Joe Wilson - Lots of Little Fires

Joe Wilson’s video project – Lots of Little Fires – has won an award at the Community Research New Zealand annual awards.

The project, which began this year, celebrates the unsung heroes working with young people in the Waikato. Eight videos have been produced so far, with another three scheduled before the end of the year.

“Lots of Little Fires is video storytelling that shines a light on people in community,” says Joe. “Call them the unsung heroes or the unusual suspects, it’s those people who daily do amazing things for other. At the moment, there’s a lot of negativity, in the general news and the flavour of society, but if you work in this world, you see heaps of good people and amazing things happening all the time.”

Capturing positive community stories

Joe chose the name for the project based on the idea of people sitting and connecting around a small fire.

“If there's little fires, everyone can sit around, you can see each other. There's a human connection. It's warm, but it's not too hot cause the fire is not too big.”

Joe says there can be a tendency, when something good is happening in a community, to try and make it bigger, often because that is more attractive to funders or businesses wanting to invest. However, often the uniqueness of the initiative is ruined in the process.

“If something works for a certain group of people in a certain way, it should be kept like that. Let people steer their own ships. If the fire is too big, you can't see who is sitting around it. It's too hot to sit close, so you have to sit back and intimacy and relationships are lost.”

Joe is thankful for the support of the Waikato Wellbeing Project – a regional initiative to build a more environmentally sustainable, prosperous and inclusive Waikato region by 2030 – which is contracting him to produce the videos.

He is also grateful to be working with videographer Muredach Daly who he describes as incredible.

“Finding someone who could capture the beauty of what people do in community and reflect the beautiful human interactions – to visually make the videos as beautiful as what these people are doing – was important. Muredach has done that.”

A focus on Waikato stories

The project focusses on the Waikato region, with Joe making a conscious effort to get outside of Hamilton and find stories in smaller rural communities.

“All around the Waikato, there's lots of little fires burning, and I know loads there's loads more that I don't know about yet, but we'll get to meet them.”

The first video, released 8 months ago, was about the Poutama Rites of Passage project run out of Whaingaroa, providing mentorship and a rite of passage experience for local youth. Since then, the videos have covered people transforming lives through sport, providing social housing provision, rewriting the script for young parents, and empowering people through art and music, among other topics.

The most viewed video so far has been on social housing, following a family providing a different type of transitional housing and landlord–tenant experience for people without homes in Hamilton. Also popular has been ‘He Puaawai – Flipping the script on what it means to be a young parent’,  released in September, which talks with young mothers at Fraser High School’s unit for teenage parents who are pursuing their education.

The most recent video, loaded last week, follows youth mentor and teacher Hiki-Te-Tapu-Haunui in his journey to break cycles and change lives in Raahui Pookeka Huntly.

Joe says that with all the videos it is about capturing the stories that the people want to tell.

“They are all of them are my absolute heroes. The strength and bravery they show every single day is incredible, absolutely incredible. And what they do is just beautiful. It’s a privilege to share their stories in this way.”

He also sees the video as having two functions.

“To raise awareness for people that may not understand parts of the things that are happening in our community, but also to make people who are doing all this amazing stuff not feel on their own. And that's not just the people in the videos. There's a whole community of people out there. If they see the videos they may feel someone else gets it and won’t feel as much on their own.”

This is exactly the sort of feedback that Joe has received so far, with people contacting him to thank him for making visible their stories, and doing it in a beautiful and empowering way. The videos have also built connections between groups. For example, after the He Puaawai and social housing videos were released, Joe put the two groups in touch with each other, enabling a couple of the young parents to find better accommodation for themselves and their children.

Videos recognised through awards

As for the Community Research awards, Joe says he’d never heard of them before local woman Katie Lowe – herself a bit of a powerhouse in the Whaingaroa community – suggested he should enter the Te Auaha Pito Mata – 2023 New and Emerging Researchers Awards.

The awards aim to encourage and value community research, with Joe receiving the Billie Award, presented to recipients who use an obviously strengths-based approach in their research. Although he didn’t previously view his project as research, Joe is very appreciative of receiving the award, which was presented at a ceremony in Te Whanganui a-Tara Wellington on 18 October 2023.

“I was quite shocked, because this thing, this video project is brand new. I feel like I've only just had this idea here and run with it this year, not really knowing where it's going. I just had a strong gut instinct and know from my experience this is a gap that needed to be filled in. The videos were a way of filling it.”

Clearly, Joe’s gut instinct was right, and the awards and growing numbers of views on the YouTube channel attest to the value the videos are providing.

The Lighting Lots of Little Fires Videos are available to view at: