Paying tribute to the legacy of an extraordinary young graduate who dedicated her life to changing the world.
ANU Reporter Senior Writer
Few people make a lasting impact in some of Australia’s most challenging and important policy areas by the age of 32. Fewer still will keep up the fight while battling brain cancer.
But Sophie Trevitt wasn’t your average person.
An award-winning human rights lawyer, Sophie led an inspiring fight for social justice issues and fearlessly campaigned for the rights of incarcerated First Nations children and their families.
Sophie passed away on 27 July 2023, but she leaves behind a remarkable legacy.
In December, The Australian National University (ANU) recognised her passion and dedication to achieving social change, naming her joint recipient of the Young Alumna of the Year award.
The award was accepted by her partner, Tom Swann, at a ceremony in Canberra.
Swann remembers Sophie as more than just his partner but as “the best”.
“It was just astonishing how she could be so kind and so courageous in her work at the same time.”
It’s this courage that drove Sophie to move to Arnhem Land, where she worked with local communities to support women affected by domestic violence.
She later worked as a political staffer. Astonishingly, working full time in this charged environment, she completed her law degree at ANU, including a thesis on the many ignored recommendations from inquiries into First Nations justice.
Sophie later moved to Mparntwe (Alice Springs) and became a civil solicitor with the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency. There, Sophie began her advocacy for the rights of incarcerated Indigenous children.
In an interview with the ABC in June 2023, Sophie described the heartache of the situation as “overwhelming.”
“Right now, we have a situation where we are putting human beings in cages because we have decided that they are too hard, or as a government, we don’t care about them enough to change that.
“So I decided to make the transition from working politics to finishing my law degree (at ANU), and I moved to the Territory and started that work there.”
Sophie’s experiences in the Northern Territory led her to become the executive officer of Change the Record — Australia’s only First Nations-led coalition of legal, health and family violence prevention experts.
Working closely with First Nations communities, Sophie led the campaign to raise the age of criminal responsibility from just 10 years old — resulting in hundreds of young children being locked up each year across every jurisdiction in Australia —to at least 14 years as recommended by the United Nations.
With unflinching determination, Sophie managed press releases and navigated responses to the Northern Territory Government. She pressed on all while battling worsening headaches and, after diagnosis, the other side effects of her disease.
In August 2023, the Northern Territory became the first Australian jurisdiction to raise the age — up to 12 years. Soon after, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) became the first to legislate a minimum age of 14 years, by 2025, following a phase-up of support programs. Other jurisdictions are also looking to raise the age.
Swann says Sophie saw a different side to the narratives told of incarcerated First Nations youth.
“She really, really felt for those kids. She always spoke so highly of how they were cheeky, smart, and resourceful — but because they were poor and black, they were put in a situation where they ended up in prison.”
Despite her worsening condition, Sophie’s passion for changing the world showed no signs of slowing down.
After her time in the Northern Territory, Sophie returned to Canberra and took on a role at Canberra Community Law, an organisation she first began working with during her studies at ANU.
There she set up a program to help clients facing domestic violence and amplified the voices of public housing tenants. A program of forced evictions Sophie opposed was cancelled in late 2023.
“Right now, we have a situation where we are putting human beings in cages because we have decided that they are too hard, or as a government, we don’t care about them enough to change that.”Sophie Trevitt
As the ACT Co-Chair of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, Sophie spearheaded a campaign to end the use of ‘spit hoods’. They’ve been repeatedly used on children in the Northern Territory — a practice denounced by the United Nations — and linked to deaths in custody.
But beyond the incredible impact Sophie made in her career — it’s clear she left an even bigger impact on those who knew her.
“I worked on campus for the better part of 25 years. I know my fair share of superstars —those who have received international accolades of the highest order,” colleague and friend, Deborah Cleland, says.
“But none who could write an op-ed, cook a meal, bake a cake, coordinate a working group and mentor a starry-eyed newcomer — all with kindness, laughter and a seemingly boundless energy for changing the world.”
Despite Sophie’s achievements, Swann says she never sought the spotlight for herself, instead using her energy and creativity to illuminate the issues she was passionate about.
“You are going to ask me what this award would have meant to Sophie, but she wouldn’t have wanted the attention on herself, she would only have wanted it on her work,” Swann says.
“The world has lost one of its best people.”
Editor’s note: Sophie Trevitt was recognised as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the 2024 Australia Day honours.
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