From Auckland, London, and now Wellington, Mackenzie Valgre’s desire for young people to be heard, and her passion for pushing for change, has never faded.
Mackenzie Valgre jokes that it was an Edgewater College teacher’s insistence that “loudmouth Mackenzie” would enjoy the Howick Youth Council that she ended up becoming a member.
“Before [joining the youth council], I was interested in politics and committed to justice — something I owe to my parents. But, I didn't really have any structure to put that into,” says Mackenzie, who joined the youth council in 2013 as a school representative. “The youth council was the start of being part of those kinds of structures.”
She remembers thinking at first that the youth council had a “lot of meetings”, all of which were very formal.
“Having never gone to something like that, I thought, ‘this is interesting’. Everything was always a big round-table discussion. Meetings had a chair, and they ran through an agenda.”
Mackenzie, who became chairperson of the Howick Youth Council in 2014 and later a Youth Advisory Panel representative until 2016, reflects on how those meetings used to run.
“I often tried to encourage discussion. But, because of how it was set out, it was like, ‘Here’s the list of things to discuss, what do people think about it?’ That was instead of actual facilitation and thinking about the sorts of questions that would draw ideas from different people,” she says.
“So, if I look back on it, the meeting was run how 14-year-olds thought ‘proper’ meetings run.”
In 2018, the youth council made a deliberate choice to move away from formal meetings. Instead, each member worked in smaller teams, which gave them more opportunities to be creative and hands-on when organising projects.
Despite the formality of the meetings in 2014, Mackenzie says the youth council was still busy that year. One project she was heavily involved in was advocating for a dedicated youth space for young people of the Howick Local Board area to use.
“Something that came out of one of the very first Youth Summits was that there wasn’t really a dedicated space for young people to hang out. It became something that kept coming up.”
The youth council decided to collate those young people’s thoughts into a presentation — a verbal submission — to the Howick Local Board.
As a result, the local board’s triannual 2014 plan specifically mentioned the community’s desire to see a “youth facility”. The local board also commissioned a study to better understand whether there was a high demand for such a space.
“I’m proud we stuck to something with the youth space project and rallied around the idea. What I’m most proud of is we kept pushing the idea to the local board, and we weren’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer,” Mackenzie says.
At the time, the youth council was also advocating for affordable public transport, she explains.
“You can tackle [public transport] — there are ways to do that. But, I think at the time, we didn’t know how to exactly,” she says. “The [youth space] felt like a practical way to try and implement some people’s feedback.”
But, the bureaucracy of local government can mean projects take some time to finish, Mackenzie adds. She says she remembers feeling “frustrated” because the study into the youth space ended up being quite conceptual, rather than trying to work out practical logistics at that point in time.
Seven years on and two completed studies later, establishing a youth space remains an ongoing project for the Howick Youth Council. Mackenzie’s desire to try out different avenues to push for change led to her leaving the youth council and Auckland Council’s Youth Advisory Panel in 2016.
She decided to step into grassroots projects, first in Auckland, then in London. She says the skills she developed while on the youth council proved useful.
“The cool thing is it gives people skills and confidence that are transferable into other spaces … stuff that I would never have had otherwise as a 16-year-old. I wish that there were ways that the youth council could give that to more young people in the community because that was one of the most valuable things for me.”
Mackenzie, now 24, lives and works in Wellington. Throughout her career, no matter where she is in the world, one thing that’s not altered is her desire to make a change.
“We [young people] have really bloody cool ideas and can think out of the box in a way that some people who have been in formal political spaces a long time often can’t,” Mackenzie says.
“It’s about finding a way to advocate with young people in your community, not just for them. That can mean running events that build people’s confidence, skills, networks, and providing opportunities to engage with local government.
“I think it’s also knowing that if you make enough noise, the people in power will listen. It’s not about asking, ‘Can you please listen to us?’ It’s about getting organised and demanding that they take action.”
Mackenzie says that means people should be bringing issues directly to the local board or council rather than waiting for them to make the first approach. She adds that the more young people feel they’re “actually making a difference” when they speak up, the more they’ll continue to be engaged.
“I think it's about recognising that young people are political. So, it’s about tapping into that and finding ways to come together to demand more from elected representatives.”
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.