Chennoah! Her photo running for Equity Officer.
Chennoah and I lived in the same hall in our first year of university. We quickly realised we had much in common, both being Pols / IR students and ardent supporters of Amnesty International. At first I felt slightly intimidated by this larger-than-life, articulate woman, but I quickly came to appreciate Chennoah's friendship. Chennoah has definitely been an inspiration for me and I know she has inspired many others. So it makes sense to profile Chen as a politically-engaged individual who is determined to advance causes that she cares about and play her part in making the world a better place. I caught up with Chennoah yesterday morning over a coffee to learn more about the individual behind the activism.
Chennoah grew up in a loving family near Tauranga, in semi-rural Papamoa - not that it can be described as rural now. Her best memories are connected to her family and the land: bonfires on the beach, potluck dinners, eating her Mum's shellfish fritters (which she hated!) and digging up pipis with her cousins. My cousin liked to bite off their tongues, she told me with a laugh, before describing the process. Yeah, that's a bit gross, sorry... Her parents separated when she was young, but she can still remember the time when the family lived in a green house bus with stained glass windows and when her Dad had dreds down to his bum. Her mother raised her and her brother as a solo Mum. It is clear that Chennoah's mother has had a great influence on her, as Chen notes her mother's determination, her love for her children and her engagement with the local community.
Chennoah aged 14 - the Amnesty rebel!
I have only known Chennoah as an extrovert, a "people person" as she described herself in her recent campaign for Equity Officer. So it was interesting to learn that Chen had been quiet and reserved at primary. Once at high school, however, Chennoah set her mind to change. I know that when Chennoah sets her mind to something, nothing can weaken her resolve! In little time, Chen was involved with World Vision, SADD, arts festivals and the theatre scene in Tauranga. In her final year, she became Head Girl. I think people were surprised at first, Chennoah mused, because I wasn't the most conventional head girl. But they came to accept me. They even got used to my weird speeches in assembly! When she wasn't head girl, Chennoah was "the cluster bomb girl." A member of the school's Amnesty International group, she got fired up about banning cluster munitions and was busy making origami munitions and campaigning around the school grounds.
The flat on campus - and the eviction squad!
Drawn to the capital for its political scene and vibrant culture, Chennoah enrolled in an LLB / BA at Vic Uni. She carried the Amnesty flame with her, getting involved in Amnesty on Campus. Chen and I had lots of fun putting on some great Amnesty events. My personal highlights include our tealight acoustics gig for freedom - with live music, cheap drinks, stalls with info about rights issues and a huge Amnesty logo made of candles. To raise awareness of the Arms Trade Treaty we gave out bananas with gun-shaped petitions tacked to the sides. (There are more regulations on the international trade in bananas than guns!) When it came to forced evicitions on the West Bank, it was Chen's idea to set up a "flat" on campus, complete with sunken couch, desk and scattered clothes and textbooks. The flat was ceremoniously evicted at lunchtime by fellow students dressed as police officers wielding cardboard batons. As well as organising university events, Chennoah attended the Amnesty AGMs in Auckland. When a role came up as Youth Co-opte on the Governance Board, Chennoah asked me if I thought she should apply. You'd be great, I said, but do you realistically have enough time for it? Study, part-time work and theatre productions sprang to mind. Chennoah just shrugged. Of course she'd have time. If it's something Chennoah cares about, somehow (I actually don't know how!) she is able to fit it into her hectic schedule. I've got good at planning, Chennoah confessed yesterday with a smile.
I know Chennoah primarily as an Amnesty supporter, but of course this is just part of what she does. Another great love of Chen's is drama. From a young age she was involved in theatre, and at high school and university she has acted in numerous productions. One group in particular, Unboxed Theatre (formerly known at The Clitlective), combines Chennoah's love for theatre with her advocacy. Unboxed Theatre puts on productions drawing attention to feminist causes, such as gender discrimination and sexual abuse. As well as feminism, Chennoah is concerned about the environment. A supporter of Gen Zero, Chen was part of the notorious 2012 demonstration to "expose climate change" which saw over fifty young people strip down to their undies on the trains and then march to Parliament.
Gen Zero's naked truth about climate change.
I asked Chennoah what, in her view, are the major issues for New Zealand and the world. In Aotearoa, Chen believes social attitudes can unwittingly cause others harm. The predominant view in our societies seems to be that hard work produces wealth, but although this is the case for many, it doesn't hold true for everyone. Some people, Chennoah explained, experience barriers which are almost impossible to overcome. People might find it harder to achieve highly due to their race, their gender, or due to disability. Chennoah believes we must improve the way we treat minority groups. Next year, Chen will be Equity Officer for student union VUWSA, a role which will see her ensure minority groups on campus are well-represented. Globally, Chennoah sees education as a major part of any plans for poverty-alleviation. Through increased education, we can support people to break the poverty cycle, she tells me, and, educating women is particularly important. Education provides people with more life opportunities and a more secure future.
So would Chennoah describe herself as a political person? Not particularly. At least, not in the sense that she will always align with a certain party. Sure, she knows who she's voting for (has voted for - make sure to vote, last chance tomorrow aka Saturday!!) in the election, but Chen is more interested in separate social issues and how to achieve progress on these issues than in any particular ideological viewpoint. And does Chennoah have any advice for people who are interested in human rights and social justice? Chen didn't want to comment fully at this stage of her life, but she does recommend that we all concentrate on our own particular skills and interests. Find your area of passion for change. It might be artistic, it might be academic, it might be within your family or out in the community. There is so much that you can do. Work out where your niche is! I reckon that's pretty solid advice for us all. Thanks Chennoah for your time!