Samoan young New Zealander of the year contender

Samoan 22-year-old Brianna Fruean is a semi-finalist for Young New Zealander of the Year 2021, for her climate change activism and work empowering other young people to join her.

Speaking to the Samoa Observer, Ms. Fruean said the nomination was completely unexpected, and she hasn’t found out yet who nominated her for the prestigious award.

“It’s something you see on TV and you never imagine you being nominated for it,” she said. And though she has known about the nomination for nearly a month (and sworn to secrecy), it wasn’t until the public announcement that the news fully sunk in.

“I didn’t register until the actual list came out, and it was even more of an honour to read the other names on the list, the big giants in the community.”

Ms. Fruean has been a climate change activist from primary school. She started Samoa’s chapter of 350.org when she was 11, and just three years later she attended a United Nations conference as a Pacific youth ambassador.

Aged 16, she won a Commonwealth Youth Award, becoming the youngest person ever to do so, and has spoken at two United Nations climate change conferences.

Her priority now is to empower other young Pacific Islanders to take up the mantle, even though they might feel underqualified. 

“I feel like especially within young Pacific people there is such a strong imposter syndrome, like we are not smart enough, we are not scientists, we are not politicians so therefore we don’t have a say in the climate change movement.

“It’s a priority for me to be able to connect with our young people and prove them wrong, tell them no, you have stories to tell, you don’t have to be a scientist or politician to talk about climate change.

“You are worthy of a voice in this world.”

One way to do that is to share her journey into the climate change world. Despite her many achievements at a young age, Ms. Fruean still considers herself an ordinary person with no “super abilities” in science or public speaking.

“I am just an average person that wants to do climate change work. By telling my story it almost humanises the work.”

And there are two young women in Samoa already taking up this effort and running university climate change action groups at the University of the South Pacific and the National University of Samoa.

Ms. Fruean said she hopes to work more with the youth organisers in online workshops to help them further on their way. 

“2020 for me was my year to connect with young people,” she said. Last year Ms. Fruean was in a virtual fellowship learning to train others to organise online, and in the lead up to the New Zealand election worked to get more Pacific youth enrolled and comfortable in the electoral system.

And between all that, she spent time online talking to young people about climate change and helping them get involved with the growing movement demanding action from global superpowers and national leaders.

Ms. Fruean said her nomination represents hours and hours of investment in her community and family over the years, especially her parents.

“It’s really their award and not mine, I am just the placeholder for a lot of long hours and lots of love that people have given me throughout my life,” she said. 

“There are five million people in this country and to be a Samoan, whose grandparents immigrated here from the islands, to know that I am recognised and appreciated as part of the New Zealand fabric I think is a testament to my parents, making sacrifices to come here when I was born.”

And in a year where climate change activism may have felt harder than ever – between the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires across the world, extreme weather events and the United States leaving a global action pact – Ms. Fruean said she never allows herself to feel despondent about her work. 

Like many in her Pacific community, she finds strength and solace in her family, and in prayer.

“I really turn to faith, and I think that is something I learned from my elders. The Samoan community is such a spiritual community. We believe when there are things that are absolutely out of our control there is time to take solace in prayer. That has been something I have been able to find peace in. 

“There is no space to not do this work and the cost of silence is too heavy to bear.”

The award is part of the 2021 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards. 

Others nominated for the Young New Zealander of the Year are: Alana Scott, Arizona Leger, Chlöe Swarbrick, Jazz Thornton, Lucy Blakiston, Madeleine De Young, Pania Newton, Sarah Colcord, and Dr Zhiyan Basharati.

Samoa is represented across multiple award categories. Canaan Aumua is up for Innovator of the Year, as is entrepreneur Sarah Colcord, who is also up for Young New Zealander of the Year.

Local Hero of the Year nominations include Aigagalefili Fepulea'i-Tapua'i and Matai Brown (She is Not Your Rehab).

And the founders of Baby Loss NZ, Sarah Numan and Josie Apelu are nominated for Community of the Year.

Each category will have one award winner selected from three finalists, who are announced on Monday 01 March, before the final ceremony on Wednesday 31 March when the final winners are announced.

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