By Madeline Gray
About the interviews
The young people of Aotearoa are hugely active in the environmental advocacy sphere and have proven to be influential leaders of change. But what is it like in these spaces?
It is brave work to step up and advocate for climate action in the face of societal and political barriers. Even more so as a recent global survey
shows that 65% of young people feel like governments are failing them.
I interviewed four young leaders from around New Zealand to gain their perspectives. I’ll be sharing two interviews in each part of this piece - Part 1 and Part 2. Their responses are open-hearted, astute and inspiring and fill me with hope for a better future.
About the activists
Lourdes Vano (she/her) is from Aitutaki, Rarotonga, Samoa and Ngati Kahungunu ki te Wairoa. She is 19, comes from a family of six, and was raised and lives in Tāmaki Makaurau. She is committed to anti-colonialism and anti-racism and has a background in climate, indigenous, and women's rights activism.
Sophie Weenink (she/they) is a 16-year-old activist from Nelson who uses her platform to share her journey. She actively volunteers within her community, advocating for a range of environmental and political issues.
About the author
Madeline is a first-year university student studying primary education. She is interested in all things environmental, but most of all loves to understand new perspectives and look at ways to educate people on climate issues.
As rangatahi in Aotearoa, what are some vital or interesting areas to you?
I work very much in environmental problems and the housing crisis, especially in Nelson, where I live. It’s what I’m concerned about and care about.
I’ve also recently gone into a bit of everything; I’m working with different organisations from animal rights to human rights. I feel like there’s so much I care about, but I just don’t know how to do it myself.
The thing I focus on the most, especially in terms of climate change, is indigenous rights and restoration of indigenous rights because a big part of why we’re in this mess in the first place is because we messed all of that up.
I especially like to focus on conversations around the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples and how that can be implemented into domestic law, analysing how we can restore indigenous rights in the legal sphere. It’s an area where the youth perspective is quite tokenistic; it’s a last-minute consultation rather than a genuine one.
What are some of the challenges you face while advocating for environmental issues?
I recently turned 16, and people see my age as, almost, like a pain. Like, “oh, you’re 16, you’ve still got so long.” Not to be cliche but, the climate doesn’t have very long, so we’ve got to really start trying.
People don’t always take you seriously because of your age which can be a real pain because you will often be advocating in these spaces more than the majority of the adults. However, you’ll still be treated like you’re quite new to it and, even if you are, you shouldn’t be treated like that.
The main hindrance that I face is that indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by climate change and thermal inequity. I think we’ve got some Pakeha who understand that, but they don’t necessarily know how to support or be an ally.
We need people to be supportive, people to come up with solutions, and people to look at themselves rather than spend so much time teaching others how to do stuff.
Do you feel that being young can sometimes be a barrier when trying to advocate in these spheres? Does it come with a stigma, or does it work in your favour?
Honestly, it depends on who you’re working with. If you’re working with young people and bringing in an adult, then that space was created by young people for young people. Whereas, if you’re brought into a space with adults, it can be one way or another. It can even be tokenistic.
I am very privileged that I don’t work with many places like that. There were a few that I stepped back from last year that I realised were not actually listening, which is quite sad to say because you care and want to change. But, realistically, if people aren’t listening to you, you have to find someone who will.
If there are a lot of adults, they may all be silent waiting for you to speak, or they may not let you speak at all. A lot of the time, you can pick this up in the room. It’s happening for a lot of young people, not just me. I’ve only recently understood what people mean by it.
There have been opportunities that I have only received because I am younger, but most of the time, those opportunities aren’t substantial; they are tokenistic. Although they’ve let me do a lot of things, none have progressed the movement.
I went to New York to the United Nations Youth Summit with other young people from around the world, and it would’ve been awesome to have sat down and spoken to each other. However, all we heard about was shallow things like how to be activists on Instagram. On paper, yes, it has helped me, but it wasted my time in the long run.
It’s interesting looking back. There is a lot of asking young people to participate to do their little bit rather than bringing us on to make decisions and change.
Do you have any tips to overcome stigma and barriers?
If you’re going to be working with organisations, which I do pretty heavily, make sure they value you. You don’t want to be giving out all of your energy or passion for a certain subject just for it to be disregarded. You’re never too young to do something, considering I’ve been doing this for three years now. Don’t let people underestimate you.
It’s difficult. I know I’ve played into the “try and act older than I am, so I am respected” idea, but I think what we are lacking the most is collectively banding together. We are often pitted against each other. Standing together and saying “no, we are all different people and not just young” is important, as is saying “you can’t pick and choose and then tick the box because we all have different ideas”. So, I think learning where to assert yourself, set those boundaries, and ask if what is happening is good enough.
We need qualitative and quantitative where it’s needed. More young people to be represented at a genuine level. It’s quite lonely and can feel like an individual experience. It’s good to set your networks, get involved, ask questions (no matter how stupid), learn when to assert yourself, know who you can depend on in these spaces, and set personal boundaries to avoid burnout.
Do you feel there are enough accessible youth resources and spaces around for environmental advocacy and education?
It’s a difficult one because, for example, the young political scene can be toxic. If you can’t go here and can’t go there, where can you go? It’s just about finding the right balance between meeting people and forming those connections. As far as it goes, getting resources to make those connections can be difficult; it’s just knowing who to contact.
I don’t think there are. Resources are usually very high-level, with a lot of academic language. It’s pretty inaccessible, and I think part of that is purposeful because if we did know more, then we would be doing more. People who don’t have the time to learn won’t process the information.
What is one message you would like to tell future generations and readers?
You’re never too young to do something, especially with climate change. We need lots of people doing things imperfectly rather than perfectly.
Learn to say no when needed and set your boundaries for yourself and the people around you.
Photos supplied by Sophie and Lourdes - thank you!