Social Issues

Self-love not just ‘fluffy’ nonsense

Brown and beautiful is not just a catch-phrase for Kendal Collins - it's one of her life mantras. As director of organisation Sisters United, she works with Pacific and Māori teenage girls on resiliency and self-confidence. Teuila Fuatai reports. 

With her turquoise-streaked bob and bright red lipstick, Kendal Collins wouldn’t look out of place on a hip hop dance set.

Perched on a purple couch at The Palace dance studio in Penrose, Collins - older sibling to internationally renowned choreographer Parris Goebel and graphic designer Narelle Ngaluafe - is the embodiment of the “Young Queens” slogan emblazoned on her t-shirt.

Speaking to Newsroom about the trio’s Sisters United organisation, the 32-year-old reflects on its success in the past year. The not-for-profit organisation, based at The Palace, runs programmes for Māori and Pacific teenage girls aimed at developing self-esteem, resilience and body positivity.

Its inception, while a collaboration between the three tight-knit sisters, was rooted in Collins nearly decade-long experience of being a social worker in Auckland high schools - including at Ōtāhuhu College.

“I had been a social worker in high schools for about the last nine years ... and was also running programmes for girls through other organisations,” she says.

“In doing those jobs, I saw the gap in the need in the community and schools for our Pacific and Māori women.” Collins, who describes her previous roles with schools and community organisations as “the referrer”, says programmes are often targeted at  students at either end of the spectrum.

Girls are either deemed “leadership” material and plucked for development programmes at year nine, or they are identified as “really, really naughty”, and enrolled in another type of programme.

Sisters United is for Pacific and Māori girls who may not fall into either of those categories, she says proudly.

“I’ve run too many programmes that are ‘just for the good girls’, or ‘just for the naughty girls'.

"I’ve seen that type of diversity in the group really helps,” Collins says.

At the moment, Sisters United works with about 90 girls across eight schools each term. It also has a core group of girls in its three-year programme. Predominantly, schools refer students to participate in programmes, however girls can also contact Sisters United directly and sign up.

Values like positive self-esteem are developed using a variety of activities and skills in different sessions. Importantly, the programme has been developed with an understanding of the role that social media has in young girls’ lives, Collins says.

“One of the big issues the girls have is that they only express themselves through social media. If we gave them different ways to express themselves, through dance, through more positive ways - music, spoken word, art, photography - maybe that would help them deal with different things and go through it in a more positive light, rather than just [using] social media.

“For example, one week will be photography. Through photography, they look at culture and identity,” Collins says. “They go out there and use a certain skill [photography] to showcase their understanding of that concept.

“For dance, that’s teaching them body confidence because a lot of the girls - they can’t even look in the mirror and see their full bodies. They might take a lot of selfies, but when you force them to stand in a big mirror, they don’t have the confidence to say ‘I’m beautiful’.

"We’re teaching them to feel comfortable with their body, get down on the ground, do moves that they’re usually not comfortable at doing and just feeling free with their body.”

Feedback from parents and schools, as well as changes in the girls, show how valuable Sisters United is - despite its naysayers.

“I think we don’t get a lot of funding because people think it’s a little bit fluffy: ‘Oh now they love themselves, wohoo’. It’s not big enough for them,” Collins says.

“But, if we can build their confidence and self-esteem, than that can build a little bit more resilience of getting through issues. We just want to instill a little bit of that in them.”

One success story passed on from a school involved a serially truant student.

“The social worker used to go [to her house] and try wake her up. The parents used to say - she’s not at school, she’s not waking up, she’s not listening to me,” she says.

Since the student started in the Sisters United programme, her attendance at school has been perfect.

“Girls are also starting to join groups that they never used to. Now, they’re in a positive [frame of mind] and auditioning for things. That might sound really little, but that’s really big for us. It’s just that little step of changing their mindset and build that little bit of confidence to try new things.”

And rest assured, “big issues” like suicide and depression come up, a lot, Collins says.

“A lot of our workshops give the girls the opportunity to speak up. They might not have had the opportunity beforehand. One might do a spoken word poem and they might share that they’re being abused, or that they’re bullied.

“We always tell them that if there is something that is shared today that we’re concerned about, we will also pass it on to the school where they have the support like social workers and counsellors.”

Demand is also higher than Sisters United has room for - with even Oranga Tamariki asking for spots. The organisation also has its annual conference next month, open to all girls that want to attend.

“We’re already being asked by different places in New Zealand to bring our programmes there, but we just can’t. It’s definitely a funding and resources issue - there's heaps of demand and referrals, but not enough staff or money,” Collins says realistically.

“Hopefully, we can spread our love - little bits here and there. But our home is here. I want to touch all the girls in Auckland before we move anywhere.”

For more information see the Sisters United website.

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