Sophie Handford, Shisla Macleod, Lit Wei Chin and Jess Jenkins (Illustrations: Ezra Whittaker)
Sophie Handford, Shisla Macleod, Lit Wei Chin and Jess Jenkins (Illustrations: Ezra Whittaker)

PartnersNovember 1, 2021

The rangatahi sharing the voice of their generation with Apec world leaders

Sophie Handford, Shisla Macleod, Lit Wei Chin and Jess Jenkins (Illustrations: Ezra Whittaker)
Sophie Handford, Shisla Macleod, Lit Wei Chin and Jess Jenkins (Illustrations: Ezra Whittaker)

New Zealand’s youth are helping shape a declaration to Apec leaders as the region sets a plan spanning the next 20 years. The Spinoff spoke to three delegates ahead of the Apec youth summit. 

This content was created in paid partnership with Mfat.

Jess Jenkins (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa) doesn’t see the task of tackling climate change, or Covid-19, as a burden. 

“As soon as people start thinking about burdens, they start thinking about the consequences of that burden,” says the 18-year-old award-winning orator from Tītahi Bay, Porirua.

“And rather than a consequence of a burden, I like to think of it as an opportunity to tackle or a barrier to overcome.”

Jenkins was meant to be studying at Harvard University this year, but Covid-19 put that plan on hold. Instead she is preparing for November’s Voices of the Future youth summit for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec), part of the final act in New Zealand’s hosting of Apec 2021. 

She is one of four representatives from Aotearoa: Shisla Macleod, 22, helps shape trade policy for the New Zealand Customs Service; 24-year-old Lit Wei Chin oversees climate change and sustainability at Auckland Unlimited; and Sophie Handford, the 20-year-old Kāpiti Coast district councillor who helped coordinate the 2019 School Strike 4 Climate NZ.

They are just a few of the region’s nearly one billion young people whose schooling, training or jobs have been disrupted by the upheaval wrought by Covid-19. The immediate impact of the pandemic is set against the long-term impacts of climate change. With Apec members trying to reset their economies and New Zealand leading talks on Apec’s goals for the next two decades, the summit is a chance for young people to have their voices heard at this important moment. 

Most people know about Apec conferences from the obligatory “family photo” of leaders posing in local attire. The photos have showcased Peruvian and Chilean ponchos, Australian stockman raincoats, Malaysian and Indonesian batik shirts, and, when New Zealand last hosted member economies (it’s Apec custom to refer to members as “economies”) in 1999, All Blacks jackets. When leaders met virtually in July, their digital background featured ferns and Māori design.

Since New Zealand took on hosting responsibilities in December 2020, hundreds of virtual meetings have been held with the region’s various government ministers, senior public officials, central banks and business leaders. Against the unique backdrop of Covid-19, New Zealand has focused on how the forum responds economically. The forum has examined how women, indigenous peoples, small and medium-sized businesses and other sections of society disproportionately bearing the economic brunt can be included in the recovery in the short and long term, and how a greener, more digital future can be realised.

The intergenerational vision of these policies made at Apec this year means the mandate for youth voices is more important than ever. Coming together virtually across two days in the second week of November, at the same time as Apec leaders meet, over 100 youth delegates will learn from experts, and discuss the issues facing their generation. At the end of the summit they will issue a declaration setting out their vision for the region and how their economies should achieve it. 

This year’s delegates have started drafting their declaration based on New Zealand’s focus areas. At the end of the youth event, in an unprecedented move, delegates will hand it over to the forum’s chair, prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

Jess Jenkins (Illustrations: Ezra Whittaker)

Jenkins isn’t focused on whether future tech pioneers can conjure up a new dimension by 2040 or if humans will have made landfall on Mars. Her vision of the world starts and ends with living in the here and now, addressing today’s issues on the planet we’ve been gifted. 

“The world in 20 years’ time, it will be what we make it,” she says. 

She says the more voices that are represented and heard, the better the conclusion Apec economies will land on. Jenkins is used to using her voice. In 2020, her final year at Tawa College, she won the Race Unity Speech Awards with a monologue entitled “Titiro whakamuri, kia anga whakamua – To face the future, look to the past”. For just over nine minutes, her speech picked apart her identity as a kiritea Māori, one who speaks “in the tongue of the obvious” but cannot speak the reo of her tīpuna yet. She shared the doubt and confusion that comes from her divisive past as she pondered what a unified future might look like.

With one foot in te ao Pākeha and one in te ao Māori, her contribution to New Zealand Apec 2021 reflects the host economy’s concerted effort to embrace and elevate indigenous voices and knowledge and their role in shaping the region’s response to its challenges. The understanding and appreciation indigenous people have for their tūrangawaewae represents a powerful source of solutions to the world’s great problems, says Jenkins. Especially when it’s often indigenous populations that face a greater impact from issues like climate change and Covid-19. 

Tikanga Māori features heavily in New Zealand’s digital presence at Apec – te reo Māori and waiata Māori are used where possible to highlight the importance of indigenous inclusion. A report commissioned by Apec New Zealand highlighted the potential of indigenous economies like the Māori economy, which grew from $16.5b in 2006 to over $69b in 2019. That report provides an evidence-based platform for other Apec economies to begin strengthening their own ties with indigenous cultures.

“Taking advice from those who were here first and have a foundational understanding of the whenua is so important,” Jenkins says. 

“There’s so much metaphoric beauty within te reo Māori and some of the understandings behind it can really set a great new normal for us in this difficult time of reset and turbulence.”

Shisla Macleod (Illustrations: Ezra Whittaker)

Shisla Macleod first appreciated diplomacy when she observed her New Zealand father and Brazilian mother navigate their relationship, embracing their differences and treasuring their similarities. Her dual identities have given her a unique understanding of her role as an Apec youth delegate. 

Within the trade policy area she works on at Customs, Macleod has seen how the pandemic affects small and medium-sized enterprises, indigenous economies and women-led businesses. And across the region it has amplified pre-existing inequalities and highlighted society’s vulnerabilities. It suddenly forced us to think about how many people in Aotearoa lacked access to the internet when we were forced to work and study from home. 

“That’s just something that should have been thought about long ago,” she says. “We can try and fix [the inequalities] now for the future. And it’s not too late.”

After a series of meetings chaired by New Zealand earlier this year, the 21 Apec economies showed support for easing some trade restrictions to allow vaccination rates in Apec countries to grow. The consensus showed the willingness of each represented economy to address the inequalities that have come to light due to Covid-19 and vaccine access.

The group is eager to define how future youth summits might be influential, having wondered what will happen to the 2021 youth declaration once it’s handed over to Ardern. They would like to see their successors meet earlier in a host year so that their statement informs officials and leaders’ subsequent meetings, rather than being tacked on after their talks. Seeing the passion and drive in her generation gives her hope for the future, and she wants their voice taken seriously.

“There has been so much mobilising globally about the issues that we’re all facing and I’m thinking ‘these are the future generations of leaders’ that are going to be making the decisions. That really does bring me hope,” she says.

“We’re still basically fighting for the same thing. It’s just that now, we don’t have to fight for it on the streets, we can talk to them and solve this in a way that works for both of us.”

Lit Wei Chin (Illustrations: Ezra Whittaker)

Lit Wei Chin “fell” into Auckland Unlimited’s climate change team. But in hearing how he progressed from advocating for youth to learning science at university to combating one of the world’s biggest issues in his day job, where he is now feels like something he has always been working towards.

While learning about the theories underlying climate change for his science degree, he came across the 1987 UN Brundtland report, famous for defining sustainable development as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

That definition, he says, spurred him on to figure out how he could live up to it in a job. Landing a spot in Auckland Unlimited’s graduate programme exposed him to various departments like international education and tourism, and then, as he says, he fell into the team where his passions matched with his purpose. Chin helps develop projects aimed at building a low-emissions, climate-resilient economy for his region. 

As an economy creating 84% of its energy through renewable sources, New Zealand has positioned itself well as a leader in the renewable energy space. In its role as host, it has supported the long-standing call for the phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, and is working to refresh Apec’s list of environmental goods that promote the trade of products that benefit the environment.

The Aotearoa youth delegation is focused on “a future for all”, one of the four themes of Voices of the Future. The theme will consider the way the pandemic has created “the opportunity to grow our economies differently”. Chin says this is a chance to share the responsibility of remaking the region for the better and for his generation to have an impact on what that looks like. 

“We can’t do it as just youth by ourselves. We have to ensure that there is that cooperation.”

Chin and his peers are aware how critical this year’s intergenerational mandate makes the youth declaration they will present to prime minister Jacinda Ardern in just over a fortnight. Decisions have been made for their generation well before some of them were even born, he says, so the delegates have future generations in mind when creating a 20-year plan that is adaptable and always relevant.

His vision for 2040 is a world that is sustainable, resilient to all kinds of disruption, inclusive and full of equal opportunities – a world we should have now, he says.

“I see the future having a wide range of voices and perspectives on how we can bring that all together. That sums up our delegation quite well – having all those different perspectives and different ages and different lifestyles that we’ve grown up in.”

The Apec Voices of the Future conference takes place virtually on November 9 and 10.

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