I’ve been friends with Todd Williams, better known as the rapper Louie Knuxx, for almost 20 years. We first met at a rap battle back in 2001. At the time, we were both more in need of mentors ourselves than we were suited to mentoring anyone else.
Twelve years later, we were both introduced to youth work through the arts mentoring organisation Ngā Rangatahi Toa. I remember on my first day someone telling me the rangatahi you work with will affect you as much as you affect them. I was skeptical at first, but for both me and Todd, our experience would prove to be life-changing.
“It came pretty naturally and impacted me far more than I could have imagined,” Todd says of the experience. “I had convinced myself up until this point that making music was really important, but it began to pale at an alarming rate once I got involved in the lives of young people.”
Making an impact
Today, Todd is living in Melbourne working for the Chin Up Project, a primary prevention program that works with at-risk and disengaged youth. The program was set up by Todd’s younger brother, MMA fighter Matthew Williams.
“Matthew worked in Parkville [a youth detention centre in Victoria] for a long time. From what I understand there were some big changes and he was unhappy with the limitations placed on having a positive impact. He created Chin Up in the hopes of reaching and impacting lives with autonomy and integrity.”
“They taught me to be proud of being poor and surviving. To hold my head high and recognise my value and worth, to protect it with vigour.”
The youth are referred to Chin Up by schools or other large organisations, and then Todd and the other mentors work closely with them, teaching them everything from martial arts to rapping. This allows them to connect and model positive attitudes and behaviours.
Even though Chin Up is relatively young, they have already made some big changes in the lives of people they work with.
“We currently have two young men who completed the program working alongside us. That feels pretty huge for such a young organisation. But some days a warm and meaningful hug feels huger than that.”
Todd Williams. Photo/Supplied
It might sound silly, but hugs have been a big part of all the different youth organisations. Not only are hugs a way to show you care, but they help to create vulnerability which is essentially for the job. “So many young men we see are killing off their gentleness and kindness under pressure to pursue toughness,” Todd says. Like a lot of the young people he works with, Todd grew up in an environment which embraced what he calls “antiquated archetypes”.
“I looked up to criminals and gangsters.” he says, reflecting on his youth. For Todd, the change came when he moved to Auckland to pursue his music career. “I got around a bunch of people who most likely were figuring a lot out for themselves, but they taught me to be proud of being poor and surviving. To hold my head high and recognise my value and worth, to protect it with vigour. They changed my life.”
Empathy is key
Nowadays, Todd is tasked with not only mentoring the young people that come through Chin Up, but also hiring staff. When I ask him what he looks for in a mentor, he says: “your own experiences can help, but more than anything it’s about having a willingness to try to understand and empathise.”
He also thinks it's important to give staff autonomy and ownership, “which obviously means you must recruit wisely. This is quite tricky as you are often looking for outliers or former-outliers as the most effective youth workers.”
“Your own experiences can help, but more than anything it’s about having a willingness to try to understand and empathise.”
I suggest to Todd that it’s people who have had difficult lives who make the best mentors.
“I would largely agree, although I have seen exceptions. It can be an initial foot in the door with sceptical young people who have been burnt by a whole bunch by other services. Those upbringings can definitely breed empathy and a desire to facilitate change. It needs to be in your nature. Young people have the best bullshit detectors.”