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Career

Schools Strike 4 Climate protest leader, Sophie Handford, has just become NZ's youngest councillor

Watch this space!

By Julie Jacobson
At just 18, Sophie Handford's CV already reads like that of someone twice her age.
Climate change activist, youth Member of Parliament, fashion ambassador (for sustainable clothing label Kowtow), Girlboss sustainability award winner, inaugural Impact award recipient, 2019 NZ Taiao Youth Award (Commitment to the Environment ), local housing trust volunteer, head girl and district councillor.
It's the first and last of those that have most recently catapulted Sophie into the nation's consciousness, if not our living rooms.
It was Sophie we saw, in orange fluoro vest, megaphone in hand, leading thousands of her contemporaries on the Schools Strike 4 Climate protests through the streets of the capital to Parliament recently, passionately but eloquently putting her generation's concerns for the planet to the politicians.
Now she's become the country's youngest councillor, picking up the highest number of candidate votes in the Paekākāriki -Raumati ward and a new title – Kapiti Coast district councillor.
Sophie (pictured with family dog Tasman) is taking the lead for her generation.
Sitting in a Wellington café, the newly-elected local body politician is still pinching herself.
She moves out of range of a crying baby and laughs, remembering the huge surprise when she got thecall on election night.
Sophie and her campaign team – all high-school students and all except one too young to vote – were anxiously awaiting results, wondering how best to quell the nerves.
There was a long beach walk, then a re-group at a friend's house. But as the night wore on and they still hadn't heard, the decision was made to head along to the local community hall where a barn dance, of all things, was being held.
"There was a yodelling competition, there were hay bales, there were fairy lights," regales a still "pretty shocked" Sophie.
"We did stripping the willow [a type of line dance], that sort of thing and then I got the text, and was like 'Yay'! We just all kind of went berserk."
The teenager talks about "we" a lot, crediting her campaign team, headed by Paraparaumu College student Maha Fier, with getting her not just across the line, but over it with double the number of votes of the second-placed contender.
They are now helping their friend put together a plan for the year ahead, updating email addresses and setting up a new website. And yes, she admits, there has been the occasional skipped class.
"It's like, 'It's totally fine, we'll do that during period two, or we'll meet you now, media studies doesn't matter for now – this is real-life media studies!' They're amazing. Honestly, I could not be doing any of this without them."
Sophie, whose childhood included regular weekend bushwalks and camping, recalls clearly the first time she heard the phrase "climate change".
Her family – mum Bridget, dad Peter and 14-year-old brother Arlo – live on the Paekākāriki beachfront, Kapiti Island a comforting talisman to the west.
The area is part of a 42-kilometre stretch of the coastline at threat from storms and coastal erosion. The regional council plans to move the nearby surf club and close off some beach access.
Sophie tells, "When I was about 12, my parents got a letter from the council essentially saying that the sea would be seeping into our garage in 50 years' time. They were sitting at the table looking really concerned. They explained it to me and at first I couldn't really understand because our house is slightly elevated, but then it hit me.
"The really scary thing is that I'm worried about the future – of myself, of my generation, of my family – yet there are so many people who can't worry about their future; they are fighting for the right now."
Still, while climate change is certainly her main focus, Sophie balks at being labelled a single-issue campaigner.
One of her immediate concerns, aside from establishing a council climate change committee, is the lack of youth housing in the region.
"Youth homelessness is quite a big problem in Kapiti," she tells. "We have people couch surfing because they have been kicked out of home or don't have anywhere to live, or their home isn't a safe place.
"The thing I'm really coming to realise is that a lot of these issues are all one and the same. When we're trying to solve one of them, we're also trying to reduce other inequalities and injustices."
She says her parents, who share her passion for the environment – Peter is a sustainable land use consultant and their home incorporates passive solar heating – are proud of her achievements, despite some initial hesitancy when she first mooted her plan to run for public office.
"I don't think that was what they were expecting from their 18-year-old daughter – they kind of looked at each other and were like, 'Alright if that's what you want to do and if that's the way you want to make a difference.' I'm really grateful for that. I recognise it's a privilege that maybe not so many people have."

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