Unpretty lives, Alison Gray

Trust: A True Story of Women and Gangs
Pip Desmond
Random House, $39.99,
ISBN 9781869792435

This is a brave book in a number of ways. The women who have contributed are brave. Their stories are not pretty; their present lives do not necessarily follow accepted social norms; not all of them are happy or safe, but they are alive in spite of everything and like the rest of us, they have dreams of a better life for their children. What sets them apart is their willingness to talk about the sad and ugly experiences that shaped their lives as young people, and in some cases, continue to do so.

Pip Desmond is also brave. She has gone back 30 years to revisit a time when she stepped out of her comfort zone into a world of physical and sexual violence, drugs and alcohol, racism and sexism to follow a youthful ideal. She was naive, innocent and passionate. She wanted to make a difference, and to her lasting credit, she did.

It’s a warts-and-all story and a piece of social history that only she could write. The Aroha Trust may have been small and relatively short-lived but it came at a time when government policy, however briefly, was concerned enough about Maori unemployment and gangs to offer creative work options, including accepting that women could run a work cooperative on their own and do what would once have been called “men’s work”. Even more remarkable, a few local authority and government officials were actually prepared to put the policy into action, although it is unlikely that any of those officials had any idea what the lives of the young women they employed were actually like.

It is depressing to read story after story of young Maori women growing up with physical and sexual abuse, including incest, loss of a parent or key family member, alcohol and drug abuse, alienation from their wider family and culture, disaffection with the education system and a complete lack of support from social services. They responded by running away, living on the streets, abusing alcohol and drugs themselves and, in many cases, finding a “home” of sorts in the gangs, where as often as not the abuse continued.

Desmond stepped into this scene when she returned to Wellington from Dunedin and joined an overcrowded flat in Newtown. Together with another equally youthful Pakeha colleague and a Black Power mama, she set up the Aroha Trust, found City Council and Education Board work, and for three years tried to manage an ever-changing group of lost young women, some as young as 15, who lurched from crisis to crisis, financially, legally, sexually and socially. Together she, Annie and the redoubtable Bubbles corralled and cajoled their reluctant workers, dealt with the aftermath of drug and alcohol abuse (while fully engaging in such activity themselves), found new homes when their old ones were demolished or firebombed, tried to make ends meet, stood up to the gangs and fought off predatory and abusive men.

While the women are the stars of this book, the men and the gangs are a black shadow lying across it. It is their behaviour and influence that leaves the most disturbing and lasting impression. The level of physical and sexual violence they inflicted on women, almost routinely, is appalling. The women in the Aroha Trust did their best to protect their members but with limited success. Thirty years later, despite growing public awareness of violence and official crackdowns on gangs, the latter continue to attract members and to treat women, children and each other with vicious disrespect. Perhaps it is true that as long as there are families and individuals who are alienated from their culture and community, poor and unsupported, the gangs will be able to recruit new members and the cycle will continue. It is a depressing thought.

Many of the women from the trust have since done well, gaining a sense of security and stability and, in some cases, academic qualifications beyond their imagining as teenagers. But it hasn’t been easy for any of them and questions remain about how much social attitudes to Maori and poor people have changed. A little, obviously, with the Maori renaissance but nowhere near enough. Maori are still over-represented in unemployment and crime statistics, and society still blames people for being poor and not coping.

This book isn’t always easy to read. It’s hard to keep individual stories in mind, and time frames are often unclear – surely all that couldn’t be crammed into three years – but in the end that doesn’t matter. The message is loud and clear. Everyone needs a strong and secure sense of identity and a safe place to stand.


Alison Gray is a Wellington social researcher. 


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Posted in Gender, History, Review
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