Zachary Wong has been at the crux of many significant changes the Howick Youth Council has experienced. Now in his seventh year working among youth councils regionally, his passion for the future remains strong
Zachary Wong didn’t really know what he was signing up to when he first became a Howick Youth Council member.
He joined the group in 2015 after accidentally stumbling upon one of its events. He recalls that he thought his passion for transport issues and local government would be useful in the group. But, despite holding leadership positions throughout most of his school life, he says the responsibilities of being a youth council member was a different experience entirely.
“I ended up, very early on, on the Howick Youth Summit project. There was no leader of the committee, but I ended up de facto leading it and trying to bring together a summit — something I’d never attended. I had no idea how it was meant to function.”
His passion for young people to be heard kept him motivated. Zac was particularly interested in environmental, climate change, and transport issues because of their far-reaching impacts on young people and their futures.
“I think young people need to have their voices heard and have their views reflected in the community given they’re under-represented in decision-making,” he says.
“That being said, I, probably like everyone else when they signed up, didn’t have a good idea of what the youth council actually did.”
Despite that, Zac was elected the youth council’s deputy chairperson six months after he joined. A month after that, amid restructuring at Auckland Council, the youth council said goodbye to its long-time facilitator Lance Watene.
This came about as a result of Auckland Council’s new vision for community development — an “empowered communities approach”. It saw the council take 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.
Zac says the change resulted in a “huge upheaval” for youth voice groups across Auckland. He, alongside chairperson Veisinia Maka and Youth Advisory Panel representative Mackenzie Valgre, had to figure out how to pick up the pieces.
“We went from a youth council where we kind of got told what to do, or someone did things for us, to suddenly being thrown in the deep end. We were left with nothing. There was no documentation. Nothing,” Zac says.
“Veisinia and I had to carry on the work of the youth council while we were trying to find ourselves as leaders, trying to work out why youth voice groups existed, and trying to build a work programme.
“So, I think we struggled a little bit. It took a while for it to be empowering.”
Unfortunately, he says, not every youth voice group in Auckland was equipped to survive the transition.
Despite the tumultuous period, Zac says that he’s felt a renewed commitment to “youth voice” from Auckland Council in the past several years.
“I'm pleased now that I think there's been some really strong investment from [Auckland Council’s] Youth Empowerment Team into investing in our youth councils, finding pathways, partnering with the Auckland Youth Voice Network to improve, build, and further the direction of youth voice groups.”
He also thanks Asma Bashir, who was appointed the Howick Local Board’s strategic broker at the end of 2015, for being a constant champion of the youth council.
Around the time of the changes brought about by the council's empowered communities approach, the youth council began meeting with neighbouring groups more regularly to share information and collaborate.
Out of those meetings came the Southern Youth Collective. It was made up of the Howick Youth Council, Manurewa Youth Council, Franklin Youth Advisory Board, Papakura Youth Council, and the Ōtara-Papatoetoe Squad, Zac explains.
The collective grew to become the Auckland Youth Voice Network (AYVN), which brings together more than a dozen youth groups from all over the region. Zac was a driving force in its creation, alongside former Franklin Youth Advisory Board member Bryce Collin, former Manurewa Youth Council member Sarah Colcord (someone Zac is “eternally grateful” to), and many others.
By 2019, the network had collaborated on numerous projects. Quarterly regional meet-ups also continued to be held, with a different youth council taking on hosting responsibilities each time.
Zac says a highlight was the network’s mayoral candidate debates in both the 2016 and 2019 local elections. Organised collaboratively between multiple youth voice groups, he says that both events gave high school students an outlet to influence the democratic process — in the absence of a vote.
By 2020, with long-standing members feeling like the network could play a bigger support role for youth voice groups, a series of co-design workshops were held to piece together a picture of what more could be done. From this, Auckland Youth Voice Incorporated was set up. Zac joined the organisation as its founding board chairperson.
“I think many of us have always had visions of what we can do at a regional level. We're on the way to realising it, but we're not there just yet — there's lots more work to be done,” he says.
Going into 2018, Zac ran to be the Howick Youth Council’s chairperson for a second time. He was elected alongside deputy chair Andrew Scott. Soon after their election, Zac started devising a new way of running the youth council.
Zac says completely restructuring the group came as a result of numerous factors: Catherine Cooper, the group’s facilitator, had recently left. Around him, he also saw numerous skilled leaders who were itching for change.
He says the changes he introduced were based on his practical experience while serving in various leadership positions on the youth council.
“Often, particularly at the early stages of a youth council’s development, they try to simulate councils. The way they do that, and the way the Howick Youth Council did that, was by bringing the entire council together in a group of 20 to 25 people.”
Imposing the formality of an Auckland Council meeting into a group of young people just didn’t seem right, Zac concluded. Instead, he says the youth council’s most successful initiatives came from small, passionate groups of members working in groups or sub-committees.
“I started thinking about ways we could better maximise the resources of the people in our youth council. I wanted to help them feel like they were the real, meaningful owners of projects.”
Zac and Andrew held one-on-one sessions with returning members to get their thoughts on the proposals. The result was a new model that split the council into four semi-autonomous teams made up of five youth council members each. The teams were tasked with delivering projects over the year, with support from the leadership team.
Alongside structural changes, the youth council also gained significant autonomy in 2018. This meant the group would now run its own meetings, organise projects, and handle its finances.
“Autonomy can be really powerful for the youth voice groups that want it. It can be really empowering to have the opportunity to control your work programme and to do the things that you think will benefit young people. But, it can be really hard to get there,” Zac says.
He adds that every youth voice group may want different degrees of autonomy, and that earning it can often depend on the types of skills of a group’s members.
2018 ended up being one of the youth council’s most successful years up to that point. Members said they had positive experiences on the youth council as they planned and delivered 12 projects. Many returning members believed that the new structure was responsible for the council’s growth, in conjunction with an intake of highly motivated new members.
“I think the real lesson that we learned is to make everyone a leader, and that you're a leader no matter your role on the youth council because you're responsible for bringing your projects to life and you've got a really meaningful say,” Zac says.
“Ultimately, for the Howick Youth Council to be successful and have longevity, it can't just have one set of people who love doing what the youth council does. We have to build that passion and that drive in future generations.”
Youth representation is one of the most intensely debated topics within the Howick Youth Council. A key part of the group’s remit — representing youth voice — is tricky for the council to collectively tackle as every member brings different lived experiences and understanding of local issues.
“I think we have to be doing advocacy — ultimately, that's what makes us different from other organisations. Being a voice to try and represent any group of people is really hard. But, just because it's hard, it doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying because I think it's ultimately the place where we can have the most impact,” Zac says.
In the past, the youth council has been a key conduit for decision-makers to engage youth in consultation on the Howick Local Board’s strategic plans. It has also run its own projects to advocate for young people’s voices to be heard on issues that matter to them.
Utilising its relationships, Zac believes the youth council can uniquely advocate at a local government level. He adds that this distinguishes the youth council from other groups.
“When young people are actively experiencing issues in their community, I think the youth council needs to pick them up, and I think we need to be really strong voices for them,” he says.
As Zac nears the end of his time as senior adviser to the youth council, he reflects on his six years of service in numerous roles.
“It’s just been such a rewarding experience to see how the things we’ve done have made a difference for other people in the community.”
He says the youth council has allowed him and all of its members to experience new things and meet people they wouldn’t have otherwise met.
“I think that the Howick Youth Council, and youth councils and youth voice groups in general, are some of the most powerful development experiences that you can have as a young person,” Zac says.
With that, he hopes that his work helping build up Auckland Youth Voice as a regional support tool will create opportunities in the future for others to experience the same.
“I think it's really exciting to see where people go and how the skills that they learn on youth councils will help them to change their lives in other ways far beyond the work that we’ve all done here,” Zac says.
“We're not the silver bullet to youth participation, but youth councils should be one of the tools that you can use to help enable it in your community.
“It's important that we have strong youth voices so that we can make the right decisions for the future of our city.”