Eighteen-year-old Na’or Tal Alfassi Berman has been more active around sustainability than most people are in a lifetime. Nikki Mandow finds out what drives the young environment leader. 

When new Auckland Council Youth Advisory Panel member, 18-year-old environmental campaigner Na’or Tal Alfassi Berman, says he wants to host a party, he doesn’t mean a barbeque and a few beers in the back garden with a bunch of mates. Alfassi Berman’s planned event is a full-on summer beach festival potentially in Auckland’s Orakei Bay – 5000 people, local upcoming bands like entertainers, food and stalls. But most of all, Berman sees his festival as a chance to promote what he believes is a critical sustainability message to people that might not normally be listening.

“When you get involved with the environmental movement, often you are talking to people who have the same beliefs you have. That’s easy. What’s more difficult is pushing these ideas with people who don’t feel comfortable with them. My plan is to have 50 volunteers walking around having conversations with the festival goers about sustainability.”

There are plenty of non-converted to preach to. Lincoln University’s 2016 report Public perceptions of New Zealand’s Environment found only around 40 percent of Kiwis believe they have a “good” or “very good” knowledge of environmental issues. Less than 25 percent participate in an environmental organisation, and of those, only 13 percent are active members. And even the views we have are often incorrect.

More than 80 percent of survey respondents thought New Zealand’s biodiversity was moderate or good, when the Department of Conservation lists almost 2730 threatened or at risk species. Conversely, we worry increasingly about fish stocks – the number of people thinking marine fisheries are badly managed has increased markedly over the last five years. But in fact the study suggests our performance is improving. “In 2015, 96.8 percent of fish caught were from stocks that are not overfished.”

Alfassi Berman sees his place on the Youth Advisory Panel as an opportunity to do more for the environment. And that’s with a bar set high – he may be only just legally an adult, but he’s been more active around sustainability in his short years than some of us are in a lifetime.

“It’s hard when you are pushing on the uncomfortable – speaking up and trying to engage people who don’t believe in what you stand for.”

As a 16-year-old at Auckland’s Western Springs College, Alfassi Berman led a team which put together a political-environmental debate, involving MPs including Jacinda Ardern, David Shearer, Julie-Anne Genter, Marama Fox and Andrew Bailey. The event got the politicians to discuss environmental issues with small groups of students and parents. Then in November last year, he was the youngest member of the NZ youth delegation chosen to travel to Morocco to the annual leaders meeting for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – known as Cop22. His job: to organise activities and stunts to draw local and international attention to the New Zealand Government’s lack of action. His group also had a meeting with Helen Clark while they were there, not the first time Alfassi Berman has met the former Prime Minister to talk about sustainability.

Meanwhile, Alfassi Berman was a student representative on the  Western Springs College board, where he championed green building in the school’s $75 million reconstruction project. And he is also involved with environmental youth leadership programme MAD (Make a Difference) and Sustainable Coastlines, where he is an ambassador. In August he heads to the US for two months, where he hopes to hone his leadership skills working with other youth councils and environmental organisations.

Oh, and he plays the saxophone, drums and piano, writes award-winning poetry (despite being dyslexic), volunteers backstage at the annual WOMAD festival in New Plymouth, and has a part-time job as a chef.

It’s enough to make you want a lie-down.

Where does he get his motivation from? Alfassi Berman says his background has a lot to do with it. He was born in New Zealand, the son of immigrants. His dad was Israeli, an orphan; his mum is from South Africa, but moved here with her whole family when she was young because of their opposition to the apartheid regime. His parents met on a kibbutz in Israel and settled on New Zealand to bring up their children, but retained a strong sense of social justice. Berman’s dad put a high value on helping others – which extended to giving away family possessions to people he felt needed them more, even when they were still being used at home. His parents also took their very young family on eye-opening backpacking trips in the Middle East and Asia – trips that also helped to shape Berman’s world view.

“I realise nothing’s for free. The only way to get what you want is to work hard and stand up for what you want. Still it’s hard when you are pushing on the uncomfortable – speaking up and trying to engage people who don’t believe in what you stand for.”

Will Alfassi Berman’s role on the council advisory panel, and other planned projects put the beach festival somewhat on the back burner? It’s the reverse, he says. He’s discovered a project of that scale involves a raft of bureaucracy – health and safety plans, toilets, transport, food licences. Even a tsunami evacuation plan.

Having contacts on the council will help a lot.

“I’ve already expressed my interest in running the event and they were all ears.”

* The 23-member Auckland Council Youth Advisory Panel (21 young people and two councillors) provides advice to council on issues important to Aucklanders aged 14-24, in terms of regional strategies, policies, plans and bylaws. It also helps the council with ideas about how to engage with young people. The new panel was inaugurated this month and meets every seven weeks.

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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