Roots wide, kaupapa deep: Levi Walford

Ko Moumoukai te maunga
Ko Waitirohia te awa
Ko Takitimu te waka
Ko Ngāti Rākaipaaka te iwi
Ko Ngāti Kahungunu te iwi whānui
Ko Ngāti Rangi, ko Ngāi Te Rēhu ngā hapū
Ko Tāne-nui-ā-Rangi, ko Te Poho-o-te-Rēhu ngā marae
Nō Nuhaka ahau
Ko Levi Walford ahau

Ko wai au? Ko tipuna, ko tupuna, ko au.
Who am I? Those who have passed, those who are still here, are who I am.

My mum’s name is Moana and my dad’s name is Roddy. My step-dad’s name is Jason and he raised me for about 10 years of my life from a child to a young man. My sister is about 18 months younger than me — she's 22 — and we share the same parents. My younger brother is 10 years younger at 13 years of age and he's the child of my mum and Jason. I’ve then got 3 sisters who are 13, 15 and 17 from dad and have grown up in Australia. 


My parents split up when I was 6 and soon after that my dad moved to Aussie. I grew up in Mahora, Hastings and lived there until I finished school. My dad was a Mahora boy, born and bred, while my mum was brought up in Flaxmere. They both had challenging lives in their own ways. Dad grew up without a father in the hood of Mahora with a lot to prove and he worked hard to do that. He never said anything about it but mum told me how he was in a gang when he was younger — his tattoo on his arm being the only clue. He worked really hard as a small, skinny dude in the freezing works, going as hard as the other men who were twice his size or bigger. He’s an amazing man who, as soon as we were born, worked to be the provider for the family and be a better dad than his ever was. He’s always seen it as his role to work hard and provide for the family as the man and the father.

My mum was brought up by my nan in Flaxmere, Hastings, and is the second oldest of four girls from her mum, with two siblings to a different mother. When my mum and her sisters were young, nan was really hard on them, though she isn’t really anymore. I remember being scared of her. She’d blast the youngest who was still at home and give her a hiding just for pulling the vacuum out too slowly, and she’d softened heaps by this point! She was just a strong, tough and independent woman who tried to make it so she ‘didn’t need no man’. She held a lot of pain, a lot of it coming from when she had her heart broken by my grandad. She was doing mechanics at the time which wasn’t common, and then also had her own business. It wasn’t legal, but she was brilliant at it, to the point where she was targeted, for her skill, gender and staunchness. She was incredibly tough on her daughters, teaching them how to do everything — run the business, cook, chop wood, clean the roof, think logically, fix the car, all that kind of stuff. She wanted her daughters to do everything instead of a man; she wanted them to be strong and independent, and they very much are. Even now she trusts her daughters, but doesn’t trust many men including her own moko’s (I got a growling on my birthday last year because I didn’t clean the mower thoroughly enough!).


To have such strong women around me is a huge privilege. My mum is so on-to-it and her awareness of the world, of life, of things happening around her even from when she was a child is amazing. She raised us really consciously of ourselves and of others. We didn’t have much of a grounding in Te Ao Māori at all, barely any of our whānau do. Nan lived a totally different life, but she was in the generation where their parents moved to the cities for work and raised their kids in English. Plus her raru with her whānau meant she left and made her own way from a young age. 

On dad’s side that grounding wasn’t there either and so they were quite involved with the Mob, further disconnecting from Te Ao Māori and building their identities in the gang culture. I’ve always known it was there, but never cared which was nice — it didn’t become a part of my identity. I’m extremely fortunate to have my dad who worked as hard as he could to provide for his whānau, and my mum who chose to raise my sister and I in a very conscious and empathetic way as we dived into this world.


When I first started school, I went to Mahora Primary School for my first year, but after that year I moved to Taikura Rudolf Steiner School in Hastings. It has a totally different philosophy from mainstream and even alternative schools; they are all about growing the child as a human being and a soul, not just a brain with information. My mum made that choice after I came home from school one day with a 50 page reading book for homework when I was five. It didn’t sit well with her because she saw me already falling through the cracks, even though I had a caring and good home. What hope was there for other kids who didn’t have that privilege? So she lost faith in the education system and we moved to Rudolf Steiner, which was totally different and a huge adventure.

Soon after I went to Rudolf Steiner, dad got patched for the Mob and when he did that, mum wasn’t comfortable with him sinking further into that life. I remember soon after how mum had to go and pick him up from town and take him to the hospital because he’d had his head split open doing his Mob business stuff. They grew apart and so they split up. Dad moved back to the hood, became a bit less reliable and absent, and I remember him coming to school to pick us up sometimes and how awkward he was. We were worlds apart. He soon moved over to Australia to follow the money so he could keep providing for his whānau, by then that was all he really knew and was good at; working 60-80 hour weeks.

I definitely missed him. It was quite a big thing for me that I rarely reflect on, but I remember that I wanted my dad who would take us out to the river with our cousins, or throw the ball around on the road, or go on adventures, not be in the Mob or overseas. Once he left, my connection to the hood and my mates and cousins just dwindled — my mum and then my step-dad Jason were just stay-at-home people who didn’t really do the whole social thing. Jason did give me a lot, teaching me about empathy, selflessness, humility, strength and all of the gentle, caring traits of a good and internally strong man. He was also strong externally, but that wasn’t a big deal; he was a good man known for his big heart and I learnt what it meant to be a man from him. At the end of the day, I missed the adventure, experiences and community that came with dad and I’m still trying to find it for myself and now my brother.


At Rudolf Steiner, we had a class of around 30 and we stayed together through the whole 12 years of school, staying with the same teacher until high-school. The Steiner motto is ‘Receive the child in reverence, educate them in love, let them go forth in freedom’, and that is so who they are and what they do. They educate in a way that is just full of depth. Maths wasn’t just numbers, it was an adventure and an art and a puzzle. Learning about the world, religions, explorers, music, cultures, farming, building — it definitely amazes me how much beauty is lost to our kids in mainstream schools for the sake of ‘achieving’. 

As I go through life now, I’m continually realising how fortunate I am to have gone to a school that grew a child, not a standard, not a test, not a mathematician, or employee. Just growing people into themselves. Meeting others who share the same whakaaro, I really think there’s hope to grow our kids in a positive and whole way.


In saying that, I definitely still had my challenges at school. There were a lot of times I wanted to drop out and just work like dad, supplying for the whānau. I always held onto his words to me ‘better you than me’ whenever I said I was still at school. I didn’t really know how to do school work, how to be motivated, how to care about the actual work in school or why I was at school; I gave a good few teachers hell alright... 

I also had darker spots where I just wanted to go drinking and hanging with mates and the cuzzies and all that stuff, but because mum brought us up away from that, away from the hood, I just didn’t know how to. The main crisis for me was just knowing I wasn’t hori, but I wasn’t Pākehā either, so where did fit?


Being at a nice school that was alternative, there were a whole lot of hippies, Europeans, wordly people and a lot of well off people, but all very very cool people too. I just wasn’t them. I wasn’t hippie enough to be into the things they were into like gardening and climbing trees, but I also wasn’t rich enough to do all the skiing activities, holidaying and travelling, but then also wasn’t hori enough to go into the hood and hang out there, especially after dad left. It was just lonely. So I played video games or read books, but never quite got to be a part of a village or a community. I felt like I was between two different worlds and it was challenging! It was interesting as well, but challenging trying to find where I fit. I’m also just not sure whether it was my situation, or whether it was just me ‘cause I'm a different kinda cookie.


With my dad’s whānau, they were a big part of the Mob’s history and so naturally, a lot of them didn’t do the whole education thing. One of my uncles though, he'd stayed out of the gangs, finished school, gone to uni and come back to work for the Council. Out of a family of hundreds, he’s one of a handful with a degree. One time we saw each other and were talking as I was coming up to my last year of school and he convinced me to put my name forward for the youth council. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but he pulled me in and there were all of these excellence students there from different schools with leadership positions and I remember constantly thinking, “I shouldn’t be here.”


There were two others from my school and my class — they were at the top of the class, brilliant minds. One is doing vet science now which is insanely competitive and the other travels the world going to UN conferences and speaking on world forums. Then there was me, a Mahora boy who couldn’t stand school and didn’t know why he was there. It was amazing though; I got right into it and went to everything I possibly could.

While on the youth council, there was a hui that a wahine I’m now mates with, Nikki, set-up for the youth councils of the East Coast to come together for a wānanga. At the time my ultimate dream was to work for the United Nations to try and save the world. My mum had always drilled it into me that I was ‘going to change the world’, my teachers at school used to push me to go to uni, all of those little things. But as far as I was concerned, that dream was only a dream, it was untouchable and impossible. Then the speaker at the wānanga, a man named Marcus, shared his story in what was one of the most pivotal moments of my life. When Marcus spoke as a Māori boy from the middle of nowhere who wasn’t supposed to finish school, yet went on to work for the UN, I felt as though the universe opened up before my eyes. It was like seeing the glass ceiling that always stopped me from reaching was completely shattered; for the first time I felt like I could spread my wings.


In my last year there was a lot of pushing from my mum and teachers. Because of them I got right through school and graduated; biggest achievement of my life that was, and probably one of my only ones. When I think about big achievements or successes in my life, that’s one of the only things that comes to mind.

Near to the last year of school, I became good mates with a dude in my class, a real on-to-it, good dude and he said I should go down to uni with him and flat together in Wellington. Next thing I know, I’m applying for uni. It was huge! It was such a big thing for me — mum, dad and my stepdad all hadn’t finished school. I remember the moment I applied, I was freaking out and going into the backyard and thinking, “what the hell have I just done?!” I went and told mum and the whānau and I just remember looking at them thinking, “you guys have no idea how big this is.” It was the first time in my life that I really reached out to something I didn’t think was a possibility and realised the glass ceiling wasn’t actually there stopping me.


I got accepted into uni and was just buzzing. My mate didn’t end up going down, so I had to apply for one of the halls of residence real last minute and got accepted. Dad agreed to help pay for part of it and mum was supportive, making it all happen. I was so thankful for my parents. I don’t think I would’ve gone if they didn’t make that happen, I didn’t know enough about the world or how to function in it.


That first year of uni was really formative, it was my year to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be. Living in the halls away from home, I went out to town a lot, went to parties, met and talked to lots of different people, and just saw what was out there. 

Second year had a really different theme to it. I hadn’t done any community work in first year and so, without planning it, that was what second year became about — contributing, travelling around communities, running and supporting youth-focused kaupapa and just volunteering heaps.


Third year solidified that. I became way more settled and worked real hard like dad, but I became kind of empty inside, working the 60 to 80+ hour weeks like he did — I don’t know how he did it, there was no life in it, no room to breathe or live, no vision or purpose, it was just making money. I only ended up doing one paper at uni for the year because I just focussed on work, but it got to the point where I thought, “Nah, I’m meant for more than this.” So I stopped those hours, got off that mahi and started trying to explore “What am I doing? Where am I going? What am I up to?”


During my last year in Wellies I did a lot more learning and engagement around community building and social enterprise. I looked into two ventures — one around easing the process of partnership between charities and communities with businesses. The other was around growing co-working spaces within the regions, creating a network of people around the country who are doing amazing things. For me, those were to act as lighthouses of hope that smash the glass ceiling and support and grow our people into visionaries, do-ers and creatives, supporting each other in our communities and around the country. It was awesome, I met amazing people doing amazing things who all saw a better world for our people and it taught me a lot about who I was and who I needed to be, all while being in this place that let me feel free and supported. Trying to build this in Wellies became the real challenge though because if I wanted to do this for my own community of Hastings, I needed to be back there.

The idea of moving back was hard. Every time I’d gone home it’d felt like the glass ceiling was back on — suddenly I was limited again and I couldn't walk down the street without being eyed up, or thinking “this place isn’t going anywhere”. But that was something I needed to face. So despite it being a hard step, at the start of 2017, I moved.


As soon as I was back, I was back. I just got straight into it, trying to figure out what the community needed, what was missing, what was going on, what was there to be done and where I could best contribute. I'm still trying to figure it out and understand where I fit in; that’s probably the biggest challenge, answering the question of, ‘what do I have to contribute?’ I still don't really understand it, but I’m really really thankful to be on this journey; for me it’s the most important thing.


My biggest dream isn't working for the UN anymore. My dream is to see humanity as a whole, building a culture where we are continually growing ourselves to be the best that we can be, no longer being destructive to ourselves and each other.

Too often, our normal ways of being are destructive or unhealthy — we run each other down, hold low expectations of each other, attack each other’s weaknesses, segregate and alienate each other, fear and control difference instead of celebrating it, limit ourselves and unknowingly limit our kids. That needs to change. We, as human beings, are inherently amazing — we are special, special creatures. So I would like to see our consciousness raised to that point where we live out our lives empowering and uplifting, not limiting or undermining. That's my ultimate; to see us flourish.


I dream that my community, Hastings, is a place that produces talented people, grows potential, and nurtures everyone to do be able to do great things — not just grow great kai; that's not quite good enough. I want to see Kahungunu, our iwi, be like an iwi — not an entity, a club you register for, or a handful of people you ask for money. I want us to be a community, a people. For my whānau, I want those who are disconnected from Te Ao Māori to be comfortable and understand for themselves what it means to be Māori and not awkward in it, but have it as something positive. Seeing my cousins navigating between the hori life and the Pākehā life, I feel for them and am finally beginning to understand for myself that it’s a privilege. Being Māori means we can fit between the two and take the best from each.


The last one for now, is that I want to be the best version of myself, in order to best support, serve and empower others in my community, in my iwi, in my hapū and in my whānau. I’ve had amazing support from amazing people all through my life. I’ve had opportunities constantly come about because various people have believed in me in some way or another. I’ve been allowed into places of privilege, met up-there people, and been able to experience, learn and feel things that countless kids will never get the chance to. Instead of having a child, I had a graduation. Instead of going to the pad, I went to uni. Instead of going on the benefit, I went on a plane. Instead of working in the mines, I worked at Trade Me. Instead of receiving a hi-vis jacket, I'm receiving my degree. I owe that to the people who’ve supported me and I owe it to the people who should be supported.

My travels haven’t stopped at Napier or Central Hawkes Bay, I’ve gone all around the country to sit with communities and learn as they share who they are. When I reflect on all of that and what my parents came from, I just appreciate the support that I’ve had. Dad used to discourage me from being at school, but mum made me stay. Mum didn’t mind me stopping uni, but dad made me finish. The dude at the bakery who told me I should be out exploring the world; the bro saying I should go work in Europe with him; the teachers who came in on the holidays so I could do my work last minute. That’s why I want to help others, because while I’ve seen so many cuzzies fall into the hole and stop growing or reaching, I can still see how they could be rocking this world with how amazing they are.


I once had a friend from Australia ask about what it means to be a man for Māori; at the time I told him that we’re still trying to figure that out. Being a Māori male brings heaps of assumptions and connotations. Over time we grew staunch and violent — instead of protecting our values and our people, our men became violent towards their whānau and lost in drugs. Purpose was lost, values were lost, ways of life were lost, and what was found was a strength that they had to figure out how to use. I heard from old writings from early colonisers around how our Māori men would look after our kids, how the kids could speak as the adults were in wānanga, about how the children were identified for their strengths and nurtured. I think about the whakatauki that tells how it’s the job of the child to ‘smash the calabash’, or it’s their job to make mistakes. That’s the mana tāne that I want to put in front of our kids, because our kids in the hood still see the gangs as their fathers, their teachers, their values and their purpose. That’s not all we are, we are professionals, athletes, businessmen, tradies, techies, scientists and above all, we are good men.

I know people do stupid stuff, but kinda like when I think about myself, I know I’m a good person regardless. I’ve got lessons to learn, but it’s all part of the journey. If you’re trying and you’re moving forward, that's enough. There’s a quote that says ‘do your best until you know better, then when you know better, do better.’ We just tend to have a culture where if you do your best and I don’t like it, you’re useless. That hurts, but the more we have our Mana Tāne step forward to look after, support and have the backs of those people who are trying, the more we are going to grow good Māori men.


I have tended to jump into a whole lot of kaupapa to tautoko but won't look after myself and will just keep jumping, never really reaching a destination to settle in; I just see a lot of cool things. Living from kaupapa to kaupapa, living in the moment, living for experiences is mean, but I’ve reached a point where it’s just become unsustainable as a lifestyle. Or unsustainable for the life I want to lead anyway.


The things I'm questioning at the moment is what service looks like and how can I care for myself within that. I wasn't really brought up with understandings of my strengths and understandings of what my worth is — the idea of self-worth is still foreign to me, but I'm getting there. One of the biggest learnings so far is that service isn't sacrifice, which is a hard one because it's something I always do; out of having a lack of self-worth, I value myself less and sacrifice more to give well to others and to empower their growth. But then there's the question of, if it's sacrificing self, is it still giving well? And who do you owe yourself to?

These are really important at the moment too. I hardly ever get home to see my whānau and my brother's going through his formative teenage years; he's going through his dark spots and his main male figure is hardly being a role model, so he looks to Youtube. Where am I in that? I'm out helping everyone else's kids, but not my brother, and so in doing service, what am I sacrificing? What am I willing to sacrifice and is that worth the cost it has to my own? I can definitely do better, so I’m just going to keep trying, grow where my passion is, strengthen where I’m needed, spread my roots and nurture my soil and the life around me.


Mauri ora,


Follow Levi on insta: @levi.walford