• Irra Lee

Ten Years of HYC: ‘That coin toss was the best luck I've had’ — Cuan Pillay

Cuan Pillay started his Howick Youth Council journey by chance. Little did he know then that he would eventually serve as its deputy chair, as a team lead, and make a lasting change in the way it empowers its members.



Cuan Pillay says a mere coin toss set the wheels in motion to where he is today.


“I definitely would not be doing the things I'm doing now if it weren't for that coin toss,” he says.


But, his achievements are anything but chance.


Cuan first heard about the Howick Youth Council as a Year 11 when he attended the 2015 Howick Youth Conference, now known as the Youth Summit. Its theme was “Confronting Issues”, and Cuan says it made him realise he could tackle the issues he was learning about in the classroom in a tangible way.


That experience prompted Cuan to put his hand up to represent Sancta Maria College on the council as a school seat. He was one of two people to do so at the end of 2015.


“The Year 12 seat at the time came to both of us and said, look, the two of you can discuss who we put forward as the school seat,” he says.


“Both of us said to each other, ‘you can do it’. So, we went back and forth until we decided to do a coin toss. It landed on me. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but that’s how it started.”


Little did he know then that he would eventually serve as the council's deputy chair and a team lead. He would also change how the youth council understood the concept of empowerment and the way it could help its members accomplish things.


For the first six months after he first joined the youth council in 2016, Cuan says he didn’t speak at all.


“I was just so intimidated by the passion in the room. I had huge impostor syndrome because I got there on a coin toss. So, what was I going to be able to do with people who felt so comfortable saying their opinions?”


The formality of the youth council’s early meetings, which were held in the Howick Local Board's meeting room, didn’t help either, he says.


“It was so much more formal than it had to be. Most of the meetings before 2018 used to be going through the agenda and then going through the minutes. Everything that was said had to be moved and seconded. The anxiety would come if you had to put your hand up to either move or second.”


Cuan with Jack Collins at the 2019 Visual Arts Showcase at Uxbridge Arts and Culture
Cuan with Jack Collins at the 2019 Visual Arts Showcase at Uxbridge Arts and Culture

Cuan says he can’t remember why he decided to run for the youth council’s deputy chair position in 2017, a role he ended up winning “despite that awkward six months”.


He served alongside chairperson Natasha Karsan, treasurer Samuel Chen, secretary Shuyi Wang, and project manager Zachary Wong. The youth council was facilitated by Catherine Cooper, who worked with Auckland Council at the time.


“I made it my goal to try and be as open and as friendly as possible [as deputy chairperson], because I knew how scary it was for me coming in, and that was no one’s fault,” Cuan says.


He describes his one-year term as “turbulent”. While the youth council had a strong year building up its external relationships, Cuan says if he had the chance to do it again, he’d have pushed the council to focus inwards too and examine how it worked.


“I wanted the youth council to be a youth council. So, that means for the youth and by the youth. The ‘by the youth’ part was not being acted on as strongly as we wanted to,” he says.


“When you don't really have your footing, you try to take as much advice from the people who do. It's hard to tell sometimes whether that advice should be taken or if I should have stepped in and made my own opinion.


“Being deputy chair, I should have been able to do that. But, I was in my last year of high school, and trying to juggle everything was not the smartest idea. So, it was quite hard to try and find the right way to approach things."


Cuan left the youth council after that year.


“I felt I had nothing to offer and that it was time for someone else,” he explains.


“It was the best decision because not only did the youth council strongly improve after that year, it actually helped me understand that I had a strong passion for youth development and I needed to get involved again.”


Cuan says he has no regrets because his first experience of the youth council and his year away shaped the way he did things once he returned in 2019 as a team lead.


2019 Howick Youth Council members
2019 Howick Youth Council members

“It gave me a backbone, really, to be able to speak. In the second set of my tenure, many opinions were shared because of the experience I had there.


“I came up with a totally different approach. I knew that I wanted to make other people’s opinions heard, and a team structure allows that so much more easily than 26 people around one giant table.”


Because Cuan says he’d already experienced what it was like to develop projects, instead of leading in front, he wanted to take a step back and give his team members more autonomy.


“I put my team into pairs, and each of them had their own event they had to manage. I gave them free rein to work on things they were passionate about. The only thing they had to do was stay within a two-week contingency before their event.”


He says that autonomy helped people grow because they knew their decisions had tangible effects and that they were accountable for the results.


“They produced their own events and made their own mistakes. Rather than telling them how to do things, I just guided them. It was definitely a risk, but we produced strong events, we made mistakes, and we learnt from them.”


It paid off for every member on his team, Cuan says, with some going on to serve on the youth council’s leadership team. In addition, some of his team’s events, like Pride Allied, have become mainstays on the youth council.


He also credits the youth council for some of the closest friendships he has to this day.


Cuan left the youth council at the end of 2020. Now 22 years old, he’s completing a postgraduate diploma in secondary teaching at the University of Waikato and is currently doing his practicum at a local school.


“The youth council definitely gave me the confidence to be able to do the things that I wanted to do and actually develop a passion for youth empowerment,” Cuan says.


“Joining the youth council was the best decision, and that coin toss was the best luck I've had.”


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.