Major Campbell Roberts, a finalist for Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year, has dedicated his life to trying to make New Zealand a fairer place for all Kiwis.A leader in the Salvation Army, Campbell has spent more than 40 years working to support the country’s most disadvantaged and marginalised communities.
As a lifelong campaigner for social justice, Major Campbell Roberts admits he sometimes feels disheartened by the gulf between rich and poor in New Zealand.
But there’s one thing that always restores his belief that it’s worth continuing the fight: the bravery and tenacity of the people he works with.
“There are times I’d go into a shed and see a mum and two kids living there, with all their belongings in shopping bags hanging from hooks on the wall,” says Campbell.
“It sometimes feels overwhelming, but then you see the courage of that mum in doing her utmost to look after her kids. It makes you feel it’s a privilege to help her.”
Campbell’s commitment to giving a helping hand to New Zealanders living on the margins has extended to every thing from poverty to education to prison reform.
He says much of his work has involved being in the right place at the right time. Sent to South Auckland by the Salvation Army in the 1980s to see what social services were most needed, Campbell started taking his lunch to the town centre so he could talk to locals. When people said they were struggling to find places to live, he set up an emergency housing network.
In the 1990s, at a point when no South Auckland schools had computers of their own, Campbell arranged for a converted bus to travel from school to school to teach children computer skills.
It’s all about seeing what’s going on in people’s lives and seizing the opportunity to find creative ways to help, he says.
Campbell views himself as part of the Salvation Army’s long tradition of both supporting individuals and tackling the systemic social issues that lead to injustice and inequality.
He is the founder and principal advisor of the Sallies’ social policy research and parliamentary affairs unit,and director of its social services in New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga.
Campbell is also responsible for all the Salvation Army’s parliamentary and government relationships, has been a member of many government task forces and working parties, and convenes regular consultation meetings between New Zealand church leaders and the Prime Minister.
He has never been afraid to criticise politicians on issues such as child poverty and Auckland’s housing crisis.
“I’ve always believed you do need to take risks and believe in what you’re doing, because you’re speaking out on behalf of others,” he says.
While Campbell’s work can be physically and emotionally challenging, he has been sustained by his personal faith and by the dedication of the people he works alongside.
He’s also heartened by feedback from people he has supported, from the Kiwi rapper who recalled Campbell taking him for unlimited helpings of pudding when he was a boy to the Otara residents who have stopped him on the street to tell him he made a real difference to their lives.
Being a finalist for the New Zealander of the Year Award is, Campbell says, overwhelming.
“I’m very honoured because I have a deep passion for New Zealand,” he says.
“I’ve worked alongside some fantastic New Zealanders over the years, so to be nominated for an award like this is very humbling. It’s the last thing I ever expected.”