Ten Years of HYC: Ben Fraser and Danica Loulié-Wijtenburg
‘How do we sustain ourselves as a youth council?’
Ben Fraser and Danica Loulié-Wijtenburg are the co-chairs of the Howick Youth Council. As they reach the end of their tenure, they reflect on their experiences of the youth council and the future direction of the group
Ben Fraser and Danica Loulié-Wijtenburg have witnessed how the Howick Youth Council empowers its members, both as its leaders and on the receiving end as new members.
Ben joined the youth council in 2018 as a Year 12 school representative of Saint Kentigern College. Danica joined a year after as an open seat member from Sancta Maria College. The pair are now studying at the University of Auckland.
Following changes made to the youth council at the beginning of 2018, both Ben and Danica became members after it adopted its “teams model”. The model splits youth council members into several autonomous groups to deliver projects.
Danica says she remembers being surprised by the scale of the youth council at first.
“My first impression was being really excited about how much agency we had available to us to deliver our projects. It was the feeling of being very empowered and excited about the scope we were able to have.”
Both say they found their first forays into developing projects for youth challenging yet also motivating.
Ben helped deliver the 2018 Howick Youth Summit and a life skills workshop (How To Life) as Team 1’s leader. Danica helped deliver three local election candidate debates, a youth quiz night, a youth film festival, and How To Life in 2019.
“My team started off with the Youth Summit, which was the biggest event at that point on the work programme,” Ben says.
“That was challenging. But, ultimately, it’s what convinced me to stick with the youth council because we were very proud of what we produced. It was very successful, and the challenges that we identified along the way … were things that I felt I wanted to help improve on the council.”
Danica says she realised the value of youth council work when her team of four split off into two groups to work on a project each.
“I found that quite striking. It was just the sense that each person was really invested in the team and was fully engaged. In my previous experience with leading groups at school, there was always the sense that if I didn’t take responsibility, then no one else would.
“With HYC, there's a whole group of people who are really invested in the shared goal. The sense of being able to trust those around me and feel supported in that environment and being able to collaborate — that was really cool,” Danica says.
She continues by saying that she felt supported in the sandbox- like environment of the youth council, where it was okay to make mistakes.
“Even when we were struggling with a project, there were people there who could step up and support us — we weren't just abandoned to deal with it by ourselves.”
Ben and Danica then went on to run as candidates in the youth council’s leadership team elections, initially for 2019 and 2020, respectively. Ben served as deputy chair in 2019, chair in 2020, then co-chair in 2021. Danica was voted in as secretary in 2020 and then co-chair in 2021.
In 2020, they served alongside deputy chair Jack Collins, treasurer Sarisha Claassen, and communications lead Justin Hu. In 2021, the leadership team was comprised treasurer Chloe Yip, secretary Victoria Kree, council community lead Krish Patel, and communications lead Justin Hu.
Ben began his leadership team journey as the youth council’s strategic aims — representing, developing, and connecting young people in the community — were being set.
“As the new leadership came on and started working with the outgoing team, one of the things that we wanted to do was try and shape a more sustainable, strategic vision of what the council existed to do. Part of that was going through a process of consultation with the council’s members,” he says.
“That process then turned into a very long meeting at Botany Library — we were changing words for hours and doing this very fiddly process — but it's the words that capture the values and the ideas behind us, and that's what makes it really compelling.”
Danica says being on the leadership team allowed her to better understand of what it meant to truly “empower” one young person, or in the Howick Youth Council’s case, about 30.
“Something I definitely underestimated about the leadership team is that part of the role involves supervising and guiding members. Empowerment takes a lot of time and thought,” she says.
“It's thinking about the types of situations we need to create. What type of conversations do we need to have? And it needs to be a really deliberate task. It's not something you can do
accidentally or by chance.”
Ben agrees, adding that he felt a shift towards developing a more empowerment-oriented focus during his time on the council.
“I bought into the idea that attendance and our results were a sign of success — that was what orientated a lot of my thinking in that first year," he says.
"But, the longer I spend on the council, the more I shift away from that approach. I've come to see it far more as an empowering experience for those people who are on the council. The goal of everything that we do is to maintain all those other components, whether it be funding or community relationships, but always to empower our members.”
Danica says youth voice groups have to start with a purpose and then understand how they’ll actually deliver on those in an empowering way. She says this mindset influences how she facilitates the newly-established Youth of Ōrākei, another local board-funded youth council in Auckland.
“[You have to] really form an idea of who you are, as a youth council, and what your aims are. And, it’s not just about strategic aims, either. It’s about asking what kind of space you’re wanting to create. Why should members want to stay? Why should they want to join in the first place?
“And, in terms of relationships, it's about realising you’re not just an impersonal organisation that delivers projects. It’s also about creating a community within the organisation and also being part of the wider community.
"That means making sure you're forming strong relationships with the local board and with other community organisations within whatever area you're representing. It’s about understanding that all of what we do is only possible with the support of other people,” Danica says.
In particular, Ben and Danica acknowledge Asma Bashir’s work as the local board’s strategic broker, and the Howick Local Board’s ongoing support of the youth council. The pair add that being able to call Te Tuhi — an art gallery and community centre in Pakuranga — home helped to make many of the youth council’s projects possible.
Both Danica and Ben say they’ve made lifelong friends on the youth council.
Ben specifically notes his partnership with Jack Collins, his former deputy chair and chairperson.
“I didn't know anything about him. But, he was very loud. He was very talkative. He was all about having fun. And my initial impression was: ‘Oh, goodness, what's going to happen?’
“On face value, we just seemed so opposite. But, we almost immediately started working very well together. Despite the fact we had such opposite skills, they were incredibly complementary. That meant we were very, very effective.
“A lot of that came down to how Jack went into this. He immediately set up a dynamic which recognised that we had different but equally important skill sets and that we needed to
rely on each other,” he says.
Now working for Parliamentary Services, Ben says the youth council was different from what he expected walking into it, but that it made a significant impact on his life.
“I know, for me, what I wanted to get out of it has shifted — pretty much as soon as I rocked up and realised what it could be as a platform for youth empowerment,” he says.
“I’ve grown to love it. It’s a very different space to the one that I thought I was going into, but it’s arguably a lot more effective and what we achieve is incredible.”
The sustainability of the youth council is an evergreen topic of discussion within the backdrop of an ever-changing youth voice space.
Both co-chairs are unsure where the youth council will go next after they leave at the end of this year, but they’re optimistic.
Danica says the Howick Youth Council has the right mix of passionate and committed people who will take the group forward.
Ben agrees: “I think for a lot of youth councils, and for us for quite a while, it comes down to luck who it is that walks through the door next.
“Something potentially really significant for HYC going forward is we're actually in a space where we can begin to think about how we can stop relying on that luck. We can start to ask where we want to go in the next 10 years. How will we continue to develop? And, frankly, how do we sustain ourselves as a youth council?
“The important thing is the fact that, in 10 years, none of us will be in the youth voice space. In our place will be a completely new generation of young people doing the same things that we're doing today.
“As long as we can continue to exist for them, then I think HYC will have served its purpose.”
Concluding on a message to future youth council members, Ben and Danica agreed on a piece of wisdom.
"Get involved as much as you can. Don't hold back with HYC,” Danica says.
“As much as you put into this, that's what you're going to get out.”
This article is part of the Howick Youth Council's ten-year anniversary history book, which features interviews from past chairpeople of the group. Read the full book here and see more standalone feature articles on our website.