Leadership Network member
rocks odd socks for a cause

Leadership Network member Arish Naresh was recently named a Kiwibank local hero as part of the bank’s New Zealander of the Year awards, which honours everyday people doing extraordinary things in their local communities.

Arish Naresh (second from left) and other Ship for World Youth leaders during the international meeting in Japan support the OWD SOCKS initiative.

Arish Naresh says it was simply a bit of a wardrobe malfunction the first time his mismatched socks got people talking. Since then, it’s been much more deliberate.

The idea for the quirky social movement came when Arish, a director for Hauora Tairāwhiti, the district health board in Gisborne, was at a work event.

“One day I just wore by mistake a pair of odd socks to a powhiri at the hospital…Obviously, you have to take your shoes off, and people started commenting.”

Rather than head to the shops for some new socks, Arish decided to continue the fashion statement and tag it to a social issue. That was more than a year ago.

Now, the idea’s catching on. Some 10,000 people and counting follow his Facebook page: OWD SOCKS – Opportunities without Discrimination.

At their work Christmas party last year, his colleagues chose to don mismatched red and green socks to support the cause. The message: “It’s OK to be different.”

The 31 year old remembers feeling like a square peg in a round hole during his high-school years.

“I was, unfortunately, a frequent victim of bullying...I was considered different. It led to me leaving a very prestigious boarding school (in Lautoka, Fiji) after two years.”

Globally, diversity is too often undervalued or just given lip service, he says.

“But when you look at modern boards or organisations, the more diverse the people, the better.

“If you start embracing diversity now, from preschool age to end of life, we will be able to have a more cohesive society as well as improved benefits for all.”

Arish says the movement is simple,  it doesn’t cost money and people notice it when you wear odd paired socks – the perfect ingredients for raising awareness.

He plans to ramp things up early next year, promoting the OWD SOCKS campaign in conjunction with the international day for elimination of racial discrimination on 21 March.

Ship for World Youth (SWY), a Japanese initiative involving an annual epic sea journey to encourage cultural understanding among diverse young participants, of which Arish is an alumni member, has also picked up OWD SOCKS as one of its official global campaigns for next year.

Arish is confident the campaign is going to have increasing global reach.

Closer to home, Arish is organizing an OWD SOCKS colour run in Gisborne for March 19. It’s the second event of its kind that he’s brought to the East Coast town. People arrive in plain white clothes and leave multi-coloured by the end.

Arish is organizing an OWD SOCKS colour run in Gisborne for March 19

Entry isn’t quite free, he says. You have to wear a pair of odd socks.

The days of the exclusive boarding school where Arish felt like a bright sock in a drawer fill of muted colours seem eons ago. Now in countless positions of leadership, Arish is an integral part of his community.

He’s on the board of UNICEF NZ and the Gisborne Volunteer Centre, he’s a part of Rotary, and he helps out at the town’s men’s centre, the family violence campaigns, and the Gizzy School Lunches scheme that helps get good food to kids who might otherwise go hungry. He’s organized curry night fundraisers in aid of social enterprise projects in India and cyclone relief in Fiji.

 He hopes people can relate to the OWD SOCKS message and find inspiration in it.

“And some other people might just think I’m an absolute nut and think what I am doing is silly, and that’s OK too.”