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How women are rebuilding Christchurch
By Kim Shaw
Photographs courtesy Love Lyttelton and Harbour Arts Collective

In her recently released book, The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain (Pantheon Books), cognitive neuroscientist Dr Tali Sharot discusses the effect of trauma on memory and how an optimistic bias that is seemingly hardwired into our brains sees us focus on the glass as half full instead of half empty.

In the town of Lyttelton, New Zealand, the epicentre of the earthquakes that ravaged Christchurch earlier this year, Dr Sharot would be able to watch optimism in action as women have taken leadership roles that benefit the townsfolk and help rebuild from within.

Lyttelton (population 3 072) rests in the Harbour Basin area and is the port that serves Christchurch. Connected to the city by road and rail tunnels and two passes, one of which is still closed, it’s just a 20-minute drive to the centre of Christchurch.

Margaret Jefferies has been a resident of Lyttelton since 1998 and is one of many who are wholly committed to the rebuilding of the town. Margaret has always regarded her place of work as being with people and within her community – in the early 2000s she set up three Spirit at Work conferences in Christchurch that were attended by people from all over New Zealand.

“I was drawn to the idea of people being able, if they wished, to express their spirituality in their work place situations. I also saw that unless a person could do this, work places were not making it possible for workers to bring their full selves to work – to the detriment not only of the workers but the work place too.”

New Zealanders are filled with a sense of community, as can also be seen in the country’s Time Bank system, a community project that allows members to bank their services and draw on other people’s services when needed. For example, after the earthquake a team of Time Bankers formed a chain gang and moved an elderly couple’s house contents from one house to another in 45 minutes!

Margaret explains, “The Time Bank project has been going for several years and can kick in quickly and easily in an emergency situation because the people are practised at using the system. During the earthquake emergency phase it would not be unusual for four or five broadcasts a day to go out to members, each targeting particular skills. However, Time Banks need to be established prior to an emergency; during an emergency is too late.

“A number of physical tasks were achieved as a result of the Time Bank, but there was also a lot of nurturing, and these two things are not necessarily exclusive. Time Banking is a powerful tool for growing wellbeing in a community because of its reciprocal nature. It does require a dedicated team though to get it up and running well. As the originator of the concept – Edgar Cahn – says, ‘You have what you need if you use what you have’ and ‘A Time Bank is limited only by our imagination’. We have individuals as well as organisations as members, including a school, medical centre and information centre.”

Another woman making a difference in nurturing Lyttelton is South African art therapist, Deborah Green. Deborah was involved in HIV/AIDS work in SA prior to moving to New Zealand.

After the February earthquake Deborah ran two-hour art workshops with classes at schools in the area. “The children created detailed artworks to depict their ‘favourite places’ and were encouraged to call these to mind when stressed by aftershocks and sleeplessness,” she explains. “This was followed up with postcard creation workshops during which cards were created for the children affected by the tsunami in Japan and with an ongoing drama programme with the seniors. In total, over 320 pupils have been reached through these interventions.”

Deborah also arranged for training and development workshops to be run by volunteers from outside Christchurch, and has been focusing on providing individual, family and small group therapy for those who are struggling to find a new post-quake normalcy. “Future hopes include a group workshop process for adults to help them use the arts to process our new post-quake world,” she adds.

Margaret says that although Lyttelton has a strong masculine energy “lots of blokes doing blokey type things” the work of Project Lyttelton attracts a higher proportion of women to the work than it does men (but not exclusively).

“This feminine energy is a nice balance for the community and it works well. It has created things like a culture of possibility, of nurturing one another, of celebrating the creative, of treading new ground – abandoning old ways of thinking that no longer serve us. So much of the inspired leadership here has a feminine energy.”

A number of women have taken leadership roles in the past months and one of the magical things that occurred is how a group of three women – Sue-Ellen Sandilands, Jacinda Gilligan and Bettina Evans – decided to start sewing hearts both as brooches and as safety barrier fence hangings.

Margaret continues, “Using old blankets, thread and buttons, they made hearts and gave them to people, and people joined them and stitched and talked and shared their experiences and information they had. They set up in a public space and soon many people were gathering around. Thousands of hearts have been stitched and they’ve become like a symbol for the people of Lyttelton – it has opened our hearts to one another in an acknowledged way.”

Follow Project Lyttelton at Love Lyttelton on Facebook or visit

Photographs courtesy Love Lyttelton and Harbour Arts Collective

2 Responses to Community leadership

  1. Leazill says:

    Well done to the people of Lyttelton! The impact that the women leaders have on the possessiveness of the community is wonderful.

    We woman are natural care givers and because this is a natural trait it really does come from the heart, thus the heart symbol is perfect!

    Take good care of yourselfs and your friends!

  2. Agree -it’s a heartwarming story

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