
No doubt people may have asked you about homelessness in the city. There is a lot of rhetoric around certain health and social issues, but not enough conversation about the social issues that lead to and underpin these issues, mental health, being in gangs. Do you think we need to move away from these sort of short-term solutions and start tackling the root cause of these problems?
Yes, absolutely. And the way we do it, is we have to rethink our structures. Politicians think [in] three-year cycles. That’s what shortens the thinking: what we need is long-term solutions. Homelessness is not something we’re going to solve overnight. And you’ve already talked about, you know, there’s mental health issues, there [are] challenging home-life issues and experiences that people have come from. The only way we’re going to support that is full wraparound services, full wraparound support. When that becomes the key to the conversation, then people will understand that we need to move into that area.
The other thing is we need to shift people’s psyche, and the nation’s psyche, because we think of it as “we threw $100 million at it, why isn’t this sorted out?” These are complex time-bound issues, they are going to take us a while to really grapple with. And so we can’t expect immediate solutions. We’ve got to slow down… no one wants to talk about poverty. That’s what I think drives a lot of this stuff. And no one wants to talk about home lives that are challenging, you know, maybe just one parent in the house, it’s tough. If it’s just you, Mum, and three or four kids or more than that; it’s tough… and we’ve got to be way more compassionate in our approach. And yeah we’ve got to make some tough decisions. But I think society needs to move in its psyche around how we work with families to achieve what we want to achieve. We can’t just say, Oh, well, we’re gonna sort it out. And that’s gone forever. You’ve got to understand that getting to those situations [has] taken years. Getting out of it is also going to unwind over years as well.
I read a report about Auckland having the third highest public transport costs in the world, I think that was three years ago. One of your key aims is to make that free. Making it free will surely allow students, and especially Pacifika, to put money towards other costs instead of transport, right?
If you look at the emissions reduction plan that the government’s put out, it says that we have to triple our use of public transport to get close to reaching our target of reducing our carbon emissions by 50% in the next eight years. And so I put out a policy on fare free public transport, because I think that’s one of the best ways to get people out of their cars and using the bus and the train.
We know that for the poorest families in our community, 30% of their income goes to transport. So, you take the cost away, all of a sudden, people might have a bit more for food, might have a bit more for their rent or for their other bills. So, I think fare-free public transport is gonna get people out of their cars. It allows us to decarbonise the city. And it means that people can move around quickly.
What we also have to do is make sure we’ve got good reach. So, if you live in parts of Manurewa, or Milwater, we know that the buses aren’t quite getting there. So, let’s get people on the bus. And then let’s make sure that buses go [where] you need them to go, not just to some circuit where no one is using them. I think public transport is the winner for Pacific people. We came here thinking that a car was the ultimate [transport but] if you look overseas, the wealthy travel by train or by bus, because we all know there’s no point sitting on the motorway for an hour just to get to work. And so I think that’s going to be a real game changer.
But we’ve got to get just as much investment from the crowd. I think the Council can only do what it can, but I love catching the bus. After this, I’m catching the train home. Yeah when I can scab a ride, I will… but look at what you can do on the bus, clear your emails, post on Instagram. You take away all of those costs, the cost of running the car, the cost of petrol, which is ultra expensive, cost of parking. Everyone’s better off. $1.2 billion a year [traffic] costs us in lost GDP. Because people are sitting in their cars for hours and that’s a boring life.
How has being the MP for Manukau informed the way you plan to operate if you were to become Mayor? I imagine that the community aspect of Manukau makes you want that sort of relationship with the whole of Auckland.
I want people to look at my time being the rep for Manukau and see the way I gave myself fully to the people of Manix—something that I’ll do no different in this role. I will give myself fully. The example I’ve drawn now is during Covid. When everyone was a bit unsure about getting vaccinations, the media came to me and asked what we’re gonna do. And I said, “you’ve got to vaccinate our people first. We’re at the borders. And you’ve got to send people—and stop just seeing people who can only speak English. I want people who speak Tongan, Punjabi, everything, out South. We’re the greatest risk.”
Down at the Ministry of Health, they were saying, “Oh, but we don’t understand why you’re doing it the way you’re doing it”. You can’t make your policies in some ivory tower and expect us to just waltz it out. We were behind the vaccination rates for ages, but the way in which we lifted our vaccination rates was amazing. I want others to look at who stood up for our community. I look back, and it was risky. I got lots of threats and people saying, “Oh, stop calling yourself a Christian”. All the churches were shutting their doors on me saying, “You’re just encouraging people to put poison in them”.
I use that example because I think I’m really glad that we took that risk. It was a calculated risk. Yeah we were shot down, but I think that made a huge difference out South and I want the people of Auckland to know that it’s that kind of advocacy they will get for this city if they vote for me. I love this city and I want people to know we can do this together here. I don’t think most see how amazing this part of a city is. I think we can build bridges. That’s where you make the connection.
Yeah, I’m South Auckland through and through. I’m all about equity and justice and making sure everyone gets what they should be getting, but also lifting what parts of Auckland haven’t. I think there [are] big things we can do for the CBD. [There are] some major issues we’ve got to deal with now and we’ll be working with everybody to suss those issues. But this is an opportunity to provide leadership that’s forward looking, that’s future-focused, and collaborative. I’ll always listen, I always want people to feel like whether you spend five minutes with me or an hour with me, you listen to what I had to say.