The Future of Youth Activism with Melati Wijsen
We had the chance to chat with Melati Wijsen and talk about empowering young changemakers, navigating her NGOs and programs in the current pandemic time, and the future of youth activism.
Words by Shadia Kansha
Photo: Melati Wijsen
Starting her journey at 12 years old, Melati Wijsen is one of the pioneers of youth activism. With her sister, Isabel, she started “Bye Bye Plastic Bags” which now operates in over 30 countries to advocate the abolishment of plastic bags. She is also the founder of Youthtopia, an ecosystem that empowers young changemakers to pursue their “Why” by providing the “How”. Throughout our conversation, Melati passionately explained why it’s not rocket science to be the change we desperately need.
You were one of the first few youth activists back in the days, how do you compare youth activism now and then?
Oh, this is a really fun question for me. Sometimes when I think back of when we started, I’m like, how on earth did we have that courage to just get started? Not having that many role models of other young people, but just having this very clear vision. It was just a little home based project from the island of Bali. We’re just very determined. We had that very strong vision and that’s what drove us forward today. I think, with the growing climate of young activists, we kind of empower each other. The more young people we see taking action, getting involved, the more inspired we are to continue or to get started ourselves, right? So I think it’s a very exciting space to be in now. And it’s unbelievable that I’ve been part of it for eight years and just seeing how big and how much more of us young changemakers there are today.
Can you tell us a bit about how your upbringing and time in Bali influence you as a person and as an activist?
Definitely. I think if I grew up in any other place in the world other than Bali, I probably wouldn’t be the person I am today. It’s definitely the environment you surround yourself with. Your parents are a huge factor, where you go to school is a huge factor, and the friends you surround yourself with. For me, the biggest factor was the environment that I surrounded myself with. Growing up here in Bali, you know, there was so much beauty in the natural world. The rice fields, the mountains, the beaches, the ocean. We have everything in Bali. But we also have this horrible reality of plastic pollution. So for me, I think the inspiration to start was because I grew up here. It’s because I saw how beautiful nature is and how horrible it can be by our actions. That’s exactly why I said, if I grew up anywhere else, I could have probably ignored it without doing anything. In my case, here simply it wasn’t something we could ignore.
So the disparity of the situation encouraged the sense of urgency in you to make a change, right?
Yes, definitely. At one point we had to choose which Bali we wanted to have. The Bali that remains as the pristine island of gods or let it become the island of garbage. It was a clear question that we had to ask ourselves. At 10 and 12, it wasn’t really rocket science. Of course, we wanted to preserve the beauty of nature.
It’s almost 8 years since you and Isabel founded Bye Bye Plastic Bags. How do you view the development of the movement so far?
I think when we started, it was just a social initiative. We had absolutely no business plan, no strategy, no budget as well. But we, again, had that clear vision. So no matter what we did through all the different activities, we knew what our end goal was. That’s always the most important whenever we get started as young changemakers, right? What’s that change you want to see?
For us, these eight years have been a really long journey to achieve that end goal. What was once a social initiative, turned into an established NGO and a nonprofit organization. I turned from 12 years old to 20 years old. There have been a lot of lessons, a lot of changes.
Bye Bye Plastic Bags has become this loving example that kids can do things.
I think one of the proudest achievements from then and now is that actually, Bye Bye Plastic Bags has become this loving example that kids can do things. Today it can be found in 60 locations in over 30 countries all around the world, led by other young people in those local areas. So that’s like I think probably personally one of my proudest achievements is seeing all these other young people starting to take action for the specific goal of a plastic bag free area.
Not long after the establishment, Bye Bye Plastic Bags pushed more agenda towards the public policy sector. What was the consideration that pushed you and Isabel to pursue that direction?
That’s another really interesting question. I think nowadays everyone is finally asking or having these conversations where it’s like “OK, we can’t just put the responsibility on the individuals,” right? We need to have a more systemic change.
For us, all those years ago, it was very clear already that this growing plastic pollution problem felt like it was almost too much to handle. At 10 and 12 years old, we know we can do it from the ground up, but we also know we need it from the top down and we have to meet in the middle in order to get change happening. So that was the simple explanation that we believed in that we knew already then and why we worked so hard on making sure that all levels of the community were involved in reaching the school, which also includes the corporates, the government, the teachers, and the students. It involved everybody. I think that that was our biggest lesson starting very early on.
At one point we had to choose which Bali we wanted to have. The Bali that remains as the pristine island of gods or let it become the island of garbage.
Nowadays, we see more wins for green activists that went to court against big pollution producers. What is Bye Bye Plastic Bags’ stance in taking activism to court?
All around the world, each team is focusing on how they can also implement those bans on single-use plastic bags with our global team members. In terms of that larger scale court action, that is definitely something we have in mind. However, it’s not with Bye Bye Plastic Bags, but with Youthtopia, our new project. I can’t share too much about it yet, but there’s definitely something in the mix.
In 2019, you established Youthtopia to empower a generation of changemakers. Can you tell us more about this movement and its featured programs?
Actually, Youthtopia only launched at the beginning of 2020 because simply there’s no better year to start and launch Youthtopia. It’s been an idea in our heads for the last five years. I have a video of myself at 15 years old talking about the idea saying “My name’s Melati, I’m a 15 year old activist, and so on and so forth.” So, it’s been an idea in my head for a long time to create this bigger headquarter, a bigger platform for young people, by young people. Authentically and really, I don’t want to make another Forbes 30 under 30 list, not another teen influencer list, but a really authentic place where young changemakers can come together and learn from each other.
So, throughout the eight years of Bye Bye Plastic Bags, you can imagine speaking over to half a million students. The same question would always come to us, “How can I do what you do?” and that’s where a bigger passion for me personally started.
It’s been an idea in my head for a long time to create this bigger headquarter, a bigger platform for young people, by young people.
Yes, and because of that bigger passion, we asked ourselves: How do we scale up changemaking? How do we make sure that every single young person, whether they’re an introvert, extrovert, or whatever, how can they feel like they can have their voices heard? What are the skills that they need to learn? And so that’s where the idea of Youthtopia came into place. We are a youth empowering ecosystem where we work together with other frontline young changemakers who have their own projects, their own track record of change. They come under Youthtopia to build and to create these programs for the rising young changemakers. So we can provide answers for all of those kids that are asking the questions, such as: How to speak in public? How to do the research? How do I write a convincing email? How do I build partnerships with corporations? All of these skills that we have as young changemakers who are already doing incredible work, how can we share that again to scale up and to accelerate the much needed change we need to have in our world? Hence, that’s the exciting work of Youthtopia.
2020 just went by and like a glimpse of an eye. Obviously, with the pandemic, we have to change our route a little bit. We were in the seed funding round, so we’re looking for investment. We are building our website at the same time. We had to cancel our plans to be in five countries doing pop ups and workshops, but shifted entirely on to the online world. Today, we have an existing website learning platform where kids or the rising young changemakers can sign up and create an account to then access all of these learning materials. Whether that’s masterclasses, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, guide books and videos and things like that. So, yes, it’s an exciting world, but it also always feels like it’s just the beginning.
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We’re very excited for this! How many changemakers do you have in your Circle of Youth right now?
Right now, we have about 102 changemakers (and counting every day). Also, I think we represent over 25 countries globally within our Circle of Youth. The cool thing is we really just want to be the headquarters for young changemakers globally. That’s our mission. That’s our goal. We don’t want any of these guys to give up their project or stop doing what they’re doing. We just want to have a place where we can amplify it and then share that with other rising young changemakers so that we can learn how, right? Often people are always sticking to the ‘Why’, and I think that’s important. But, I also think that we as young people very strongly know our ‘Why’ already. We know why we need to change. We know why we need to change now. But how do we do it? Nobody’s answering the question. Right. And so that’s where Youthtopia comes in. We’re not a school. We’re not a university. We’re a youth empowering ecosystem that can be a welcomed addition to the existing curriculum because we don’t teach what the traditional textbook teaches at school.
Can you tell us more about Youthtopia’s online learning platform? Do you target a certain age group? Is it available for free?
Youthtopia’s programs are targeting the age group of 12 to 25 years old. However, obviously, we always get a little bit younger or a little bit older for those exceptions. You know, you’re more than welcome to sign up if you’re curious to learn more about changemaker skills.
In terms of the availability of our programs, we offer two experiences on these Youthtopia platforms. First, a basic subscription where you get access to several of our programs and learning materials. Second, the plus package that allows you to access an endless scroll of content.
Can’t wait to try it out!
Yes, please! All you need to do is go to youthtopia.world and then you just create an account. We’re currently in phase one (beta phase), but as I always say, it’s just the beginning. It has our first several masterclasses that we filmed with changemakers around the world, which is very exciting. It has all of our 17 SDG lessons on it. We have, for example, Youthtopia Consumes, which is the tinder for sustainability. It’s a Gen Z voting platform where you basically swipe left or right on brands you like or brands you don’t like, and comment on why you choose so. We have Youthtopia Connects, which is very interesting for those young people that are kind of struggling on what to do for internships, summer programs, and gap year plans. It does a listing of over 150 ideas for you. So lots of cool things like that and they’re available to you as soon as you sign up and create an account.
If ‘everyone can make a change’, what pushes you to focus on fostering activism towards the young generation?
Because I think that the power of our generation is that we can actually accelerate change right now. Now that I have gone to university, when I look at all the online programs or the courses that you can take, a lot of the time it’s already very exciting and very future forward thinking. It’s targeting an older age group, right? I believe we have to start already in places like middle school with this type of education, right? So the reason being is mainly, again, the acceleration point. Young people know we have that time pressure. We know we don’t have the luxury of time in the first place. So for me, the reason why we target or why we cater our programs to that age bracket of 12 to 25 is because: First, we can accelerate change. Second, we’re eager, ready, willing to learn. We hope when those lessons are applied in real life, it can accelerate the change.
Activism is not an easy task, what are the common concerns that hinder young prospective changemakers from making a change?
I think (and this is maybe not really too specific to young changemakers in general) anyone wants to make a difference on any scale, right? Whether that’s becoming a full time young changemaker like how I consider myself or whether that’s adopting a change specifically to becoming plastic free or specifically ditching flying. Oftentimes, when we think about this narrative of changemaking, activism, or sustainability; we think of sacrifice, right? That is what hinders us or what stops us from taking that first step.
Imagine if we switch gears and see it differently: rather than as a sacrifice or a burden, we see it as an opportunity. I think a lot of us young people are very bright and very willing to start changing. It’s definitely about how we show that the solutions are at our fingertips, that they are possible that we can start today. So, yeah, I think there’s somewhat a gap between sharing the problem. Lots of us, we scroll on our social media feeds and we see the problem. We hear it on the radio, we hear it on the news, but we don’t get the solutions right. So I think it’s that connection point that stops a lot of us from taking action.
Now that we’ve identified the problem, why is it urgent to go beyond it?
Why is it so urgent? Wow, so many things we can say about this. I’m figuring out how I want to answer this question, because the first thing that I’m getting in my head is like, “OK, it’s not just about you”. It’s about the bigger vision, the bigger picture of how we move forward as a global community and not even for the immediate future generations to come, but even longer in the future. So I think why it is important to still change is because everything is happening in our lifetime, the good and the bad. It’s up to us to decide which path we are choosing by our decisions that we are taking today. So I think it’s difficult and it’s a challenging narrative to convince people because we’re also comfortable by not changing right where it’s the status quo for us to just say, oh, but it won’t happen in my lifetime. That’s already not fair to say, because for so many of us, climate change, climate crisis, plastic pollution, the refugee crisis, food security, water scarcity, it’s already happening. It’s already here. So it’s again, connecting. So much of this is a communication crisis because we don’t understand how it connects to us, why it’s important that we take action today and what are those solutions that we can implement.
From winning the Bambi Award to recently being included in Forbes 30 Under 30, how does being an awardee of such prizes at such a young age affect how you see activism in the future?
Well, activism is not about the titles or the awards, and I think that that was a really humbling experience for me and my sister to go through at such a young age. It was an honor to be at those stages and receive those awards on behalf of the work that we were putting in and the energy and the time for. However, I think what we learned out of that is not to let that be the reason why we continue doing what we do. When we have this sort of interview, big stage, award; we see this as a moment to bring messages to the masses. We use that space, time, and audience to make sure that we stick to our vision and to make sure we deliver the message. So for us, it’s been an incredible almost megaphone in all these different forums to be able to continue what we wanted to achieve in Bali. Remember, because it took us six years before the ban on plastic bags was implemented. Throughout those six years, it was always everywhere. We shared every message we shared. That’s the goal we wanted to achieve and it was crystal clear.
Without the benefit of hindsight, COVID-19 must’ve taken you and your movements off guard. How do you navigate your programs in this time of pandemic?
So, Bye Bye Plastic Bags. Even in terms of impact, it’s been really difficult in COVID-19 because the time and space of the pandemic have convinced people that single-use plastic is way more hygienic than things like reusable, right? So we’re seeing a whole comeback of single-use plastics entering back into our space. What we’ve been trying to keep doing is making sure that the conversation about stopping and not using single-use plastic is still at the forefront of people’s attention.
We’re also still stuck online right now. However, we are slowly reemerging into coming back into small groups and villages and communities and bringing back things like our educational booklet. (Melati then showed us a printed BBPB booklet) This is our second version that we just released. Our third version, which is 100 pages, is aimed at the local elementary school students. With the support of WWF, we’re able to print thousands of these booklets and distribute them to the local students.
We’re going to see more and more young people getting involved at a younger and younger age.
In terms of Youthtopia, the pandemic has actually allowed us the space and the time to launch out there in the world. As I mentioned, you know, it was an idea in my head. I had this huge vision, this idea, this really big thing that I wanted to create; but I never had the time to go and actually sit, write it all out, and reach out to people. So, the pandemic allowed me that space and time to actually bring that idea into reality. I built my team, I built the website, launched the product, secured investments and whatnot. For me, navigating Youthtopia during a pandemic has actually been good because my schedule slowed down with traveling and I was home. I was able to grow the idea into reality a lot faster. Being online for Youthtopia is now 50 per cent of our business model, right? So it’s actually worked out quite well. Lastly, you know, interacting with the circle of youth almost every day is my biggest inspiration and why I’m able to keep afloat, I guess.
We’re currently gathering views about ‘what to expect in the future’ for our Open Column. We also want to know your views too! So Melati, what should we expect from youth activism in the future?
Oh, I think this is just the beginning. We’re going to see more and more young people getting involved at a younger and younger age. So be ready, buckle up and just get ready for some real serious action. I think one of the most important things that I hope you also include in the space of youth empowerment or inspirational young activists is actually the time of inspiration only is over. Young people are ready to get involved from the very beginning, from the brainstorming, the ideation and then helping implementation so that we can actually see change happen on a daily level. I think that that’s what we are most passionate about. We are most determined to see change happening on the ground. So I think that’s what you can expect from all of us young changemakers.