Pasifika youth joining gangs in search of identity

For an Otara-based South Auckland community worker joining a gang offered him a place "to belong and be accepted".

In the 1970s, Sully Paea was a member of one of Otara's first gangs, Stormtroopers. He says the search for identity and purpose is a major driver for Pasifika youth to join a gang.

"We’re looking for identity, we’re looking for ourselves, who am I, why am I here, what’s my purpose? and for us Pasifika we’re born in the islands came here and connected up with a completely different culture and in the midst of all that we’re trying to find ourselves."

​Massey University School of Psychology Associate Professor Julia Ioane agrees: "They’re all looking for somewhere to belong."

Ioane a Samoan clinical psychologist and lecturer in psychology says when they're disconnected from their family and education they look for like-minded peers.

"I remember a young boy that I worked with, his gang was made up with all boys who were raised in single parent families. For them they all connected to each other because no-one else understood what they were going through and they all did their offending behaviour together.

"So hence the why is they’re all looking for somewhere to belong. Let’s face it rocking up to a gang pad in the middle of the night hungry and seeking comfort, it’s going to be given to you. As a young child you’re going to keep going back because they find that security where ideally it needs to come from home and needs to come in a way that our culture has evolved.​"

Both Paea and Ioane believe to stop Pasifika youth from joining gangs a community-focused approach is required.

Ioane says: "Really genuinely engaging with our families and our community because who’s going to know best what’s going on and who’s going to know best what needs to happen is our community."​

Community connection in the past has proven to be a successful solution in reducing the number of Pasifika youth from joining gangs.

When Paea left his gang, he founded a youth organisation called Crosspower which aimed to engage with Otara youth. His programmes were credited for stopping a whole generation of Otara youth from joining gangs.​

"I wanted to do something that I wanted someone to do for me growing up. I wanted someone there but they weren’t there, so I decided I’m going to do that and step in and be that person.

"When we first started we basically just went out there and connected on the street. We weren’t stuck in the office, ticking boxes or writing reports – we were on the streets, we connected with youth and families, so we could understand the language on the street so that way we could pick up the issues of the street," says Paea.

However, Ioane says the issue needs to be tackled early on. 

"We have to get in there early, understanding the importance of those first 1000 days of a baby, understanding how important it is for the mother to have real positive physical, emotional, mental health support during that time because that’s the time the baby is developing and if we get it right building that foundation that’s going to help in terms of their development.

"These are things we used to do back in the islands, we used to see mothers getting together looking after the mother to be or the mother who just had a child, and working with her trying to make her as stress less as possible. We need to bring those interventions we used to use back home and evolve it so it fits here in Aotearoa."

She also adds the judgement within our wider Pasifika communities often doesn't help to.

Ioane says: "Within the justice sector what I see with our Pacific is when a young person is involved in youth court it’s just the parents supporting them, they haven’t told the wider family, they haven’t told the church, and I say this with respect to our Pasifika communities and churches we need to stop that air of judgement.

"That judgement where we don’t ask what offence they’ve engaged in, we ask we’re they’re from, who are their parents and then we start connecting the dots like that’s the child of so and so and that’s why they’re like that. That doesn’t help our children and our young people, and if they start hearing that story then how does that make them see themselves and that's when they go to a gang place where they are going to be accepted, it’s not rocket science."

Paea agrees, and says Pacific youth just need "some direction and someone to help them journey through some of their difficulties".


Photo source PMN News Caption: Left: Agnes Tupou, middle: Sully Paea & right: Julia Ioane discussing why young Pacific people are still joining gangs.