Helping youth in South East Asia – Social Innovator Chris Henderson

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 13 July 2015

Chris Henderson at post-quake High Street Christchurch CBD
Chris Henderson at post-quake High Street Christchurch, CBD

The organisation I ended up working for looks at how animation and comic books can be an educational resource, particularly for children, to make them more aware of child trafficking but also paedophilia as it exists in the tourist form – quite predominantly in the Philippines.

– Chris Henderson, Cognition Education.

Christchurch is the venue for a social innovation hui sponsored by the Asia New Zealand Foundation, to recognise leaders in social innovation. One such leader is Chris Henderson, an education consultant based in Christchurch working for Cognition Education, an Auckland-based education consultancy offering policy, professional development, educational and youth development in over 20 countries worldwide. 

Social innovation can be described as a broad creative process of problem solving for society. Social innovation can be applied to NGO (not for profit) but also private and public sectors.

I'm meeting Chris at the hui, already abuzz with activity. But we're doing a runner. At lunch break we're jumping into his car to drive to the centre of post-quake Christchurch. Chris is taking me for a drive into the heart of the city – High Street to be precise.

On the way Chris tells me his relationship with Asia began when he was just 18. Chris describes himself as a North Shore (Auckland) boy at the time, with rugby mad parents and a very white upbringing. When he realised that his dreams of becoming an All Black were not meant to be, his far-sighted geography teacher suggested that he take a scholarship to do his final year of high school in Malaysia. It was a year that profoundly changed Chris's life.

His year in Malaysia was spent living in a rural town with a conservative Muslim family. He went to the local school, learned the language and volunteered in the community. Chris laughingly tells me that it was the best culture shock of his life. He arrived as a "white boy" with no idea. He quickly learned to love the family and the community.

Do you go back to visit? "Every year," Chris answers, "they're my second family. these days I go back with my wife and children."

He has also worked for a Danish NGO in the Philippines, attended UN conferences, and co-lead a UNESCO youth disaster leadership project following the Christchurch earthquakes. I ask him about the Philippines.

“In 2007 to 2008 my American wife was working in midwifery for an NGO based in Mindoro in the Philippines. We took our two children with us. I was lucky enough to get work with the Danish NGO as an education consultant with a child protection agency, based in Manilla.

Child protection? Must have been challenging?

"We worked in that education space – looking at how resources could help these communities and children. My Philippine colleagues also looked at the “rescue” of young kids who had been caught up in the prison system – arrested on the streets for very low level crimes but completely forgotten by the judicial system and often in adult prisons in the same cells as murderers and rapists.”

How old were these children? “Between the ages of 6 and 14.”

“What I got out of the Philippines experience is that even in the most desperate situations you had to be creative and you had to find solutions where there potentially were none – working with so little but trying to create so much. I learned so much from my Philippine colleagues; emotionally, culturally and practically. How do you create life changing work for people when you’ve got no access to social services or access to education, health and so forth?”

Chris tells me that Cognition Education began in 1989 as an organisation that provided reliable transport and payroll support to schools so that schools could focus on providing quality education. Over the years, they expanded into other fields of education and 2006, became Cognition Education Limited, offering a wider range support in all areas of education.

Cognition Education has grown continuously here and across the globe driven by a desire to make positive change in all areas of learning. Products and services range from early childhood education to post-secondary and vocational education. Cognition now has global partnerships all around the world in education with public and private sector clients in Australasia, the Pacific, South East Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America. These days Chris's official title is: Project Leader/Consultant, Cognition Consulting.

Chris has a background in international development and a focus on informal education, youth development, and social entrepreneurship. More recently his work has also focused on the role of teachers and young people in supporting disaster resilience and recovery practices. Chris has designed and facilitated youth orientated workshops for UNICEF and UNESCO.

During his time at Cognition, Chris developed expertise in corporate social responsibility (CSR). He has been involved in the design, implementation and management of CSR projects throughout Southeast Asia, especially in emerging economies.

We've arrived at High Street, we park up and walk across the intersection. It's symbolic for Chris who survived both earthquakes which led to his UNESCO youth disaster leadership programme. Chris has bought me to this spot on purpose.

Chris Henderson in Christchurch

High Street is full of visual irony. A community garden and bike workshop sit centrepiece; between the pristine C-1 Café and the rubble of post-quake apartments looking like war torn Gaza. For Chris the shocking contrast symbolises what has been and where Christchurch can go for its rebuild, with community engagement.

Chris was a secondary teacher at Aranui High School at the time of both quakes. He and friend Sam Johnson from the Volunteer Army were concerned that the youth of Christchurch had no voice in the forums looking at the rebuild of the city. Then a friend working for an NGO in Fiji suggested Chris take 7 Pacifika students from Aranui high School to a UNESCO programme in Fiji. It was here the idea for the UNESCO Youth Disaster Leadership Project was born.

Six months after the quake, Chris co-led the project that saw Christchurch host 100 international students, survivors from disasters all around the world, from countries like Japan, Indonesia and Pakistan.  The UNESCO project saw the students conduct forums and participate in community based rebuilding projects.

From here Chris began working with Cognition Education. The Axiata Young Leaders Programme came next in Malaysia. Learning centres were built in very isolated rural communities to help youth get access to high quality education but also to democracy in education and participation in community development.

Chris Henderson at Asia NZ Foundation Leaders Event Christchurch

His project challenged these rural schools, communities and businesses to think about educating their youth differently. Chris was traversing multi-fatih communities with the added challenge of working with Islamic, traditional Hindu, strict Confucius and an old school "British" style adherance to education.

The Axiata project helped these communities to look at student centred education instead, where the youth proactively took their education back into their community.

And as for the future? Chris is very excited to be working on a project with Google to bring technology to public schools in rural communities in Indonesia again - to give isolated youth global access to learning. Chris is also kicking off a PHD exploring how teachers live and teach in areas in the world highly vulnerable to disaster or political change - countries like Pakistan, Nepal and Indonesia.

As a teacher in these countries, when you've got so little and access to nothing - how do you create meaningful change? What do you do in a disaster? As a teacher how do you take a lead, look after your students and contribute to your community?

One thing for certain - Chris will be making "good waves" where ever he goes.