She’s the national coordinator of School Strike 4 Climate NZ, and at 18 years old is one of the youngest elected councillors in New Zealand history.
The inspiring Sophie Handford is one of the leaders of School Strike 4 Climate NZ, the organisers of the intergenerational climate strike held nationwide on September 27 2019 and attended by an estimated 170,000 Kiwis. SS4CNZ is just one of the youth-led, grassroots groups campaigning for climate action in New Zealand – they stand for change alongside Te Ara Whatu, Pacific Climate Warriors, and 4TK.
We caught up with the newly elected councillor for the Kāpiti Coast to discuss protests, progress and politics.
Can you tell our readers who you are and what you do?
I am Sophie Handford, and I’m one of the national coordinators of School Strike 4 Climate NZ. I’m part of a team of around 50 rangatahi from across New Zealand pulling together these strikes for climate justice. I also currently work for Enviroschools and The GO Club, a science and technology group for girls.
What is School Strike 4 Climate, and what is your role?
School Strike 4 Climate is a movement of young people worldwide calling on our leaders to take urgent and meaningful action on the climate crisis. The climate crisis is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, and in a time when all of the news keeps getting worse, it is important that our youth and the people of New Zealand feel empowered to take action. The reality is that we do still have time, but only if we begin acting now. I was the founder of this movement in New Zealand, having been very inspired by Greta Thunberg in Sweden and the courage she showed at only 16 years of age.
When did you first get into social action?
When I was in year eight, 12 years old, I invited our local MP in to speak to our class because I felt very strongly about my belief that decisions being made should represent the people and the planet. From then, I began speaking at Select Committee public submission allocations and organising events at high school. In year ten, I became one of the youngest students to be elected as the student representative onto the Board of Trustees. In year 12, I became one of the Kāpiti College service captains and spent the year working with two other incredible students to run social action events and projects within the realm of our school.
How did you get where you are today?
I threw myself into the deep end. I accepted that I will never have all of the answers or the best way of approaching things, but I will learn along the way and I just accepted that that’s okay. I worked alongside those who have experience and was open to learning along the way.
How did you learn how to navigate government bureaucracy, holding protests, organising groups and communicating effectively?
I’m definitely still learning… I learnt from incredible older activists such as Raven Maeder, who have had experience with all of this before. I am so grateful for their leadership in paving the way and making it possible for a movement like SS4C to exist in New Zealand.
Why did you decide to run for council?
It doesn’t sit well with me to see our planet and our young people not having a voice around that Council table. I refuse to sit on my hands and see so many people not be supported by the status quo.
What does being elected to the Kāpiti District Council mean for you?
Being elected means a lot to me because it means that I am able to represent a whole group of people who aren’t currently being represented, and I’ll also have the chance to represent our environment which often doesn’t have a voice. The first thing I said when I found out the results was “we did it team”. It’s not just me that’s been elected, we did it. I’ve been elected but the team did it; I’m just representing us.
What action do you want to take with this role?
This is our home and together we should have the opportunity to create the way it feels to live here. We must continue to build a loving community where rangatahi, our planet and all people are central to decision making.
I am committed to:
- Providing support for youth who have no homes through the development of emergency housing – encouraging and incentivising the development of social and community housing in our community.
- Building engagement and links in the community horizontally between people, and also vertically connecting young and old.
- Fostering walking and cycling as a way of moving around the Coast and for kids travelling to school.
- Taking steps to act on Council’s carbon neutral 2025 resolution, and ensuring it is implemented in a sustainable and fiscally responsible way. Holding the council accountable and acting to reduce the council’s carbon footprint.
- Providing opportunities for youth to have a voice in decision making and opportunities to enter the workforce. Council should consider developing a program to accept Gateway students.
What has been your proudest achievement to date?
My proudest achievement is being a part of the team that mobilised 170,000 people nationwide, 3.5% of New Zealand’s population. I still haven’t fully grasped this but it is something I am so proud to say that I was part of.
What was the strategy of the recent climate strikes?
We have a kaupapa which all of our events are checked against. SS4C NZ will hold events which will:
- Be peaceful and non-violent.
- Have clear intent and purpose which are in line with our demands.
- Be respectful to the public, local and national government bodies, and reflect the respect that we demand when we wish for our voices to be heard.
- Be centred around the creation of positive environmental change.
- Be inclusive of all New Zealanders.
- Amplify the voices and concerns of the communities most affected by climate change including but not limited to; young people, Pacific communities, Tangata Whenua, and those whose livelihoods will be directly disrupted by climate change.
- Empower young people to take action.
For people who want to get involved, but may be intimidated or have never been to a protest before, what should they be aware of or prepared for at SS4C events?
The energy at School Strike 4 Climate events doesn’t feel too much like a protest but instead a peaceful rally, to issue a challenge to our elected leaders. We are also giving them the social mandate to do something by showing how many people this issue matters to. Attending a strike will be day off school but certainly not a day off education.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
Any challenge is just an opportunity to grow and I am thankful for all of the challenges I have faced. Climate grief is a huge challenge and something I am still trying to grapple with. I know I need to leave myself time to feel this grief, but at the same time I know that if I let it sit with me, I will be left feeling extremely paralysed.
What advice do you have for young women wanting to get more involved?
To back yourself and trust your voice. I would also say that finding your tribe is a really good first step. Knowing when to say no is also important, and knowing when to step back and take time for yourself to avoid burnout.
Who do you admire?
I admire Greta Thunberg for her courage and ability to tell it like it is. She has shown me that no matter my age, I have the ability to make a difference and use my voice for change.
What are your plans for the future, or what’s next?
If I am honest, I don’t have plans for the future yet. This is such an important moment in global history, as the time we have to act on the climate crisis is quickly running out. My plan is to do everything I can now to hopefully ensure I have a future to live out my hopes and dreams in.