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Susan Wood interviews Volunteer Student Army founder

Sunday 21 July, 2013
Susan Wood interviews Volunteer Student Army founder Sam Johnson
Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TV ONE and one hour later on TV ONE plus 1. Repeated Sunday evening at 11:30pm. Streamed live at www.tvnz.co.nz   
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Q + A
SUSAN          So, what have you got that other people want, Sam?  Nice to have you in the studio.
SAM JOHNSON – 2012 Young New Zealander of the Year
Thanks for having me on.  It’s great, and it’s great to come on. I’ve just been in Fiji last week – lucky place to go for a conference on the way that the Pacific is preparing for disaster risk reduction, and that’s the area as a foundation I’m particularly focused on.
SUSAN          You’ve got really into it, haven’t you?  You mobilised a movement, a real force, an army, if you like.
SAM               Yeah.
SUSAN          How did you do that?  Because a lot of people try and fail.
SAM               Look, the Student Army was a— it’s incredible.  The response that students gave to Christchurch is phenomenal, and it only was thanks to a really strong team of people who all were able to bring their individual skills to something.  And we talk about it – Jason, my colleague, who now runs the foundation, and our wider team, just like young people right around New Zealand – all specialising in different areas, focusing on what they’re good at, being willing to be wrong, being willing to ask for help and fundamentally believing that change is possible, that you can look at things in a different way, no matter what level of society you’re on.  It’s our philosophy – the skill of the unskilled.  I sit at a lot of conferences, and I’m the only one without a PhD, but we say, ‘What about this idea?  What about this idea?  Where are we going?  Are we fundamentally doing things that are right and taking our country and world in a good direction?’
SUSAN          Do you think you’ve changed the way people in New Zealand look at young people – older people look at young people?
SAM               I think we have.  I’m really proud to know that the way the students responded has now completely changed the way we look at young people in New Zealand.  They’re not a vulnerable group of people who we need to look after and we need to care, like, ‘Oh, poor, poor students.’
SUSAN          Does it drive you crazy, that?  It drives me nuts.  I’ve got a couple of sons around your age, and they’re fantastic like you are, and it drives me nuts the whole stereotype of, you know, they’re all losers.
SAM               But we shattered that now, and I think what’s important is we’ve realised that, and that we realise that particularly— so disaster preparedness around the world – the last three years have cost a billion— over $100 billion.  And the increase in extreme weather events, increase in disasters – we’re realising the role that young people have to play.  And we know now that for every dollar we spend in preparedness, and particularly, I guess, on the back of Wellington having its shakes this morning and the last few days, you know, it’s changing.  We’ve got to be prepared for these disasters, and we’ve got to be prepared for people in all different positions to assume positions and actually assume leadership and take responsibility for what— the future they want to see.
SUSAN          You’re back at university now.  How’s that after what you’ve been doing for the past couple of years?
SAM               It’s good, actually.  I’m, yeah, back finishing my law degree.  It’s, sort of, nearly final semester.  It’s nice to be back.  It’s good just to have that debate again – the debate that we have at school.  At school – at uni.
SUSAN          At uni.
SAM               It’s cool to see the way that the university has responded to the student movement, like service learning has really come into the University of Canterbury.  And I think and I predict, and that’s what I hope, that UC will do exactly what Tulane University did in the States after Hurricane Katrina, and that means we— Tulane now has more applications to it than Harvard does because it’s a university that’s embedded in the community.  They take the students— when you learn, you’re actually learning how a community operates, how the economy operates.
SUSAN          So you’re talking about things, for example, the law students who go and help in the community, aren’t you?  You’re actually talking about— That’s fantastic.
SAM               And of all the different disciplines, why can’t— if you’re learning something, why aren’t you out there doing it and actually learning exactly how the world operates, how the community operates?  And that was the fun thing.  You know, Christchurch is still in a position that it’s hard there for a lot of people, but it’s also— the group of people that I am with every day through Volunteer Army Foundation, the Ministry of Awesome, we are— we love Christchurch, and you couldn’t pay us to move anywhere else, because of the innovation, the excitement.  You know, population numbers are up in Christchurch, and we are going to be a— it’s a strong place to be.
SUSAN          How are you going to keep this enthusiasm?  You know, if you could bottle it…?  I mean, it’s infectious.  I can feel it.  The panel are laughing.  They can feel it too.  How do you keep it, though?
SAM               I focus on doing things that I love.  I focus on surrounding myself with people much more intelligent than myself and people who can really make things happen, building strong teams.  I think that’s the philosophy we take in Christchurch.  We specialise in different areas with what we’re good at and focus on that.
SUSAN          So is there a future in politics for you, do you think?
SAM               I’m interested in change, interested in ideas.  Politics is one tool to do that.  I’m not sure yet whether in the front of politics is the right thing or behind the scenes or doing something overseas or a combination of all three, which is probably the answer.  So we’ll see what happens.
SUSAN          You turned down Lianne Dalziel as running mate for the mayoralty.  We hear a whisper that you might be up for the Christchurch East seat.  No?
SAM               No, I’m not, thank you, but thanks for the offer.
SUSAN          Great response.
SAM               Yeah, no, there’s whispers that go around.  And I think, you know, Christchurch elections – it’s going to be— it’s a real turning point for Christchurch.  These elections – we can thank Mayor Bob for the great job that he’s done in that council, and now it’s time jjfor someone new.  And some of those councillors, a lot of those senior staff I imagine will— may resign or head away.  It’s a good thing.  We need different people in there.  It’s a different role.  This council – it’s our opportunity to turn it round.  And I’ve had three years on a community board there – really lucky to serve on a community board, actually.  Great work that they do, but we need to shift it around.  We need those community boards to have a bit more power.  We need some different people on those boards with new ideas, and, actually—
SUSAN          How do you mobilise young people to get on?  I mean, you look at the boards – they’re all 60-plus and it’s blimmin’ dull, I must say.
SAM               Yeah.
SUSAN          But it’s important, so how do you mobilise young people to get involved?
SAM               I think it starts, say, with volunteering.  It starts with service – that actually getting out there and learning about how a community operates, learning about why a bus stop ended up outside your house or why if a tsunami comes across, like when we worked in Japan after the tsunamis, what you can do and why it matters to be prepared for change, prepared for a different circumstance, with extreme weather events on rise, with looking at this earthquake.  We live in a disaster-prone city.  How can we make sure we’re prepared for that, and who’s the biggest player in preparing, is locally.  How do you make sure we’re ready for what happens?  And I think, particularly, a story I love is what happened after the tsunami in Japan.  There was a group of students – high-school students – who took their primary-school kids – primary-school students – they didn’t obey their teachers and said, ‘We’re not high enough on this two-storey building,’ and they ran them up a hill.  And they disobeyed their teachers in Japan, which is a huge thing to do.  And it was a real signal and a real sign, the story, that, actually, young people’s thinking, our fresh ideas and just being able to think independently – critically – is so important for disasters and for the world as we move forward.
SUSAN          Right, you got me.  I bought it.  Good luck.
SAM               Thank you.
SUSAN          Lovely to talk to you, Sam Johnson.
SAM               You too.


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