Teri O’Neill, at 22 years old, is the youngest member of the Wellington City Council. Born and raised in Kilbirnie/Lyall Bay, Teri represents the people of Te Motu Kairangi/Eastern Ward, having been elected in October 2019. A year into her new role and Teri is as passionate—if not more—than when she first began this journey, and has some great advice for young people wanting to advocate for others and agitate for change in their community.
‘I first remember switching on to things that were going on when I was still a young kid. My younger brother had respiratory problems due to the mould in the walls of our house. Mum was pretty staunch and proud and didn’t want to ask for help. My grandmother got involved, and that started a conscious understanding of housing and how that issue affected my family.’
When asked who her role models are, Teri is emphatic: ‘My grandma! I had an idea that role models should be big political leaders like Jacinda Ardern or Chloë Swarbrick, but, actually, my grandmother is pretty staunch, and she’s always been the glue that held our family together. I’ve also become more comfortable naming my role models as people just getting on and doing the most in the community—people like Ray Tuffin from the Wellington City Mission.’
Let’s Make Some Noise
Some things are worth making a noise about. Teri was acutely aware that housing was not just an issue for her own family but for many of her friends’ families as well. ‘Things were way worse for some of them. I had mates that lived in social housing, council housing, state housing and some were refugees and migrants. When I was about 16 or 17 years old, I jumped into the housing space and started lobbying my local council by making a bit of noise and rustle around that issue.’
Teri recalls receiving a mystery box of toys as a child one Christmas; donated, she suspects, by a church or social work programme. ‘Possibly even the Sallies. Mum never explained explicitly the source, but looking back now I recognise that people helped us, and when they did, Mum was a bit happier and less stressed. I owe it to the people that helped me as a child to do everything I can to support them back. The need hasn’t really diminished from when I was a kid, so I’m trying to make as much difference as I can.’
Not surprisingly, housing and ending homelessness are the issues closest to Teri’s heart. But climate change is also a high priority, and Teri has worked on the Zero Carbon Act campaign over the past few years. In fact, for Teri, those two issues are closely linked.
‘Wellington’s running out of land we can build on. A huge contributor is that the soil we are living on is not infinite. Climate change is rupturing our land away into the sea and the communities that are on the lower socio-economic tiers are going to be disproportionately affected. If we want to be able to promise housing to our children, then we need to build in safe places, where everyone can have access to good infrastructure. Climate refugees from the Pacific Islands are already coming to New Zealand, and if we are to be a responsible Pacific partner, we need to be taking these people in, because all people deserve to have a place.’
Teri has been involved in some wonderful work ensuring that all Wellingtonians have access to the same things as everyone else, like swim school passes and the zoo. ‘Some of our social housing tenants have lived here for 20 and 30 years and never had that access. It made a world of difference for some of our manuhiri toward feeling part of their city.’
Lessons in Service
Teri says that her Catholic education also contributed to her proclivity for social activism. ‘I was fortunate to grow up in an active community, going to Lyall Bay Primary School and then on to St Mary’s College. I’m really thankful for the values my Catholic education gave me, and the lessons of service to others which I still hold on to and practice today.’
A bit of a troublemaker at school, Teri also became a bit of a troublemaker at the local council. ‘There were enough people, like city councillors, who encouraged a stronger youth voice. From there, I became invested in some campaigns. When the time came to look for a new Eastern Ward candidate, I was campaigning for reducing housing inequality and ended up running for council.’
As a younger member of council, the legal framework and council structure means that every member has an equal platform, and Teri believes that youth voices and stories are powerful—especially when combined. ‘Your voice is more powerful together. Collectivism will always outdo individualism. If it’s something you want given daylight because current leaders aren’t giving it any—a breadth of stories and experiences holds more weight. Get your gang together and work collectively for as long and as consistently as you can.’
Steps to Making Change
Teri has some sage advice for how young Sallies can better be heard in their communities and high schools. ‘When you find what you’re passionate about—and especially when you meet the people behind the issue—reach out if you’re not sure which umbrella the issue fits under or who you can talk to about it. Hit up your local MP or councillor. If you’re trying to make change in your local high school or raise a community issue, reach out. You just never know, someone right around the corner might be thinking that the very same issue needs attention. When we get connected, and share, we can achieve more.’
Teri shares a simple but great example of collaborative voices getting connected and making real change. ‘A few university students found that there was a really unsafe pathway between their flat and the university, and there’d been a couple of assaults. But without drawing that to a table, no one knew there was a pattern. Once we figured out there were voices over here, and more over there, we were able to join forces and that voice became stronger. One of the outcomes was improved lighting.’
Mobilising an Army
You too can be a powerful force in your community! Activism and fighting against social injustice are part of your Salvation Army roots and missional DNA! There is strength in our national and territorial networks just waiting for you to leverage. So, if something’s getting under your skin, get your youth group together, pray and make some noise! Contact your local city council, your school or university’s students' association or any other group in an area of interest, and get active.