Laura O’Connell Rapira has links to Te Āti Awa in Taranki and Ngāpuhi in Tai Tokerau. She spoke with Jenny Rankine about her path from high school hip hop to RockEnrol and digital activist organisation ActionStation.
Laura was an only child but never felt like one, because she had 16 aunts and uncles. She spent her first three years in Māngere, and moved to New Plymouth where she shared a room with cousins until she was seven.
“Then mum and dad broke up and we moved to Laingholm in West Auckland. We bought the cheapest house in a mostly White middle-class area”. Laura went to Laingholm Primary and Green Bay High School.
“I started hanging out with kids linked with the Crips, but I chose to be Bloods and wore all red, to be different. I stopped putting much effort into academic success and started smoking weed and wagging. I was looking for music that better represented me and was heavily influenced by American hip hop. We all copied Black people in the US.”
Then two things happened that changed her direction. “I went to Phat06 in Takaka, my first ever music festival and saw Shapeshifter and the Black Seeds – that was the first time I heard New Zealand rappers and hip hop. I thought I wanted to be a hippie rather than a gangster.”
At 16, Laura also became a peer sexuality support person at her school. “That was the first time I met a trans person, and someone who identified as takatāpui; it opened up my world. I started putting a name to things I’d been feeling but not thinking too much about.”
She took her first step into organisational politics when she became the student rep on the school board of trustees for the year. Because she enjoyed the music festival so much, she did a one-year diploma in event management at the Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand in Auckland and took off overseas.
“I wanted to work on the best festivals so I moved to Bristol in the UK, because there were 10 festivals each summer in the south-west of England. I managed to get a job as volunteer co-ordinator at Glastonbury, and that grew into doing the same job at other festivals over the summers.”
“You try to build a tight-knit group out of the regular festival volunteers, plus the ones who are there only for that event. Glastonbury attracts 60,000 people – it’s the size of a small city and takes half an hour to walk from one side to the other.”
In winter she worked in a charity fundraising call centre that raised money for a group of advocacy and non-profit groups.
After three years, she moved to Canada, living in Vancouver and working at a retail shop, a handful of music festivals, as well as an unpaid internship in marine conservation education with the Vancouver Aquarium.
“One of my jobs was to travel in an educational van, with sea cucumbers, sea stars and other marine creatures, to the interior of British Columbia visiting 14 schools. Some were indigenous schools, and a lot of rural kids hadn’t seen the ocean. That was mind-blowing – the ocean was a big part of growing up for me.”
Laura returned to Aotearoa in 2013. “I was impatient to do something to make the world a better place.” She signed up to the first Live the Dream 10-week programme for young social entrepreneurs.
“My social enterprise proposal was Our Place events, creating interesting and unique parties in natural environments where all the profits go to an environmental charity.”
“I ran a few, but it’s very hard to make money from events; it takes lots of work to make $1,000. It felt like I was putting my energy into privileged people who were offsetting a bit of guilt.”
Laura found out about ActionStation while she was on the social enterprise programme. She decided the social entrepreneurship model was not the only answer and became interested in movement entrepreneurship.
“I heard someone was starting a New Zealand version of MoveOn, which had been going in the USA for 20 years, inspiring GetUp! in Australia, Campact in Germany, LeadNow in Canada and 38 Degrees in the UK.” Thirty-eight degrees is the tipping point for avalanches.
“Those were the five organisations following a model of political campaigning that is multi-issued, grassroots, digitally facilitated and responds rapidly. I sent ActionStation campaign ideas until they hired me.”
During elections in the UK and Canada, Laura had noticed that “none of the young artists and creatives believed that parliamentary politics would make a difference, so none of them voted.”
With an election looming in 2014, she co-founded non-partisan organisation RockEnrol to change this. She and a group of flatmates and friends, pictured in 2014, organised six events featuring Kiwi musicians, and volunteers around the country organised another 36. To attend, people had to be registered to vote.
“Young people provided their name, email and phone number, and we partnered with the Council of Trade Unions whose youth members called those 3,000 people before the election and encouraged them to vote. The prevailing media story was that young people don’t vote. The main thing RockEnrol did was put forward an alternative narrative – that young people do care and are voting.”
Independent polls found that the proportion of 18 to 30-year-olds who voted in 2014 increased by 3.4 percent.
“RockEnrol took off quickly and Marianne Elliott (then ActionStation director) saw it was important for me to see it through. She let me spend my 24 hours at ActionStation to work full-time on RockEnrol, which paid me and my best friend.”
“RockEnrol has never been registered as an entity; I didn’t intend it to go on. But in 2017, RockEnrol was approached by 20 volunteers and a crowd-funding campaign plus two donors rasied $10,000. We hired a campaign manager – India Logan-Riley, a young Māori woman – with that money.” Laura is “thinking of bringing RockEnrol under the ActionStation umbrella as a youth-focused arm.”
Laura became campaign manager then director of ActionStation, describing the organisation as “lean and agile with very low overheads, responding to the needs of the time and operating more like a start-up than an NGO.” It now employs six people who make up 4.5 full-time equivalents.
“In the beginning we didn’t have people to lead our direction, so we launched rapid petitions in response to issues that would attract people who valued our vision”; the website summarises this as “a society, economy and democracy that serves us – everyday people and the planet we love”.
“The moment it switched was the petition to save Campbell Live”. While the petition was unsuccessful it gained 75,000 signatures, and “we found that people loved the programme for different reasons, and they were mostly people who cared about a range of issues.”
AS now has 182,000 supporters. “We’re not prioritising growth now – we want people to take deeper and more impactful actions on more challenging issues.” Laura is the only Māori on the paid staff; however, “ten percent of the membership have whakapapa Māori, and our goal is an overrepresentation of Māori”.
Laura says she hasn’t pushed AS in any direction alone – “we have a tight-knit team and a flat way of operating with high input in campaign meetings. On an average week, we start with a 90-minute meeting discussing our campaigns, and on Friday we spend an hour discussing how it went day by day. We build consensus and work together.”
“The four issues we’re working on were voted for by members. We’re about to start campaigning to end sexual violence in New Zealand. The second is cleaning up rivers, which includes asserting Māori ownership of fresh water. The third is working on the impact of digital monopolies on our democracy; and the fourth is bold steps to make our tax system fairer.”
Laura is leading the anti-sexual violence and water campaigns, and a fifth area – “supporting Māori, Pasifika and other communities of colour to advocate on issues of racial justice, which is more community organising and less digital mobilisation.”
AS is working with local groups in five regions, which “thanks to Don Brash and Hobson’s Pledge, will vote in referenda about whether or not Māori wards should be abolished. We’ll be supporting local groups to keep them.”
AS is also supporting a campaign to stop the Waikeria Prison being built 30km north of Otorohanga, aimed at being the largest in the country. “New Zealand has locked up indigenous people at a rate higher than any other country in the world – we’re starting with Māori and taking it wider from there. A third example is supporting Renae Maihi’s petition to revoke Bob Jones’ knighthood for his racist comments about Māori.”
In 2017, Laura expressed her disappointment in an article for Spinoff with a Māori Party news release criticising Labour for legalising same-sex marriage. Before the election, AS created scorecards ranking party policies on 12 topics, including improving the lives of queer New Zealanders.
Laura says she doesn’t “hang out in queer or takatāpui spaces, and hasn’t followed queer politics”. In researching the scorecard, AS spoke with Rainbow Youth, InsideOUT and read reports by No Pride in Prisons (now People against Prisons Aotearoa). She sees a major issue as the need for schools “to be safe for young queer and trans kids”, and for training for teachers “on everything from pronouns to sexuality”, and having consent and healthy relationships in the curriculum. She sees a similar need in the health system.
She wants lesbians and other queer women to know that ActionStation “has a community campaign page where people can launch their own petition-based campaign, with a full-time staff member to help them take that from a petition to policy change. We want to support queer and trans people in efforts to make change.”
“From my limited perspective, never having provided LGBT services or campaigned specifically for LGBT rights, for those of us who grew up disconnected from hapū and marae our biggest battle is unlearning a lot of internalised ideas that aren’t true about the patriarchal nature of Māori society. I’m learning that those ideas came with colonisation.”
Laura came out to her friends at 17 – “I was sure by then. I was sexually experimental in the UK, mostly seeking boys and not girls. Four years ago, when I started the relationship I’m in now, I told my parents: ‘I’m in a relationship with a woman and I’d like you to meet her.’ They said ‘Cool that’s great’ – it was very uneventful.”
Laura tends to prefer queer to describe herself; “I find it more inclusive. I’ve also used takatāpui, mostly to make a point to the Māori Party. I also say lesbian, but I’m not sure it’s totally honest, because I have been attracted to men.”
Laura is learning te reo, “and trying to connect with my marae up north”. She dreams big, working for a world where “everyone has access to food, safe water, shelter, income, education and a life free from violence”. Many people share this vision, but not everyone works so intensely for it.
Sculptor and visual artist Sarah Baird is currently organising the art exhibition for Dunedin Pride, and building an A2 book of 300 posters for a show in 2019. She spoke with Jenny Rankine.
Body positivity has been an inspiration and stimulus for Sarah’s art during her Bachelor of Visual Arts and Master of Fine Arts at the Dunedin School of Art. She collected mannequins from her early 20s, “but I started hating them because they have really unrealistic body shapes, trying to sell clothes to the majority.”
“So I stopped collecting and started making my own versions in 2013. I added fat to the limbs of factory mannequins by gluing on chunks of polystyrene, carving into it and blending it in.” She left one unrealistic leg and made the other bigger.
In her honours year, she made four mannequins from scratch, cast from volunteers. For each limb I took a cast from a different person, a total of 24 people.”
“Up close you can tell they’re a little different. I installed them standing around a pile of women’s magazines; one’s holding a petrol can and one a lighter. That’s when my work started to get a lot more political.”
Sarah took the Bertha mannequin from that series, and made the Bertha Revolution work for her Masters project. It included 300 small ceramic Bertha figures with a 3m Bertha statue towering over them, surrounded on the walls by 300 multi-coloured misogynist, anti-lesbian, anti-trans and victim-blaming statements about women.
These are the posters she is making into a thick book, which she hopes to exhibit in a group show with other feminist sculpture artists.
Re-Configure, a feminist group exhibition she was part of in 2017, is going on tour and the book may be part of that. The original exhibition revisited Judy Chicago’s ground-breaking Woman House of 47 years ago, which tackled feminist issues and the lack of gallery representation for female artists.
“Gallery representation is heavily weighted towards men although women make up a large majority of art students. I tend to stay away from dealer galleries because they don’t show work I identify with.”
“I get the impression they don’t want to cause controversy with political art. Sculpture, especially life-size and larger work, is harder to shift than nice paintings for the wall.”
“The Gorilla Girls in the USA in the 80s found that artworks by men sell for higher prices than those by women, and that’s still the case.” She follows the US-based Gallery Tally on Tumblr, which represents the proportion of male and female artists shown by a range of public and dealer galleries in clever posters, including some social media stats. The 2015 poster on the left is by Ana Vincenti.
Despite the lack of women’s group shows, the Re-Configure artists are submitting proposals to galleries in other centres.
Sarah expects social attitudes to women’s bodies to continue to stimulate her artwork. “I used to follow the body positivity movement, where no matter what size you are you’re fine. The focus should be away from appearance, and it’s not anyone’s business what your health is. I do feel that women’s bodies should be left alone.”
She notes the correlation between how women’s bodies are represented and how they are controlled, “for example through the abortion laws – we get it from all angles. It’s hard not to internalise it.”
Like other emerging artists, Sarah struggles to make art while working fulltime. “Only a minority of artists I know are able to make a living. Most artists have a day job to pay the bills, because the income from art isn’t consistent.”
Sarah describes herself “as queer/lesbian; sometimes I think lesbian is quite a political term and I find the word queer a lot more open. But I want to keep hold of the word lesbian; some older lesbians feel the term is being erased by queer and gay.”
“I didn’t need to come out officially – in my early 20s I told a couple of friends and they already knew. I was bullied through high school for being gay despite not telling anyone, and that made me not want to come out. At a girls’ high school, lesbian was the worst thing you could be. Dunedin Pride has a support groups for Rainbow teenagers – that would have been great.”
“There were no role models of lesbians anywhere, although I have a gay uncle and in my family it was always accepted. I don’t remember seeing the Topp Twins then, there were no out lesbian teachers at my high school, and other students abused them behind their backs if they were rumoured to be gay.”
Sarah was out at art school and “had no trouble”. She is also out at her factory, which “has a homophobic culture but is not personally directed at me. Gay is common as a derogatory term. People at work really liked the Rainbow Youth ad, but older people there continued to use gay derogatorily.”
Sarah’s goal is “to make a living off my artwork. I shied away from drawing at art school, and used drawing machines to produce the posters. I want to get into drawing a lot more. A lot of the information from the US is a goldmine to make art about.”