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Image credit: Ashleigh Smith

Ashleigh Smith: Leading with hope

Ashleigh Smith: Leading with hope

Working with other young people to make positive change

Queen’s Young Leader, Ashleigh Smith, tells Leading Change how a series of international conferences and conventions has helped her define her purpose.

It’s been a year since Queen’s Young Leader, Ashleigh Smith came to the UK to receive her award from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. “And I’m watching all the visiting 2018 Queen’s Young Leaders in the UK at the moment, going ‘Oh my goodness!’ It really tugs at the heartstrings and brings back memories!”

Ashleigh won the award for her part with the anti-bullying awareness group, Sticks ‘n’ Stones, which she co-founded in 2013. This youth-focused group works to stop bullying both online and in person in New Zealand’s South Island.

Sticks ‘n’ Stones has a policy of being run by the people it aims to support, that is 11 to 18 year olds in secondary school. So Ashleigh, now aged 20, is stepping back with her involvement.

However – although she is busy doing two degrees in Nursing and in Leadership for Change – Ashleigh is still working for change. In the last year, she has spoken about the issues young people and women face at conventions and conferences around the world.

Purpose and leadership

Taking part in the UN Commission on the Status of Women was an “incredible experience”, but it was also harrowing to hear “all this horrific stuff going on with women around the world”.

But learning about the traumatic experiences of other women and girls prompted Ashleigh to reflect on her own life.

“I grew up in a rural community and had the childhood that I think every child around the world is entitled to. My parents worked so incredibly hard, every night I had food on the table. I was a kid, we went out and played after school, climbed trees and built huts.”

 And recognising her good fortune has given Ashleigh a greater sense of purpose. She says that not long after she got home, she heard a quote that has become “fundamental to my leadership sense”.

“Someone said, ‘Leading in fear is lazy leadership.’” She explains that it is easy to stoke people’s fears of one another or the unknown – to frighten people so that they follow. “But being a leader is not about leading people in fear. It’s about providing people with hope.”

Ashleigh holds a sign up about feminism in New Zealand


Hope was exactly what Ashleigh found at the Women of the World Festival in Brisbane, Australia, which she describes as “a real celebration of women around the Commonwealth”.

She explains that while there was a lot of discussion about the issues that women face in the world, “There was this positive vibe about let’s keep pushing through which created this real feeling of community. I was so fortunate to be part of that event. I sat on a number of panels and did quite a bit of speaking.”

This included a panel on online safety with Australia’s e-Safety Commissioner, Julia Inman-Grant, talking about how important it is to include young people in these discussions. “We really forget that the only person who can tell you what being a young person in 2018 is like, are the young people themselves.”

Sticks 'n' Stones poster on cyber safety with Ashleigh

Global Innovation Lab

Working with a team of young activists from New Zealand at the Global Innovation Lab, UNLEASH in Singapore was also uplifting. Ashleigh left with an “absolute bundle of hope and excitement”.

She compares UNLEASH to coming to the UK in 2017 and meeting other Queen’s Young Leaders. “You meet all these young people working in the space of trying to change the world basically, and it’s just so, so cool.”

Even so, Ashleigh and her team in Singapore were trying to solve a tragic problem.

“New Zealand has the highest youth suicide rate in the OECD,” she says. “But New Zealand also has one of the highest, if not the highest number of charities per capita in the entire world.”

Many of these charities are addressing suicide in young people and related issues such as youth mental health, bullying and social isolation. “But we’re still not seeing a change in statistics, so some thing’s going wrong somewhere.”

The team discovered that “Charities are already competing for a small pot of funding so when they get the funding, they’re like really protective of it and the resources that they create.”

So, the next step was to find a way to increase communication and collaboration between not-for-profits and charities across New Zealand.

“When we spoke to a number of chief executive officers, they were wanting to connect with more people in the space,” says Ashleigh, adding that the feedback indicated heads of charities were keen to improve and find “people they could bounce ideas off”.

Back in New Zealand, the team is now looking at implementation.

“This could go beyond young people and suicide,” she says, “This could be increasing collaboration across the board, because effectively the charity’s job – they want to work themselves out of work. You’ve done your job as a charity when you’ve got no more work to do. It’s a horrid business model.”