Image: Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho

Step up for Tāmaki: Rangatahi are ready to take action on climate

Covering Climate Now: A new web series challenges the false idea that rangatahi Māori “aren’t engaged” in politics or civic participation, and presents what aims to be a more hopeful and inclusive alternative. 


The Spinoff’s participation in Covering Climate Now is made possible thanks to Spinoff Members. Join us here!


Over the last week, it’s been hard to miss the wave of youth activism taking over our airwaves, screens and news feeds. From Greta Thunberg sailing across the Atlantic to avoid carbon emissions, to Amnesty International New Zealand recognising her peers in Aotearoa – Te Ara Whatu, 350 Pacific Climate Warriors and School Strike for Climate – as joint recipients of this year’s Ambassador of Conscience Award, it seems like every young person is a climate activist these days, and for good reason. 

They have to be.

Far from the nerdy pastime it was considered in my own school years, climate activism is now sweeping up masses of rangatahi who are determined to protect Papatūānuku for generations to come, and, well, generations already here.

Our young people are acutely aware of the impacts of climate change, and the very real effects it’s already having on our communities at home and abroad.

While the increased attention being given to the kaupapa and the newfound respect finally being granted to young activists is a welcome progression, what’s often missing from the climate conversation is still how climate change inequitably affects our people.

Pacific people, Māori, disabled people, those in poverty and members of other structurally oppressed communities are disproportionately affected by climate change – our people are seeing te taiao changing with their own eyes, noticing differences in growing kai in our papa kāika, feeling the temperature changes and sea level rise at home. In the event of disasters, we’re the most likely to be left behind, and the least likely to have the resources to get through – yet our stories still struggle to get the mainstream recognition afforded of many other activists, or when they do our identities and the communities to which we belong are a mere footnote.

How does representation impact climate action? 

Among the myriad reasons for equitable media representation as a whole is the fact that seeing ourselves reflected in stories, social media and news items helps to shape the real world, hands-on action, and political possibilities for our young people. 

Given the state of our taiao, we all know that addressing this climate challenge requires many ringawera to come together, and to make not only individual but also large-scale changes to the very ways our society is operating. However, when we see all this news coverage, it can paint a particular picture of what that change and activism supposedly looks like.

When we do actually get stories on climate activism kaupapa, they’re often about gifted young people writing policy, getting science scholarships or innovating new technology, putting bodies on the line for large protests, running for elected office, taking on effectively full-time advocacy jobs completely unpaid, and much community engagement practically looks like reading jargon-heavy documents in complex legalese English so we can give a university-level essay response with policy recommendations. I don’t know about you, but even writing that short list felt exhausting.

While these are all great and necessary ways to interact and use the tools of our democracy to demand the action required to address climate change, these are not particularly inclusive. For many of our rangatahi, when hearing about these sorts of actions, the unspoken message is that they aren’t for us. 

Representatives of the indigenous peoples’ caucus protest at the World Climate Summit (Photo: Monika Skolimowska via Getty Images)

They’re not for those who haven’t had the privilege of tertiary-level education; or those who need to work full-time to keep their whānau afloat; or for those who physically can’t put their bodies in inaccessible spaces, let alone in very dangerous ones; or for those whose experience of climate change comes tied up in a package of cultural trauma to unpack.

I recognise the irony in writing this as a 20-something political studies graduate with relative financial freedom, who for much of her life has been able to force my body to comply with demanding requests for physical labour, and whose previous pieces for The Spinoff have largely been reporting back from the epitome of privileged spaces – the UN climate negotiations. However, if there’s anything I’ve learned in my 15 years as an activist, including the times where I have had to watch from the sidelines, it’s that meaningful change must be truly inclusive.

That inclusion needs to go beyond starting and closing hui with karakia, or having one disabled member speak, and it needs to go beyond putting “brown faces” at the front of marketing campaigns. It needs to start with really unpacking how and why these people are left out of the mainstream climate movement, and ensuring that they have space to share their own whakaaro in a way that fits their own cultural needs, rather than trying to fit them into an existing mould.

Stepping up for our climate

A few years back, I was fortunate enough to gain some of these insights in my time with Māori public health organisation Hāpai Te Hauora, which challenged conventional thinking around community engagement, and asked what meaningful participation for our communities looks or could look like. 

Seeing first-hand how our communities responded (or didn’t) to public health messages, and attempts at community engagement, our team decided to embark on the mission of making civic participation more inclusive and accessible for our communities. Partnering with Te Kaunihera o Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland Council) and my new team at Activate, we developed a project to flip the narrative about rangatahi civic participation on its head. Climate change was the obvious place to start.

Today we got to bring that process full circle, launching Step Up For Tāmaki, a short web series and online engagement platform that challenges the false ideas that rangatahi Māori “aren’t engaged” in politics or civic participation, and presents what we hope is a much more hopeful and inclusive alternative. 

Through co-design and collaboration with rangatahi Māori and Pasifika, we learnt that far from being disengaged, many were already taking action to address climate change, even if they didn’t phrase it in that way. The vast majority followed environmental influencers on social media, and named activists or other community members who were taking various action to combat climate change, in a uniquely indigenous way. 

They were choosing to go zero waste like the young wāhine of Para Kore ki Tāmaki, building community gardens like David and his whānau in west Auckland, or using social media platforms and creative talents to share pūrākau and remind others of our ancestral knowings like Haylee from Te Ohu Mana Rangatahi. Some, like both Haylee and Freya, have even gone on to join rōpū who will be sharing the authentic voice of indigenous Māori and Pacific rangatahi to world leaders in Chile later this year. 

Throughout this long process, it has been clear that when authentic, inspiring and indigenous stories are shared, our rangatahi are ready to take action, and push for change among their whānau and wider communities. We just need to get more of these stories out there. We hope that this series will go some of the way to highlighting the amazing contribution that Māori and Pacific rangatahi are already making towards protecting Papatūānuku, and that it will present a more diverse, inclusive and engaging view on what “climate action” and “civic participation” can look like.

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Step up for Tāmaki

Step Up for Tāmaki is an online platform and webseries highlighting the power of rangatahi to create positive change for their communities and contribute to inclusive climate action. We have DMKs (deep meaningful kōrero) with five rangatahi who are stepping up to protect Papatūānuku and combat climate change, and share tips, tricks, ideas and ready-to-go actions for rangatahi to join the movement and step up for our climate. 

The first two episodes are streaming now, and the entire series will be released over the next few weeks.

Kera Sherwood-O’Regan is a climate activist and member of Activate Agency. She was a producer of the Tāmaki Civics: Step Up For Tāmaki web series highlighted in this article.


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