Sophie Handford at home. Photo: Victoria Birkinshaw

Sophie Handford: Kāpiti councillor, climate activist and Wellingtonian of the Year

Metro spoke to Kāpiti councillor Sophie Handford fresh off the back of her victory in the local body elections in October, for our November-December print issue's 'People to Watch' section. Yesterday (Nov 14), she won Wellingtonian of the Year. Called it!

Sophie Handford is trying to save the world. The 18-year-old was supposed to be heading to university like so many other school leavers, after finishing her final year at Kāpiti College in 2018. Instead, this year, she led thousands of her fellow students in climate-strike rallies around the country, then capped things off by getting elected to Kāpiti Coast District Council, making her one of New Zealand’s youngest-ever local government representatives.

This isn’t how she thought her year would turn out, but Handford doesn’t doubt she’s up to the task. “I’m willing to work to see things happen, and I’m not really afraid of throwing myself into the deep end,” she said. “I know I’ve got that [strength] inside of me to keep myself going.”

It’s a pretty impressive feat, but her victory isn’t entirely surprising. Quietly confident, remarkably self-assured and guided by strong moral principles, Handford has always been a doer: joining her school’s eco-group; organising the class disco; tutoring younger students; serving on the board of trustees; becoming head girl. “If I see someone struggling, or I see something happening I don’t like or know I would be able to change, to sit back feels quite wrong to me,” she says. “That’s part of the values I hold and the way I see the world.”

Putting a degree in environmental science and development studies on hold to focus on other pursuits was, in the end, a natural decision. “I decided it would be quite difficult sitting in really long lectures every day and having to be focused on assignments, when I feel like right now my time is best spent getting out there and just doing stuff.”

We’ve got some massive issues to tackle, and Handford wants to play her part in solving them. Not just climate change, either, although that’s top of her list of problems to table once her term as Paekākāriki-Raumati ward councillor begins. Youth homelessness is one local issue in particular she thinks has flown under the radar for too long.

Handford is figuring out how to be the most effective councillor she can be, which includes executing an engagement plan (to connect with as many community members as possible) and thinking hard about what other commitments she takes on outside her council role. “I don’t want to section off my time and not [be able to] represent my community to the fullest.”

So, is this the impressive start to a long-term political career? Maybe. “We’ll have to see how these three years go. Definitely by the end of it, if I haven’t made the changes I’d have hoped to then, yeah, I’m committed to seeing that through in some way.” That could mean running again, or it could mean leaving council and agitating institutions from the outside — whatever gets the job done.

This piece originally appeared in the November-December 2019 issue of Metro magazine, with the headline 'In the deep end'.

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