An innovative programme to find and develop 25 exceptional young women leaders is open again for nominations. Eleanor Black outlines one student’s experience
Isabella Ieremia clearly remembers being sat down as a new law student and told that because she was a woman of colour there would be people who would question her presence on a highly competitive programme.
“They said, ‘People will look at you and the assumption will be that you got here on a scholarship scheme’,” Ieremia recalls years later in a busy cafe not far from her childhood home. Her voice falters for a moment: “It’s so upsetting.”
It was the first time the University of Auckland student had been so keenly aware of the racial bias she encounters as a young Samoan/Palagi woman. Ieremia is a top performer, always has been, but as she points out, “if we did get here on affirmative action there’s a good reason for that and it doesn’t denote your ability to be a good lawyer.”
Now a year-and-a-half from graduating, the 22-year-old, who just finished working as a summer clerk at top law firm Bell Gully, says other people’s misconceptions are still the hardest thing about university. Showing young women of colour that “there is a space for you here” is one of her many goals.
Ieremia was among the YWCA’s inaugural Y25 in 2020, 25 outstanding young wāhine toa from around the country who took part in a year-long programme of empowerment. The 25 young leaders, chosen for challenging the status quo and fighting for a fairer Aotearoa, attended a two-day hui, received ongoing support and training from mentors, and had access to growth opportunities; Ieremia was asked to speak at a body image event. “I had never shared my story, and it was challenging,” she says. “But I like to think that if I can help anyone else with what I’ve been through that supersedes being anxious.”
Nominations for the 2021 intake of Y25 close on March 31.
The inspiration for Y25 was the widespread perception that young people, and young women especially, lack ambition or grit – the whole snowflake myth. When YWCA chief executive Dellwyn Stuart was new to the job (and to working in the “youth space”) at the end of 2019, she started to question whether young women were truly heard and understood, so commissioned research to find out.
“We found only one in four young women felt society valued their opinions and only one third thought they had the same opportunities as their male counterparts,” says Stuart. “We came up with this idea, a national search to find young women who were the doers and the makers and the loud voices speaking for change.”
The YWCA wanted to amplify their voices while allowing them to form connections with their peers and learn from older women too.
Like Ieremia, who flourished throughout her schooling (she won the service award in her final year at Mt Albert Grammar School) many young women find that, having grown up believing they had access to every arena, the “real world” is not like that.
“The thing that happens through our education system is we give young people really strong messages about equality, that they can do anything and that they are moving into a modern, equal world,” says Stuart. “So they really feel the reality of those institutions and places that are not equal. There is still an underlying gender construct and we have to ask whether we should be equipping the girls to work within the system or tackling the system to make it equal.”
At Bell Gully, a sponsor of Y25, there is a concerted effort to increase workplace diversity, including at partner level. “Part of that is building up the pipeline,” says Human Resources Director Louise Alexander. “We probably recruit more women than men, but 60 percent of law students at university are women.”
Alexander, who describes Ieremia as “an incredibly intelligent and professional young woman who will make an incredible lawyer” attended the Y25 hui and was impressed by the calibre of all attendees.
“It was really empowering seeing these young women together, supporting each other,” says Alexander. “You could see they had created these networks and friendships they could call on for the rest of their lives. It was really special, you could feel the energy.”
Among the reasons Ieremia was chosen for Y25 was her longtime championship of the arts, particularly Pasifika works. Her father is Black Grace dance company founder Neil Ieremia and her mother is Jess Smith, executive director of Silo Theatre, so she grew up believing in the power of performance to change hearts and minds.
At 19 she worked as assistant producer for The Guerilla Collection, a free festival bringing together Pasifika artists from diverse disciplines. Last year she was an administrator and producer for the Silo production of Upu, in which Māori and Pasifika performers shared the poetry of Oceanic writers.
“I am very privileged because I have parents who raised me to believe I can do whatever I want to do,” she says. “There’s never been [the suggestion] ‘that’s not really an area where you could excel.’ They have literally let my dreams run wild.”
Ieremia acknowledges that she benefits from the work done by generations of changemakers before her, and says she can’t wait to “capitalise on that”.
“I am excited about getting to work. It’s a challenge and I smile every time I think of it,” she says, pointing to her broad smile and breaking into laughter. “I want to hone my craft and become the best lawyer I can be and enact change wherever I can.”
*To nominate an exceptional young woman for Y25, go to ywca.org.nz. It’s free and you can nominate yourself. Entries close March 31.
*Bell Gully is a foundation supporter of Newsroom.co.nz