For nearly two decades, New Zealand’s Baha’is have promoted a discourse on race unity through an annual process that brings together high school students from across the country.
This year, the culmination of that process occurred in the shadow of the Christchurch terrorist attacks that shook this nation. Praised by the country’s prime minister, about 100 high school students gathered on Saturday to probe the critical issue of race unity.
Initiated by the Baha’i community and sponsored by the national police, the Human Rights Commission, and others, the Race Unity Speech Awards and Hui have provided a national platform for high school students to express their ideas of how the country can improve race relations. This year, 180 students gave speeches at regional events throughout the country, and the six best speakers were chosen to speak again at last week’s national gathering in Auckland. Accompanying those speeches was a daylong conference where scores of youth from around the country examined this critical issue.
“I would like to pass my warm wishes to everyone taking part in this year’s Race Unity Speech Awards and Hui,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wrote in a letter dated 7 May. “Over the past eighteen years, the Race Unity Speech Awards have provided young people with a space to deepen their understanding of race relations issues, and share their views on how we can all help to promote unity in Aoteaora.” [Read Prime Minister Ardern’s letter on news.bahai.org.]
The young people’s speeches brought to light insights about race and the oneness of humanity.
“Pigmentation should have nothing to do with how we treat one another. Unfortunately it does,” said David Faalau-Solia of Sacred Heart College in Auckland. “Now, some say God created different races and with that comes all these problems. However, God created one race, that is, the human race. Human beings created racism.”
Initially started as a speech contest for high school students, the gathering’s organizers in 2005 decided to include a conference to enrich the conversation about race unity among young participants. This year, organizers called the conference by its Maori word hui.
This year, in the aftermath of the March terrorist attack on two mosques in Christchurch, the national conversation about racial and religious prejudice has intensified.
“It shouldn’t take 50 lives for us to finally realize that racism still lives in New Zealand, and it shouldn’t take 50 lives for us to come together as one,” said Nina Gelashvili of Kuranui College in Wairarapa.
The speech awards and hui have had an especially timely impact, Prime Minister Ardern said. The event has received widespread coverage in the country’s news media. Also, the country’s Minister for Youth, Peeni Henare, and seven other Members of Parliament attended the gathering.
“I wish you all the best for this year’s Race Unity Speech Awards and Hui, and I am sure the event will inspire thoughtful, open and positive discussion. Allah-u-Abha,” Prime Minister Ardern concluded in her half-page message.
The day-long conference, held at the Te Mahurehure Marae in Auckland, focused on the theme of speaking for justice and working for unity.
“The hui is a unique space where you have mostly high school students but also Members of Parliament and leaders of significant NGOs in the country,” explained Tarn Austin, one of the organizers from the Baha’i community. “It’s a kind of space where there’s really a sense of connection between the youth and policymakers.”
In addition to small group conversations, the conference included a panel discussion. The speakers—writer Lynda Chanwai Earle, Maori lawyer and activist Kingi Snelgar, and community leader Mehpara Khan—reflected the country’s diversity. Each speaker complemented and built on the comments of the others, enriching the day’s thoughtful exploration of the concepts of justice and unity.
“Throughout the hui, participants repeatedly said that this is an incredible space where we interact with people who are different from us but have the same sense of purpose,” Mr. Austin said. “But people are also asking, ‘How can we bring this back to where we came from? How do we ensure that there is action that comes out of this and it’s not an isolated event?’”
The young participants left with concrete plans to contribute to race unity and societal harmony. They are also drafting a collective statement on race relations.
Organizers also held two regional conferences earlier this year: one in New Plymouth on 1 March and another in Wellington on 6 April, bringing together a total of about 60 participants.
Videos from the 19th annual speech awards can be found online.