The VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai National Youth Council (VNYC) is made up of nine young people between the ages of 18 and 25.  All members are either currently in care or care experienced and have now completed a year of leadership training, and will be moving to a deeper level of engagement with policy, guidance and involvement with VOYCE.

Because of COVID-19 the VNYC held the April, May and June leadership retreats online. In July, thanks to the success of New Zealand’s team of five million against the virus, the youth council was able to hold the final training for the year in person in Wellington. It was a time to reflect on the year past and get excited about the one ahead.

VNYC members, VOYCE care experience board members and staff at Te Papa

This final leadership retreat was three days long and held in several locations including the VOYCE Wellington office, Te Papa Tongarewa/Museum of New Zealand, Member of Parliament’s Bowen House and the Beehive (executive wing of the New Zealand parliament). Guest speakers began on Saturday morning with Sophie Handford, a youth and climate justice activist. VNYC members were delighted to learn that Sophie is also an elected Kapiti Coast District Councillor. Sophie shared her journey to leadership and best practices for sustaining yourself and your community while making change. There was a lively question and answer period where members learned how a self-identified shy person has been able to lead tens of thousands of New Zealanders towards climate justice!

VNYC members and VOYCE staff with Sophie Handford, Climate Change Activist and Paekākāriki Raumati Ward Councillor (bottom row centre)

Our second speakers included staff from the youth led organization/movement for transformative change in criminal justice, Just Speak. In this workshop members learned advocacy tools including theory and practical applications for care experienced youth activism and beyond.  The extended weekend connected multiple teachers, leaders, organizers and thinkers on the interconnectedness between social justice issues including struggles to end disproportionate incarceration, racism, colonisation, and abuse of children in Aotearoa.  Just Speak brought all of these ideas together and recommended strategies for council members to employ.

Fatima Abdallah, youth council member and winner of one of a 2019 Prime Minister’s Oranga Tamariki awards, attended the leadership retreat by zoom as she had a bad cold. Fatima, an 18-year-old care experienced youth of middle eastern descent, dreams of being a celebrity. While she is making her way into the limelight, Fatima is serving on the VNYC to make change. Her specific area of interest is to make changes in the youth justice sector. Fatima’s brother is justice involved and she wants to prevent other young people from going down this path and wants to protect other families from having to feel like her family has felt. Just Speaks shared many relevant strategies that will support the Council Members to continue to include and represent the needs of justice involved youth. Fatima has been working (with Lakiesha Cummings, Katarina Padlie and Jay Houston) to develop a curriculum for social workers to better support the needs of justice involved youth and reduce juvenile entry into justice systems. This training, intended to be led by care experienced youth, will impart knowledge, skills and promote attitude shifts to help reduce youth incarceration in New Zealand.

VNYC members meet with care experienced members of the VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai Board of Trustees

On Sunday, the Council brainstormed with the care experienced members of the VOYCE Board of Trustees on how to support youth engagement at the board level. They also advised the Independent Children’s Monitor on focus group presentations with youth in care and created and presented “Leader of the Year” Awards to one another. Throughout the weekend members relished in catching up, sharing plans for university, finishing high school and work in the trades. They also participated in team building activities throughout the weekend including ice skating, a dinner of delicious yum cha and liberating themselves from an Escape Room!

VNYC members and staff meet with Chlöe Swarbrick at Bowen House, Wellington, NZ

On Monday morning, the Council spent an illuminating hour with Member of New Zealand Parliament, Chlöe Swarbrick, who shared the story of her rise to elected leadership, her advice on sustaining leadership through self-care and analysis on how to identify and act on social justice issues of importance. Chlöe spent a generous hour answering questions with signature honesty, intelligence, respect and kindness.

VNYC members and staff visit the Beehive.

The retreat concluded with a tour of The Beehive. The VNYC was lucky to able to view two select committee rooms not often included in tours, including the Rainbow Room which was opened more than ten years ago in dedication of the nation’s gay, lesbian and transgender community and their contribution to New Zealand society. Council members also were able to view the Maori Affairs Select Committee room, Māui Tikitiki-a-Taranga.

The members from 2019-2020 will now move into a year-two elevated status and begin advising and engaging with VOYCE on specific policy and projects, including national policy ideas, human rights’ work and ongoing organizational leadership. Currently the VOYCE National Youth Council is a two-year experience, including Year One and Year Two members.   VOYCE is currently recruiting for our next group of young care experienced leaders who will begin their leadership development training in January 2021. If you are or know a care experienced young person, age 18-24 who would like to be involved, please email youthcouncil@voyce.org.nz

[Article co-written by Jamie Lee Evans and Fatima Abdallah.]