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The 2023 Y25 (Illustrations: Pounamu Wharekawa)
The 2023 Y25 (Illustrations: Pounamu Wharekawa)

PartnersJuly 20, 2023

Meet 25 young people changing the world

The 2023 Y25 (Illustrations: Pounamu Wharekawa)
The 2023 Y25 (Illustrations: Pounamu Wharekawa)

Between completing school exams, juggling full-time jobs and looking after their families, this year’s YWCA Y25 are a shining example of the power of fighting for what you believe in.

Illustrations by Pounamu Wharekawa.

Every year, the pool of nominees for the Y25 grows bigger and stronger. Four years since its inception, the Y25 has championed the mahi of 75 young wāhine and iarere changemakers so far, and the team at YWCA are ready to introduce you to the next group.

This year’s Y25 come from all across Aotearoa. Their mahi spans advocacy for children in state care, LGBTQIA+ activism, indigenous storytelling, entrepreneurship, disability access championing, creative pursuits and more. 

YWCA CEO Dellwyn Stuart says the group shows us what’s possible for the future of Aotearoa.

“Aotearoa has an abundance of remarkable leaders already shaping their communities and our future… Together they demonstrate the diversity of experience that growing up in Aotearoa is today.”

From more than 100 nominations, the final 25 were selected for their vision, their leadership and their impact – whether far-reaching or community focused. 

“Bringing together 25 wahine and irarere, that’s political, that’s a statement of intent of what we’re trying to achieve in the world – shifting power and changing systems through collective solidarity.” – Hannah Huggan, Y25 Co-design 2022.

Meet the 2023 Y25 below:

Allyssa Verner Pula, 22, researcher, podcast host & MVPFAFF+ champion, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland (she/her)

Verner Pula is a proud Samoan woman who runs the “Mayor of Manurewa” blog and podcast, “Island Roots, Auckland Ways”. She cares deeply about her community and believes that Aotearoa can value Pasifika communities better – especially our Pasifika women and Rainbow communities. She works on the University of Auckland’s newly established Pacific research platform, Fofonga for Pacific Research Excellence, is studying towards a Masters in Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland and is also a co-collector for Te Papa, gathering stories from within Pasifika queer communities. 

Words of wisdom: “Eventually your identity won’t feel like a point of stark difference and discomfort, but instead, your identity will become your power, with that power revealing a direct path to your communities and passions.”

Alyce Lysaght, 23, engineer, podcast host and te ao Māori advocate, Te Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington (she/her)

Lysaght (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui, Pākehā) didn’t see many other ākonga Māori when she started her engineering degree in Ōtautahi Christchurch. She quickly became part of Te Akatoki, the university’s Māori Student Association and shone a light on the lack of Māori in the engineering school. This STEM trailblazer then started a podcast encouraging Māori engineers to embrace te ao Māori. An avid learner of te reo Māori, Alyce wants to support those who are learning te ao Māori after growing up in te ao Pākehā.

Words of wisdom: “You can do anything but not everything.”

Arabella Dudfield, 20, diversity advocate, Ōtautahi/Christchurch (she/her)

Arabella is all about creating equitable opportunities for the Rainbow community in Canterbury. Through her role as the Rainbow, EDI (Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) & Wellbeing rep at Lincoln University’s Student Association, she strives to provide an inclusive campus environment in which every student feels supported and empowered to thrive. She is also the Co-President of SPACE, a student-led LGBTQIA+ organization focused on fostering inclusivity and support for Rainbow students. Arabella is paving the way for women in leadership roles within the primary industries, actively working to break down barriers and empower individuals from diverse backgrounds to pursue rewarding careers in agriculture. 

Words of wisdom: “If you ever find yourself doubting if you can get through something, simply think back to everything you have overcome.”

Celine Waikohu George, 24, Māmā & care-experienced rangatahi trailblazer, Whangarei (she/her)

Māmā to seven-year-old Mason and advocate for ngā rangatahi and mokopuna in state care, Waikohu George uses her lived experience to speak up for those who are in the system after spending most of her childhood and adolescence in and out of state care. A member of the Oranga Tamariki Youth Advisory Group, her powerful testimonies have made people within the organisation pay attention. Throughout her time in state care, Celine’s māoritanga was a source of strength and connection. She is launching a podcast soon, centering voices and stories that often go unheard. 

Words of wisdom: “Don’t underestimate what you’re in the midst of for these moments will be exactly what will make you ‘qualified by experience’ which will have the power to both influence and break intergenerational change.”

Claire Ma, 17, mental health advocate, Tauranga (she/her)

Since the age of 13, Ma has been spending her free time supporting peers across the world with their mental health struggles. Working for St. John Cadet as a youth buddy and a 7 Cups listener, Ma has helped teens and their families with depression, anxiety, PTSD and conflict. During Covid, she established not-for-profit Letters to Strangers New Zealand, building a community of clubs across the motu to exchange letters of encouragement for tough times. She has presented at international webinars and conferences on mental health and the power of connection.

Words of wisdom:

“凡事必利于我 – ‘whatever happens, works in my favour’. All that is well, is well, and all that is not well will eventually work in your favour.”

Danielle Carson, 25, rangatahi and mental health champion, Waihōpai/Invercargill (she/her)

Carson was born to a resilient 21-year-old single mother, and has seen firsthand the inequity in our welfare systems. Joining the Invercargill City Youth Council at 12 years of age after already advocating in her primary school years, she’s been a champion for rangatahi in her Murihiku community. Carson volunteers her own time with Youth Line to deliver free clothing to rangatahi, and through her work at a local social service centre, Number 10, arranging free period products and kai for people who need them.

Words of wisdom: “Spend more time getting to know you, not the person you want to be. A degree will never take you as far as your passion.” 

Dua Asim, 23, Muslim wāhine outdoors enthusiast, Ōtautahi/Christchurch (she/her)

Growing up, Asim didn’t see many people from the Kiwi-Pakistani/Hijabi community doing cool outdoorsy activities. These activities never felt accessible to her until she went to university and was invited on a tramping trip. That was the first of many adventures and now, using her Instagram page with 119k followers, Asim creates educational and inspirational resources, YouTube videos, and blogs to help other young Muslim girls wanting to explore the outdoors. 

Words of wisdom: “Great success is a team sport. There is enough space for us all to succeed and when united we are able to accomplish so much more than if we were alone.” 

Eunique Ikiua, 23, Stem trailblazer and musician, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland (she/her)

Working at Microsoft by day, leading a Niuean youth leadership network on the weekend and performing as musician Heiressofthegame by night, Ikiua is a NZ-born Niuean looking to make change in every space she enters. She’s presented to more than 3,000 Māori and Pacific students on why we need more Indigenous and Pacific people in technology. With her language, Vagahau Niue, classified as ‘definitely endangered’, in 2021 Ikiua established Three Star Nation, now 1200 Niuean youth across New Zealand and Australia to address the decline of native speakers, reconnecting, inspiring and empowering Niue youth descendants across the globe.

Words of wisdom: “Growth does not know safety, so choose your growth time and time again. The beauty of struggle is the progression that follows. After all, diamonds are forged in the rough.”

Georgia Tawhiti Latu, 16, CEO of Pōtiki Poi!, Ōtepoti/Dunedin (she/her)

Latu is one of the youngest CEOs in Aotearoa. Based in Te Waipounamu, the year 12 student is the CEO of Pōtiki Poi, the largest poi manufacturing company in the world. Latu started Pōtiki Ooi in early 2019 as a fundraiser to get herself to a wānanga up north. In three days, she’d fundraised over $1,000 and realised she had the potential to create a business – one that could give back to her whānau and community. Last year they made poi for the Rugby World Cup. Pōtiki Poi uses upcycled materials and supports diverse abilities by providing work pathways for people with disability.

Words of wisdom: “Whāia te iti kahurangi ki te tūohu koe me he maunga teitei – Seek the treasure you value most dearly. If you bow your head, let it be to a lofty mountain. Let nothing but the impossible turn you from your goal”.

Hollyanna Ainea, 24, educator & Pacific peoples’ champion, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland (she/her)

Ainea’s gafa extends across the villages of Fa’ala & Vailoa Palauli, Tulaele, Siumu and Faleu (Manono Island) and she’s the first in her family to graduate from university – with first class honours. She recently submitted her Masters, exploring the influence of race politics on the Vā in German Sāmoa. As a trained Pacific historian and currently the careers advisor/administrator at Tangaroa College, Ainea mentors and amplifies the aspirations of the young people she tutors, encouraging them to believe in themselves and chase their dreams.

Words of wisdom: “You are so extraordinary that there is only one of you.”

Hope Cotton, 18, Deaf, Queer, Disability Advocate, Te Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington (she/her)

A champion in the deaf, queer, disabled and Christian communities, Cotton has worked hard to bring her identities together. Hope’s unique experiences have fuelled her advocacy. She petitions for captioning in media and political discussions, advocates for a more accessible education and health system for deaf and disabled people, and she co-organised her school’s first pride week. This year she’s co-leading a monthly LGBTQIA+ affirming church service called Belong.

Words of wisdom: “Believe in yourself and back yourself. Be proud of who you are and never try to make yourself small.”

Jasmin Singh Kang, 21, Rangatahi Civics Leader, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland (she/her)

Singh Kang takes pride in her roots as a proud first-generation Kiwi of Panjabi descent. Growing up in Manurewa, South Auckland, she’s always seen her community as more than a place to live. She joined the Manurewa Youth Council in 2019, and soon she found herself elected chairperson. She works alongside rangatahi to help them make a positive impact in the world. Singh Kang is the first in her family to attend university, studying commerce and arts.

Words of wisdom: “Embrace your culture and heritage with pride and stay connected to your roots, language and traditions. We are stronger together and by lifting each other up, we can create positive change in our community and beyond.”

Jeongwoo Lim, 24, women in STEM advocate & leader, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland (she/her)

Empowering young women in STEM – a traditionally white, cis male-dominated space – is Lim’s passion. After changing her university major from Biomedical Science to Computer Science & Psychology, she worked her way to securing first-hand experiences including as the national technology manager at UN Youth. She was the 2022 Auckland CEO of Chiasma, a national organisation connecting students and academia with the wider STEM industry, and was also the youngest member of the South Korean Government’s National Unification Advisory Council. She hopes to keep advocating for women of colour in leadership and young people’s mental wellbeing.

Words of wisdom: “Women, especially young women of colour, are constantly praised for being self-sacrificing. Your cup is important enough to fill first! Rest regularly and ask for support long before you reach breaking point.”

Jomana Moharram, 16, human rights, D&I and climate changemaker, Ōtepoti/Dunedin (she/her)

Moharram’s family immigrated to Aotearoa from Egypt when she was seven years old, but her early years in Ōtepoti were marked by racism and Islamophobia. Now at Otago Girls High, she’s the student representative on the school board, a passionate advocate for human rights and climate change, serves as a youth ambassador for Save the Children and leads her school’s Amnesty International group. Moharram also spearheaded the development of a diversity and inclusion strategic plan in year 12, which plays a crucial role in promoting student wellbeing.

Words of wisdom: “It’s okay to be loud and proud. Just because you’re young doesn’t mean that your opinions aren’t as valid or that you shouldn’t be valued as much.” 

Kate Laughter, 17, spoken word poet, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland (she/her)

At 15, Laughter discovered spoken word poetry, igniting her passion for activism. Rooted in Māoritanga, Laughter uses her poetry to reclaim her identity as a young wahine toa, and challenges audiences to be kaitiaki. She has been a featured poet at events including the Auckland Arts Festival and Doc Edge Film Festival. Laughter currently serves as the Director of Operations at the Puketāpapa Youth Foundation. She leads her team to promote, design, and facilitate rangatahi-led events.

Words of wisdom: “Rejection is just a crack on your journey’s pathway, remember it is not a place to stay and it is not your final destination. Never stop moving forward, the world does not wait for you.”

Leilani Faaiuaso, 20, enterprise & governance changemaker, youth & Pasifika advocate, Papaioea/Palmerston North (she/her)

Proud Samoan wahine Faaiuaso is passionate about making ideas a reality through social innovation and enterprise. She holds multiple governance positions including president of the Massey University Student Enterprise Club, student board observer and advisor on the Student Investment Committee for Massey Ventures Ltd, and youth board trustee and chair of the Alumni Advisory Group of Young Enterprise Trust. She advocates strongly for youth, students, and Pasifika people.

Words of wisdom: “Learn to be patient with yourself and your journey and give yourself space to grow but also to cry, laugh and smile. Being present and enjoying the moment is just as important as working hard for a better future.”

Mary-Lynn Huxford, 24, state care reform advocate & poet, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland (she/her)

Huxford’s lived experience as a child in New Zealand’s state care system has fuelled her advocacy for child-centred policy reform. Last year she campaigned to amend the Oversight of Oranga Tamariki System Bill, reducing the review time from five years down to three. She’s a member of Te Rōpū Pūmanawa, the youth consultant group to the Ministerial Advisory Board to Oranga Tamariki. She was the vice-chair for the 2022 National Youth Council at VOYCE – Whakarongo Mai. Now, she works as their national care-experienced youth participation advisor.

Words of wisdom: “You are the only person who you hang out with from your first breath until your last, so spend time getting to know who you are and what you value. That way you’ll know how you want to show up and give in the spaces you care about.”

Pieta Bouma, 22, outdoors, access and equity champion, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland (she/her) 

Since becoming a paraplegic at 18, Bouma has used her skills as a writer to champion disability justice. She plays wheelchair basketball, rows, cycles, rock climbs and competed in the 2022 Waka Ama World sprint championships in London – being awarded the 2022 arts student of the year Service to Sports Award. She was selected to be on the Halberg Youth Council where she works to empower young people with disabilities to access the benefits of participating in sports. 

Words of wisdom: “Follow your curiosity and what excites you and give everything a go while you are young, eventually you will naturally figure out what sets your soul alight more than anything else!”

Sarah Kelsey, 24, finance people weaver & podcaster, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland (she/her)

After studying accounting and starting her career as a graduate at PwC, Kelsey left the path laid out in front of her to pursue her passion. In 2020, she founded her podcast The OneUp Project, to tackle the lack of accessibility to financial education in Aotearoa. 180 episodes later, she’s dedicated to discussing financial wellness and how to make these topics easier to understand for everyone. She is passionate about bridging the inequities in financial literacy.

Words of wisdom: “Don’t be afraid to try something for the first time (or be afraid and do it anyway), and continue to stay open to a diverse range of perspectives and ways of being.”

Taualofa Totua, 23, multimedia journalist and creative storyteller, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland (they/she)

Through their mahi as a journalist and creative, Totua centres the voices of underserved communities, building a portfolio through honest reporting, informed story sovereignty and art that privileges joy and healing. Currently, they’re the project manager for the Vuli Tara Programme, helping Pasifika makers establish thriving careers, a core member of a teine Sāmoa art collective: MALAE/CO and co-founder of Filemu Zine. Totua’s ancestors come from Afega, Malie and Leulumoega in Samoa; and Neiafu and Holonga, in Vava’u Tonga.

Words of wisdom: “You do not have to heal yourself into a perfect story of success and your imperfect progress is part of a path and plan greater than your own will and dreams. Lean into the imperfectness sis.”

Tylah Farani-Watene, 25, Māori & Pasifika wāhine champion, Te Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington (she/her)

With Māori and Pasifika whakapapa, Farani-Watene acknowledges her whakapapa to Waikato-Tainui, Ngāti Maru, Te Arawa, Taputimu, and Nofoali’i. She has been on a mission to change institutional issues that affect her communities, from inaccessible health care to environments not designed for Māori and Pasifika success. She is a champion for cultural safety to be taught across the youth and public sector. Her drive is to create more leadership opportunities for Māori and Pasifika wāhine.

Words of wisdom: “Healing is an intergenerational journey.”

Veisinia Moli, 17, Pasifika advocate & changemaker, Waiharakeke/Blenheim (she/her)

Moli advocates for Pasifika cultures to be recognized and celebrated across Marlborough. Growing up Tongan in an area where they were the minority was challenging. Moli stands on the shoulders of her older siblings as the first ever Pasifika and Tongan Manu Kura (Head Girl) at Marlborough Girls’ College. It’s her passion to educate people about her beautiful Tongan culture, spread positivity and uplift the young women who haven’t had a chance to celebrate their indigeneity.

Words of wisdom: “Don’t stress too much about the future; live in the moment and make the best memories with the people around you.”

Vira Paky, 23, poet, civics & refugee advocate, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland (she/her)

A first-generation Congolese-New Zealander, Vira’s poetry tackles the intersections of feminism, global politics, race and African identity. She’s passionate about advocacy and equitable civic engagement. Last year she led the Youth Leadership Symposium, Mana Rangatahi Hui Taumata, creating resources for youth-related policy decisions in health and mental health. This year, Vira’s a keynote speaker at the World Vision 2023 Youth Leadership Conference, co-Chairperson of Auckland Council Youth Advisory Panel, and a UNICEF 2023 Young Ambassador.

Words of wisdom: “You are going to be bad before you become good. It is a part of the process of doing anything new so do not run away from the fear of being bad because that is how it always starts.”

Vivien Whyte, 22, consent activist & musician, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland (she/her)

As a Chinese-Indonesian-Samoan-Pākehā New Zealander, Whyte’s heritage is an integral part of her leadership journey. She sings and plays many instruments, and uses her voice to advocate for reduced sexual harm in Aotearoa and to promote consent culture. Recently she was the national coordinator for Thursdays in Black, a campaign to prevent and respond to sexual violence in tertiary institutions. She played a vital role in establishing survivor-centric safe spaces on campuses.

Words of wisdom: “Self care is also community care. You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

Zina Abu Ali, 23, queer youth advocate, Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland (she/her)

Abu Ali strives to create safe, inclusive environments for queer youth in Aotearoa. She’s the vice-president of the AUT Student Association, a human rights activist and a writer. Abu Ali is researching how racism, intimate partner relationships, and social support affect queer ethnic youth in Aotearoa. She advocates for the wellbeing of minorities by fighting for gender neutral bathrooms, safe housing for students in unsafe homes, visual smoke alarms for hard of hearing students/staff, and making sure that financial assistance is accessible.

Words of wisdom: “People will tell you that you’re too loud or too quiet, you’re too direct or too passionate. Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe in and speak your mind. Don’t let anyone else dim your light or silence your voice.”

The Y25 is supported by generous partners: Mecca M-POWER, Kiwibank, Bell Gully, Joyce Fisher Charitable Trust, Mediaworks Foundation and AUT.

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