Veisinia Maka says she found herself thrown in the deep end as she navigated her way through the youth voice space. But, she found her own way of swimming and is helping other young people to do the same.
Veisinia Maka says an “epiphany” at the age of 15 led to her joining the Howick Youth Council. That marked the start of a continuing seven-year journey working to make sure young people’s voices are heard on the issues that impact them.
“At the time, I was doing speech competitions … but I kind of felt even though I was discussing all these big issues, like poverty and climate change, I never really understood what they meant on the ground level — I was getting all my information online,” Veisinia says.
“For me, it was weird because I was placing in these competitions and discussing issues as if I knew what I was talking about. I felt I was placed for the theatrics, but not really for anything else.”
She says she began to question whether her speeches were making a tangible impact after they were over.
“HYC was kind of like a pathway to understanding these issues on a local level. It provided me with an opportunity to really do something about it.”
Veisinia says most of 2014, her first year on the youth council, was spent figuring out the youth voice “space” — how a group of 25 people could come together to achieve something and how they could interact with decision-makers.
“I remember the youth summit in 2014 specifically because I was asked to facilitate a group [discussion] when I had never facilitated before.
"I mean, I wouldn’t have preferred to be thrown in the deep end. But, you get used to it because you’re never really taught anything about this space prior [to being in it]. You’re kind of just put there, and they’re like, ‘here, grow!’”
In 2015, Veisinia unexpectedly became the youth council’s chair “because no one else applied”. She served alongside Zachary Wong, who was in the deputy chair position.
“So, I was thrown in the deep end again. It was definitely a learning experience. If I hadn’t been thrown into the deep end, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
A few months into her role, Veisinia went on a volunteering trip to Vanuatu with UN Youth. While she was overseas, the youth council found out it was losing its long-time facilitator Lance Watene. This came about because of Auckland Council’s new “empowered communities” approach, which saw it change the way it engaged with the groups it supported.
The approach resulted in Auckland Council taking a step back from closely managing community groups as a default, instead becoming an “enabling council”. This was aimed at building the community’s capacity to do things for themselves.
Veisinia returned to New Zealand to a youth council that had to find its feet again. Up until then, Lance handled most of the youth council’s logistics and admin work.
“We were thrown into the deep end, to be honest. I remember Zac telling me we were basically alone. And, I remember leaving that meeting going, ‘Crap,’” she says. “It was like, up until then, we lived in a house. But, we didn’t fully understand there was another part of the house we had no access to. So it was like, wow, do I own this house?
“We had little autonomy before. Now, we had to sit there thinking about how we would get funding and who we would have to connect with. It’s those small relationships or small questions that help keep us sustainable.”
Ultimately, Veisinia believes giving young people the autonomy to pursue their goals within youth councils is important. But, she says it’s a question of how to get there.
“I think the process of getting there can be a bit difficult and a bit traumatic for some people. Some youth councils just ended up disbanding [during the transition to the empowered communities approach],” she says.
“That experience really identified inequities within communities in terms of youth being able to actually, practically, mobilise themselves.
"Like, with HYC, when we were waiting on funds, a lot of it was self-funded and we got reimbursed later. But, other youth councils don’t have that privilege. Other youth councils and communities don’t have those means financially.”
Veisinia calls the transition “an experience and a half”.
“But, we survived and HYC is thriving.”
After co-chairing the youth council with Zac in 2016, Veisinia began to transition to a mentorship role on the Howick Youth Council. At the same time, she was selected for Auckland Council’s Youth Advisory Panel and was elected its chair.
The Howick Youth Council’s inaugural principals’ breakfast in 2017 is something that sticks in Veisinia’s mind to this day. The event brought together school and community leaders from across the local board area. She says seeing the youth council “be appreciated by people outside of their personal bubble of young people was really nice to see”.
That’s because it’s easy to see a youth council and only see a group of young people using taxpayers’ money, she explains. “And that can be daunting for young people. It’s like, ‘Oh, this money, it isn’t ours, and we’ve got to be accountable for that,’” Veisinia says.
“I think, sometimes, when you’re working in this space so much and doing all these things for young people, you don’t really receive affirmation that what you’re doing is okay and that you’re doing well.
"Sometimes, we need that affirmation to keep us going — even a thumbs-up means a lot to young people.”
It’s a philosophy Veisinia brought with her when she began facilitating the Tāmaki Youth Council in 2019. The group is dedicated to connecting, supporting, and empowering young people around Panmure, Glen Innes, Point England, and Mount Wellington.
A key focus of hers is making sure the youth voice sector is a safe, welcoming, and inclusive space for all young people, no matter their background.
“There’s a common theme with a lot of young people who are disengaged [with their communities] is that they’ve been told religiously their entire lives that they’re not good enough. It goes back to the idea that words really hurt. So, we have to be careful with how we communicate things to young people.
“It’s not about moving away from holding people accountable and being honest. It’s about understanding this entire thing [youth voice] is an experience. Sometimes, we just look at the outcomes, but we don’t see the experience.”
So, instead of focusing too intently on what a youth council could produce, its internal culture and the way it nurtured its members was just as important, Veisinia says.
As the years have passed, the 24-year-old says she’s come to realise there were things about her Howick Youth Council experience that she could have done better. Veisinia says she’s now trying to “change that narrative” on the Tāmaki Youth Council “by making sure I reaffirm a lot of people”.
“For me, I wish I was a lot kinder. My intention is not to be harsh, but I recognise I’m quite a direct person. In the past I might have told someone something like, ‘Why don’t you know this?’ or ‘Why haven’t you done this?’
“I think, again, it comes back to young people’s experience of the youth space, and my interaction with the young person becomes their experience. That’s one of the things HYC helped me with — understanding how to value other people and share space.
"If we want more young people in this space, we have to allow them to express themselves in that space."
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.