‘25 Years, 25 more’ was the theme for Rainbow Youth’s quarter century birthday. The organization has had a huge impact on the community over the years, and it shows – they had to shift their celebration to a bigger venue.
I sat down with about half a dozen people who have been involved in RY over the years, to talk about how the organization has grown and changed, and how it has shaped them.
Each person I chatted to had been involved in the organization for different reasons, many of them came to Rainbow youth as young people, and found themselves volunteering and working as co-ordinators, facilitators, board members and/or staff. Rainbow Youth seems to have a way of attracting incredible members of the community and helping them to build and flex their leadership muscles.
Shaun Hawthorne was involved with the organization from the beginning. However back then it was known as Auckland Lesbian and Gay Youth (ALGY). At the end of March 1989 the idea for ALGY was floated during a gay and lesbian conference held in Auckland. Two weeks later Shaun found himself in the first ALGY meeting. Borne out of a need for an inclusive group of young people where gays and lesbians could come together in a safe space. “We had the capability to do it, with the support of [adults]” Says Shaun.
In those days ALGY looked very different to how it does today. Most of the meetings for the first few years were trying to figure out what we were there to do, as well as some social outings. Shaun became one of the two of the organisation’s first paid employees of ALGY.
A Time of Transition:
In 1995 ALGY became an incorporated society and was renamed Rainbow Youth. They had obtained offices in Youthline and followed them from Grafton to Ponsonby. By this stage it was connected to other youth organisations but mostly operated on a volunteer basis.
In the late 1990’s the board and staff worked to transform the organization into a more professional outfit. They created new groups, which still exist today, such as I.D. and G.Q, and began a new phase of their education package, which was mostly run by volunteers, but they still faced communication challenges. Ellie Lim, then women’s Co-ordinator reflects; “we had a computer and were just doing emails, but there was no social media, or way to publicise things… apart from picking up the phone, snail mail or faxing posters”.
From the late 90’s until 2005 Rainbow Youth changed offices almost half a dozen times; from Maidstone Street, to Mt. Eden (where it was to host a queer drop-in and emergency housing project that didn’t get off the ground), Pitt St, and finally at it’s current spot at 281 Karangahape Rd. The organization worked on their volunteer run education programme, added a few more social groups, including Gender Quest for gender questioning group, and added Transgender and Takataapui representation to the board.
Dancing to a new tune:
In 2009 Rainbow Youth underwent a restructure and established an Executive Director role, which was soon filled by Tom Hamilton. On Tom’s second day at work, before any of the other staff had been appointed, he opened the door to Tamati Coffey and Samantha Hitchcock, who confirmed that they wanted Rainbow Youth as their chosen charity for Dancing with the Stars.
Tamati and Samantha took out the show and provided Rainbow Youth with a sizeable donation that went towards a myriad of national based projects, including hosting NZ’s biggest youth led queer and trans hui. Toni Reid, who cites the win as a highlight of her time at Rainbow Youth reflects, “I remember thinking at the time how great the donation was, but even better that on mainstream TV someone from my community was enacting the words that “being GLBTFFIFABULOUS was ok”.
Rainbow Youth Today:
Today Rainbow Youth has a drop-in centre, as well as pop-ups, a well-respected peer run education and professional development programme, a large social media presence, and a number of staff and interns. They work hard on local projects and national ones. Duncan Matthews, the current General Manager, is especially proud of their ‘I’m Local’ project, which aims to get resources to rural young people.
Everyone I chatted to in researching this article talked to me about different challenges that existed over the years; from newspaper attacks to steep learning curves training new board members, communication problems and creating sustainable infrastructures. One challenge that popped up again and again was funding, and that’s the same challenge Duncan reiterates; “all of our funding is currently year-to-year/ad-hoc which means that it is very difficult to create long strategic growth.”
In a country where same-sex attracted young people are nearly four times more likely to attempt suicide, it’s not easy work, but it’s important.
Article | Sam Orchard.