Jason Pemberton

I've done a couple projects for The Wireless now. Here is a feature on Student Volunteer Army founder Jason Pemberton reflecting on life after the earthquakes that made his non-profit famous.  

Title: The apologetic face of a movement

Jason Pemberton is a busy man. The Student Volunteer Army – and its spinoff, the Volunteer Army Foundation – have taken the 26-year-old to speaking engagements around the world.

He’s just back from Wellington. Tomorrow he’s in Nelson, “speaking at a volunteer something or other about something”. On Friday he is in Christchurch, but only for a day. On Saturday he heads back to Wellington for an excursion to Somes Island.

“It’s a rough time at the moment,” he says.

Even after almost two years, he still doesn’t feel like at home in the Christchurch neighbourhood of the Addington – except in the local bar where he suggests we meet. In the past year Pemberton has told the story of the Student Volunteer Army in Indonesia, Israel and Australia under the umbrella of its spinoff, the Volunteer Army Foundation. In April, he quit the SVA, after participating in 1800 projects in three years. “There are 365 days a year, so you do the math,” he  says.

The work, which he started for all the right reasons, left him “exhausted”, “broke” and “unhappy as fuck”.

“I was out of Christchurch more than half of last year and that was very difficult. It just means things like laundry and grocery shopping never happen. I was behind on everything because I was just in a rush.”

There’s a guilt that comes with being a face of the Student Volunteer Army

Many know Pemberton as a co-founder of the Volunteer Army alongside the higher-profile Sam Johnson, but that’s not entirely correct. Six students founded the army the summer after that first quake in September 2010, and while Pemberton was involved from day one, he was not one of them. On February 22 2011, Pemberton, then 23, went from co-directing a student production of the musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, to taking the lead in the organisation.

There’s a kind of apologetic guilt that comes with being a face of the SVA. International praise was heaped on the 11,000-strong group that mobilised in fewer than 72 hours after the earthquake – but it dissolved almost as quickly. The level of attention was disproportionate to the students’ contribution, and Pemberton knows it.

“The SVA was like 10 per cent of the response,” he says. “Probably the greatest contribution the SVA made to the response was the good news story. Shovelling the silt and all that was enormous, but we didn’t pull any bodies out – alive or dead.”

He is embarrassed that the SVA has been put on such a high pedestal when “there was nothing any of the 11,000 of us did that was particularly incredible”.

That pedestal has resulted in some “particularly difficult” speaking gigs – he remembers one in particular where he was asked to share his wisdom with the emergency management sector. “Here I am, this 23-year-old upstart standing in front of these people who have been doing this stuff for years and years and have done exceptional good work, and I was the teacher? I was really uncomfortable with that. I really struggled with it personally and emotionally. I just had to stand up [on behalf of the SVA] and say, ‘What we did was nothing’, and thank them for their work.”

After splitting from the SVA and the foundation, he has decided his energies to YouTHink Ventures, a company he founded that specialises in “youth and community mobiliation” – but the tempo has shifted. “I’m very intentional with everything I’m doing now,” Pemberton says. “I know how to stop and be like, ‘It’s okay. You can actually chill out for the next five minutes and wipe your brain clean and be better for it, and then carry on’.”

Does that mean Pemberton has learned to slow down? He perks up.

“No – no, no, no,” he insists. “No, you don’t scale down. You scale up.”

Matthew Fanselow, a close friend, describes Pemberton as a “perpetual spinning top of energy”.

The pair met eight years ago, on the first day of their management class. “Currently it’s all the Volunteer Army, conferences, speaking engagements – work driven by his energy. He’s working with this guy in someone else’s film project, he’s into music. He’s just got this incessant, insane energy that’s unrelenting.”

But surprisingly, he’s not that organised, Fanselow says. “He was going to Indonesia and left his passport here. I was out in the rain, at four in the morning, driving to the airport to give his passport to him. He can be just... useless. And he doesn’t like mornings,” he adds. “He’ll be up all fucking night, working away, doing things, then stay in bed most of the morning.”

The reality is New Zealand is a pretty damn good place to be doing all the things I want to do. It’s not hard to make pretty big ripples in a pretty small pond.

These days, his late nights are spent creating high-energy talks aimed at high school students, who he calls “the most incredible resource that has ever existed on this planet”.

He aims to charge the students up and let them out into the world, hoping they go on to make a difference. It raises the question: When does talk become action?

Pemberton’s not sure. He tries to quantify the success of his speaking gigs by feedback, and speaks proudly of a time when the majority of students wrote that he was a highlight of a conference. But are those listening inspired by him, or just entertained?

Pemberton prefaces all his talks by saying that he doesn’t have the answers: “All I want is to tell you some stories, talk about some things that I’ve thought about, and I encourage you to reflect in relation to your own lives and in relation your own work, and I hope you can derive some benefit or value from it.”

When he reflects on his life, where does he want to be in five years?  The question trips him up a bit.

“It almost doesn’t really matter where I am or what I’m doing,“ he says. “For me it’s about the people I’m doing it with, the reasons that I’m doing it for, and the contributions I am making for myself – the bigger things that I care about, and the ones I love. That sounds wanky and ethereal, but that’s just the reality of how I am living my life at the moment.”

I point out he’s careful to respond, hedging like a politician. Is that a career he has considered? Pemberton is quick to respond. “No – shit no.”

And yet – “if it gets to the point in my life where in order to achieve what needs to be achieved or in order to make the best impact in the broader picture that I need to be a politician, then I’d certainly look at it,” he says.

Then he shifts gear again. “But, absolutely not.”

Would he be OK with his work with the SVA being the highlight of his career? “Probably,” he says. “I mean, in terms of what the SVA represents and represented at the time, it probably is the most ridiculous, incredible thing I’ve ever been involved in. I’d be proud of that, because it was a cool time ...

“[But] I think that there are much bigger, better things that could exist if you are intentional about it. Because the SVA was anything but intentional, you know?” He laughs.

One thing is certain: this country, if not this city, is home.

“The reality is New Zealand is a pretty damn good place to be doing all the things I want to do – it’s not hard to make pretty big ripples in a pretty small pond,” he says. “New Zealand has got a history of being a world leader on women’s suffrage, nuclear-free, it’s pretty progressive ... plus it’s pretty awesome.”

Date: 14 August 2014 Client: The Wireless Role: Freelance writer, photographer URL: thewireless.co.nz/themes/impact/the-apologetic-face-of-a-movement Tags: Canterbury, Christchurch, earthquakes, New Zealand, rebuild, Student Volunteer Army