With just two weeks to go to election day, Kassie Hartendorp is hopeful that a community driven campaign borrowed from the US will get more young people to vote.
I was a 14-year-old teen punk in ripped jeans and a velvet blazer adorned with badges of my favourite bands, when I first properly met my birth parents. My aunty took me to a lofty Wellington house which had defied the local winds despite all odds.
I was greeted first by the thick smell of decades-old cigarettes, and then by the two strangers who I was told were my biological parents.
I didn’t know what to say. Do I call them by their first names? Should I hug them? The only small comfort was that we were all as awkward as each other — our nervous silence broken only by my bustling aunty laying out raspberry buns from the crinkly packaging on the off-cream kitchen bench.
It is a surreal moment when you realise you’re staring into the eyes of the people who made you, yet haven’t known you — and when you look at the very house that you were taken from, and superimpose your baby self in front of the peeling wallpaper and the threadbare curtains letting in the soft sunlight.
I was born in the late 1980s, to a Māori mum and Pākehā dad. I was told my parents met in a halfway house drying up from hard drugs. My mum had been in mental health facilities since she was 19, after being diagnosed with drug-induced schizophrenia.
After she gave birth, she suffered severe post-natal depression and couldn’t cope with parenting. Then, after she threatened to harm me, the police took me away. I was placed in the care of my aunties until their kind next-door neighbours adopted me.
Being an adoptee gives you some strange superpowers. I am a lived-experience expert in the nature versus nurture debate and I’m comfortable with being the odd one out at any social occasion because that’s normal family life for me. It also means I have some insight into two very different lives: the one I was born into, and the one that I was raised in. Like looking through 3-D glasses, the unique hue of two separate lenses pops out a fuller picture of the world.
Perhaps this was why I was drawn to activism. My daily work at ActionStation is supporting people who don’t have the power — the money, connections, or resources — to influence the issues they care about. It could be a hapū fighting for their land back, or young people calling for climate action. Despite their strengths — their relationships, whakapapa, skills and creativity — they don’t have the political power to create a better existence for their families and communities.
No matter the kaupapa, our work is a constant crash course in power — who has it, and who doesn’t.
Most people don’t have the power to press a green button and change the decisions that affect their lives. We don’t have a say in how much a block of cheese costs, how long we sit in a hospital waiting room, or whether our bus will show up on time. The doors that are open to us are often unlocked by someone else at the top of an unseen ladder, or with a comfortable bank account, a lack of melanin and friends in the right places.
If you’re at rock bottom, not even on the lowest rung of that unseen ladder, it feels near impossible to hoist yourself back up again. Perhaps you might hear the echo of a television ad telling you that election time has rolled around again, and you can pick which Chris you’d like to make decisions on your behalf, but it means nothing to you.
At the last election, I asked my birth mum if she was planning to vote. She shrugged her shoulders and screwed up her face. “Oh nah, probably not.” Her non-answer said enough: “Why bother?”
What my 3-D glasses tell me is that people like my mum were, by system design, never meant to express their power. Even in the smallest of ways — just marking a piece of paper and putting that in a cardboard box once every three years. Women like us weren’t meant to vote, let alone be leaders or decision-makers. We were intended to be the quiet collateral of colonisation — too lost, traumatised or locked-up to have the belief or the means to have a say in the decisions being made about our own lives in the very country we descend from.
And that’s exactly why we should express our power.
This month, our team at ActionStation launched a Triple The Vote campaign. We got the idea from our US sister organisation who used it to get Trump out of office in 2020. It simply asks people to talk to three friends or whānau members about why this election is important, and to ask them to vote. Then to follow them up to make sure they do it. It works because people trust their friends and loved ones rather than random people knocking on their doors.
So far, the response has been huge. Young people, in particular, have taken up the call and they’re spreading the idea far and wide. It makes sense because many of us feel powerless in the face of skyrocketing prices, unlimited corporate profit, a horrific rental market, and a burning planet.
It’s hard to see how the piece of paper in the cardboard box will make a difference — and that’s reflected in the stats which show that 38 percent of people aged 18-24 aren’t enrolled to vote this election, compared to 0.3 percent of people over 70.
Yet vote tripling has been giving us hope. We don’t need lots of money, time, or rich benefactors — which none of us have anyway. We just need three friends who care about looking after our people and Papatūānuku. By flexing that one small muscle, we triple our power. If enough of us get flexing, we could change the path of our country.
And if there was ever a time to flex that power among Māori, that time is now. We’re looking into the eyes of a racist, right-wing coalition that will happily relegate us to rock bottom, while blaming us for “race-based division”. After years of cultural revitalisation, powerful men with a chip on their suited shoulders will do whatever they can to press the red button on tino rangatiratanga — whether that’s by disestablishing the Māori Health Authority or calling Te Tiriti o Waitangi into question by referendum.
If anyone asks my opinion on our country’s future, I simply tell them that Māori are unstoppable. We’ve known what it’s like to be on the brink of survival, and we’ll never allow ourselves to return there. The arc of justice certainly bends towards us, even if it’s just by our sheer determination.
But how long it takes until our aspirations are truly realised is still up for debate. The 3-D glasses offer a sharp picture that the people with the keys won’t just unlock the doors on their own. They need the women like my birth mum to remind them of what’s lost at the bottom of the ladder. The life, the dreams, the potential of everyone who is locked into poverty.
Just for a second, imagine with me, a wave of our loved ones expressing the power we have this election and tripling it. Imagine that the energy is hopeful and contagious and that it surges against that ladder, toppling it over, so that it becomes a bridge that we can all walk across. On the other side, the doors burst open, and everything beautiful belongs to all of us! The ladder is gone, the cheese is ours, the waiting rooms are cleared, the babies are safe, and together we’ve created an Aotearoa that looks after all of us.
Kassie Hartendorp (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Pareraukawa, Ngāti Korokī) is the director of community campaigning organisation ActionStation. She was trained in the union movement and studied at Te Wānanga o Raukawa in Ahunga Tikanga (Māori Laws and Philosophy). Since then she’s been involved with social justice movements for Te Tiriti justice, LGBTQI+ rights, anti-racism and workers’ rights.
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