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Meet the family: final thoughts with James Harris, Manager

If you’ve been around Zeal in any capacity over the past few years, you’d know James Harris. From West Auckland punk to Zeal Wellington Manager, his journey has taken him all over New Zealand chasing the dream of helping young people. As he prepares to move on to his next chapter in life, we had a yarn to him about DIY hardcore shows, Zeal culture and podcasts.

How did you first get involved with Zeal?

James: I grew up as a West Auckland kid, playing in punk / hardcore and metal bands. As a 15 year old my first band was ready to play our first show – but no one would book us. So as the DIY punks we were, we started booking our own shows and formed a little crew that put on shows in West Auckland.
I first got involved with Zeal as an 18 year when I heard that a venue for young people was opening. I got in touch via MySpace (shout-out to my friend Tom!), came in to Zeal West to talk about events and soon after started work. During my time with Zeal West I studied youth work, and it has been down the rabbit hole ever since then.

What was the best show you remember from your time at Zeal West?

James: It is too hard to pick one. I remember loving Zeal West as a venue but thinking that it was too big and didn’t have the same DIY feel as the shows we had run as teenagers. We decided we would try having a hardcore show in Zeal West’s small art room, and it was awesome. That led into a fortnightly hardcore in the art room show called ‘Mean As Thursday’s’.
The Art Room shows all blur into one – but they were my favourite by far. We built up a solid scene around the Art Room, which led to international acts playing there. The drummer of Trapped Under Ice from Baltimore, USA (who are a big deal in hardcore internationally), told me that this show in the Art Room was in the top 3 shows he has ever played around the world.

What brought you back to Zeal Wellington after being away for a while?

James: When I finished up with Zeal West in 2011, I had a feeling that I wasn’t quite done with Zeal. I had loved my three years as a youth worker and had so much respect for Zeal. At the same time, I had spent a bit of time in Wellington and really loved the city.
In mid-2014, my wife and I were both shoulder-tapped to apply for positions managing Zeal Wellington. It just seemed to make sense. Ultimately what brought us back was the values and culture of Zeal. It’s not often you have an organization that has a slick exterior operation but such a grassroots outworking.

What do you fill your time with outside of Zeal?

James: Jenna and I share our lives with 8 others in a big whānau home. There are 2 other couples, 3 teenagers and 1 young adult. This whānau is a huge part of how we fill our time. When not spending time with people at home or Zeal, I am a bit of a documentary and podcast nerd. I am a huge fan of AlJazeera’s documentaries and my top picks of podcasts from the past year have been Masters of Scale, The Liturgists and Revisionist History.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to get in to youth work?

1. Go all-in. Let the stories of young people break your heart. Let it cost you time, money and energy. As you pour yourself out for young people you will begin to not only see the lives of young people transform, but this process will refine you as well.
2. Go deep with your team. You are in the trenches together. Don’t have your guards up. If you let yourself, you will make best friends of the people you’re doing the mahi with.

3. Study youth work at Praxis if you get the chance. Even better, do a Zeal/Praxis internship! It is probably the best training and support you could receive to learn the ropes as a youth worker.

What are some great memories you have from your time at Zeal?

James: I think about the times I have seen young people come alive and find a sense of self-worth as they are surrounded by a supportive community and master a creative skill. One story that really sticks out to me is a young guy who found himself homeless but still managed to make the barista course every week.

What does your new role involve?

James: I am starting as the Community Engagement Manager at World Vision. In the role I will engage young adults with what is happening in the world and mobilise them to be a part of the change.

What are your hopes for Zeal moving forward?


James: Zeal has been so much more than a youth centre, or a music venue, or a creative space, (or an employer) to so many young people and staff alike; it has been whānau. I have seen the most unlikely lifelong friendships formed at Zeal. At Zeal we are family, and you can’t choose your family, so that means people who wouldn’t normally have interacted learn to love and support each other. If I could only have one hope, it would be that Zeal would never lose that sense of whānau.

Read more from Wellington:

Six young Wellington artists showed their creative works for the first exhibition at Zeal Wellington’s new Cuba St space, with photography, paintings, visual art and zines taking the center stage

“It’s been amazing to be in our own space after such a long time without one,” says Jenna. “We’re loving being in such a central part of the city, right on Cuba St. It’s a smaller space, but it’s still just as full of energy and creativity.”