Inspirational Young New Zealanders

Judge Lope Ginnen chaired the first session on the second day of the IAWJ conference, titled “Inspirational Young New Zealanders”. This session featured a panel of four motivated young people, who variously spoke about disability rights, the impact of women in our lives, the experience of Muslims in New Zealand, and the importance of the Pacific on climate change issues. The speakers were:

  • Grace Stratton;
  • Pita Roycroft;
  • Sarah Ather; and
  • Fili Fepulea’i-Tapua’i

Judge Ginnen described these young people as having such a “clarity of vision”, and possessing a strong idea of who they were and what they could do in the world. She said that their actions give all of us “profound hope” for the future.

Grace Stratton

At 21 years old, Grace is the founder of “All is for All”, a business advocating for disability rights everywhere. She is a named person in the Forbes 30 under 30 and is the ACC winner of the Attitude Awards.

For Grace, how the world sees disabled people is important. Simply being disabled is not where the difficulties lie. Rather, the difficulties in disabled people’s lives emerge from the fact the world is not built for them. To ensure that disabled people have a quality of life equal to that of their non-disabled peers requires changing systems to enable disabled people to thrive.

One such system is our court system. A quarter of New Zealand’s population are estimated to be living with some sort of disability. Ten per cent of New Zealanders have dyslexia, but this percentage climbs to a staggering 90 per cent in our prisons. This begs the question of whether our courts are equipped to deal with disabled and neurodiverse individuals. While the answer is currently a resounding “no”, Grace says we should focus on reframing the way we look at disability. For example, she says her wheelchair does not make her disabled. Instead, it enables her to thrive. What makes her disabled is when she encounters systems, people’s perceptions and environments that do not consider how she navigates the world. In this way, a disability is imposed on top of her existing impairment because of the way the world is built.

Hence, when we reframe our understanding of disability in this way, it raises a challenge for our justice system. Seeing disability as the fault of an individual predisposes us to miss opportunities to do better and to unlock innovations. Reframing how we see disability thus brings us closer to ensuring equity and a level playing field for all.

Grace therefore calls us to do better: we need to strive towards having equitable courts, those that value disabled people and their experiences. Doing so is the responsibility of everyone to ensure those that come before our courts and those working in our systems can access justice. Overall, this goes to create better spaces for everyone. When we advance the rights of persons with disabilities, we are advancing the rights of every single person in society.

Pita Roycroft

Pita’s presentation focused on identity and the impact the female role models in his life have had on his identity. He began with an exploration of what identity means, and opined it is who someone is, where they have come from, and where they might go in the future. As well, Pita described identity as including one’s history, aspirations, how they relate to others and how they think and feel. But, the distinctive and various traits that make up one’s identity do not always blend well together and this conflict can lead to identity crises.

For Pita personally, he described how he has found certain aspects of his identity significantly more difficult than others. His felt his cultural identity, one of being from Māori and Samoan descent, did not always fit together with his sexual and professional identity. That is, for most of Pita’s professional life he has worked in European and New Zealand pākehā-dominated places. He described that these experiences sometimes caused him to suppress part of his culture because he wanted to “fit in”. He thought he needed to do this to succeed, partly also because he did not feel qualified enough to express his culture or because he did not contribute enough to those communities. Similarly, Pita said at points he also felt that his sexuality identity held him back. Specifically, that the way he acted and spoke was not consistent with the expectations his culture had of him.

What Pita said he has come to learn, however, is that the cultural and sexual sides of his identity can be a driver; not a hindrance. He remarked that, throughout all his professional life, there have been strong, fierce women who he has had as role models, some of whom have taught him about who he is and who he can be. From working for a member of parliament, Pita said he learned the value of having and expressing strong opinions. From working for a partner at Crown Law, Pita learned the value of teamwork and leadership. Finally, Pita said from working for the Chief Justice, he learned the value of having a larger goal than your immediate self, of focus and dedication to a larger ideal.

Then turning to his personal life, Pita described his sister and his mother as having the largest impact on him. He described his sister as helping him resolve the conflict between all the different facets of his intersecting identities. As a result, his internal personal tension is settling. And, for his mother, Pita described her as having taught him perseverance and to be proud of his roots. That he succeeds because of who he is; not in spite of it.

In conclusion, Pita left us with a challenge: do not be afraid to learn and to develop your own identity. While it is an intensely personal thing, it is inevitably shaped by those around you. For Pita, the greatest impact on his life has been because of the women around him.

Sarah Ather

Sarah talked about her personal experience as a Muslim woman, both before and after the Christchurch mosque attack in March 2019.

Sarah was born in Saudi Arabia and moved to New Zealand aged three. She recounted that it took her a while, however, to come to call New Zealand home. It takes not just citizenship to tall a place home, but acceptance, tolerance and freedom to be oneself without persecution. But growing up in the post-9/11 era meant she faced distrust and Islamophobia constantly. That was exacerbated from 2011 onwards by the increasing media coverage of Islamic attacks overseas. When she was introduced to social media, Sarah found that comment sections on news articles related to Muslims were filled with hate, with alt-right and white supremacist content going uncensored, as if content on the internet would remain on the internet and could not possibly lead to actual violence. At university, Muslims were discussed as a threat, without actual knowledge about what Islamic values really are.

Sarah said that by the time of the Christchurch attack, Muslims in New Zealand were already in a state of distress. The country’s perception was that if there were to be an attack here, it would come from the Muslim community. This, of course, was completely wrong. People lost their lives because of intolerance and hate, but also because of the country’s wider prejudice: the terrorist’s views were made clear to the community and community leaders had tried to alert the government, but nothing was done.

The response, Sarah said, was more positive. The attack was rightly called a terrorist attack; there were changes to firearm laws; videos of the attack were censored online; there was a Royal Commission of Inquiry; and there was unity in the aftermath—something Sarah found unexpected simply because it had never happened before. This, for Sarah, was a glimpse a what the country could become in the future.

But there is still much work to be done. Justice had been done in one respect—the conviction and sentence of the terrorist himself—but the years the community had spent under surveillance still needed to be addressed. Sarah reminded us that justice does not start in the courtroom, it starts with people on the ground, accepting the differences of others. She cautioned the profession and judiciary against tokenism, and encouraged everyone to look at the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Bill critically and to work to change perceptions of what terrorism means.

Fili Fepulea’i-Tapua’i

Fili is a climate change activist and she talked about the impact of climate change on her and the Pacific Islands. She started off by saying that climate change is personal—how can climate change be personal? The importance of water and the sea can be stated in scientific terms, but the sea defines the people who live in Oceania.

Fili told the audience about a Samoan word, “manuia”, meaning “it is good”. It is made up of two words, “manu”, meaning “bird”, and “ia”, meaning “fish”. This is a reference to a Bible story in which God crated the world, as if to say “creation is good”.

Fili said that water is also good, but reminded us that it is rising on Pacific shorelines. Villages have had to be evacuated and relocated. And yet the Pacific Islands are almost never part of climate change conversations. Fili recounted when she went to a climate change conference, and she was the only one to ask what the government was doing for the Pacific Islands. The Minister of Climate Change’s response began with “When the Pacific Islands sink”, as if the Pacific Islands, their culture, and their people did not mean anything.

Indigenous people make up less than 5% of the world’s population but protect more than 80% of the world’s biodiversity. The Pacific Islands produce well under 1% of carbon emissions, but it is the most endangered region. All of this was almost dystopian to Fili, yet it is real. Her biggest fear is that one day her home will only be a story.

Fili said that people often ask, what’s the point of saving the Pacific Islands if they’ll sink anyway? The answer, she says, is so what? She reminded us that the fact we might not enjoy the fruits of our labours does not mean that they are pointless, and that being an ancestor is to do everything possible to protect those that come after and to ensure they have a better life.

Fili ended with a call to indigenous youth to take climate change seriously, to fight for the preservation of their homelands, so that this is a story not of destruction but of creation. She also called on the audience to look for indigenous and Pacific voices in conversations about climate change. And she called on New Zealand, as a world leader on environmental issues, to champion Pacific Island voices.


Reported by Diana Qiu and Hannah Yang