Can you imagine starting a nonprofit organization spanning 29 countries in your teens? Or, striking a blow against plastic pollution, by beginning a teen-powered beach cleanup that quickly leads to a nationwide ban of single-use bags?
Meet Melati Wijsen, 19, and her 17-year-old sister, Isabel. They hail from Bali, Indonesia, and after years of organizing on behalf of the environment, they consider themselves “full-time changemakers.”
In 2013, the two sisters started an organization called Bye Bye Plastic Bags. Their goal was to protect their beautiful island home from the pollution of plastic bags abandoned in ditches, clogging waterways and rice fields, and blowing in the breeze. They were just 12 and 10 years old at the time.
“We knew nothing of business plans,” recalls Melati. “There was no strategy, no plan. All we had was our pure passion and the vision of a plastic-bag-free home. We could see that there was something wrong with the way we were treating Mother Earth. Single-use plastic was ending up in places it shouldn’t.”
At the time, some 40 other countries had already banned single-use plastic bags. Melati says she and her sister considered their country’s inaction a challenge. “We thought, wow, if 40 other countries can do that… come on, Bali! Come on, Indonesia, we can do it too!”
“There was no strategy, no plan. All we had was our pure passion and the vision of a plastic-bag-free home. We could see that there was something wrong with the way we were treating Mother Earth.”
The two sisters began speaking at events and gatherings throughout their community to raise awareness. They recruited friends to work at cleaning up, particularly hard-hit areas such as beaches. They offered educational workshops, too, but their first major event was a “Plastic Is Not Fantastic” festival. To the girls’ surprise, they were met with enthusiasm everywhere they went. Melati recalls, “People were saying ‘Finally! Let’s do it!’ People were so ready for this change.”
From that point on, Melati and Isabel quickly saw their young lives change. “It was so much fun, but also much work,” Melati remembers. Weekdays found them meeting with government officials. Clean up projects consumed their weekends. Instead of playing in their neighborhoods or scheduling activities with school friends, they networked to grow a group of young supporters that eventually covered Bali. Growth continued almost exponentially, as more teens talked up the project and harnessed more youthful energy for making a difference.
“Many of our friends from local and international schools all across Bali started to gather and campaign to make this vision a reality,” says Melati. “Eventually, without planning, we became the largest youth-led NGO (non-governmental organization) in the country.”
Fast forward to June of 2019, when Melati and Isabel’s idea of a plastic-free environment became a reality – Bali outlawed single-use plastic bags. “Our team was so excited! We celebrated and jumped with joy the whole summer,” says Melati. “But there was also a moment when we realized our work was only just beginning.” Bye Bye Plastic Bags took a leading role in the education and implementation of Bali’s new bag ban. The ban included encouraging people to re-embrace older ways of doing things, such as using woven baskets to carry their goods or choosing banana leaves to wrap packages. But there remained a need for bags of some kind, and Melati made it her project to create a means of providing Bali shoppers with environmental alternatives. Even as she worked to graduate school a year early, Melati laid the groundwork for Mountain Mamas, a reusable bag-producing business, intended not only to fill a need for shoppers, but to create economic empowerment for women.
“Change doesn’t always come easy, it does not come fast, and a lot of people need to be involved in making change happen.”
Mountain Mamas is a social enterprise with a circular system. Paid by piece for their production, women in Bali mountains produce alternative bags made from what Melati calls “pre-loved materials.” When the bags sell through Mountain Mamas’ retail partners or online, 50% of the profit goes to the organization and the women’s communities to help fund health care, education, and waste management. Melati hopes that she and Isabel will be able to bring the Mountain Mamas concept to other regions of Indonesia. “This has always been important to my sister and me because we have always wanted to empower more young girls and women to have opportunities as we did.” They also enjoy seeing Bali’s commitment to using less plastic wherever they go. “We smile when we see women in the community gathering at the market with their alternative bags on their shoulders.”
Just as Melati and Isabel have taken their ideas to Indonesia’s most remote islands by boat, they have also traveled by airplane to major cities such as New York, Tokyo, Stockholm, and Amsterdam. They have spoken to appreciative audiences worldwide via a TED Talk, and Melati even recently co-chaired the final session of the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit. She estimates that she and Isabel have reached over 75,000 students as they have formed 50 different leadership teams in 29 countries worldwide. And what have these young women learned along the way? That organizing a group of people, even energetic young people, is no small task. It has required 100% of their energy, passion, ideas, and commitment Melati says, “Change doesn’t always come easy, it does not come fast, and a lot of people need to be involved in making change happen. But one thing we know for sure now is that we are not alone. There are many amazing kids and young adults already on the frontlines of change who want to be changemakers, but don’t know where to start.”
So Melati and Isabel continue travelling to all corners of the world to share their experiences and advice, and inevitably, the question asked by teens they meet along the way is: How can we do what you do?
Melati and Isabel have answered the question by creating a new project called YOUTHTOPIA. Its goal is to provide a virtual space where youth can come together, ignite their shared passions, and grow the skills necessary to send them into the world as changemakers themselves. The organization does this by creating short, peer-to-peer content aimed at sharing tips from experienced youth activists with those just getting started. “We know that our generation’s potential is there, and we know they are hungry for change,” Melati comments. “But until YOUTHTOPIA, the systems of support and guidance were not in place for young people to think and do things differently. How can we ever begin to motivate our generation to be part of the change if we don’t empower them with the relevant skills, tools, and lessons?” Even those as young as 12, as she was when her journey began, can use their voice for change. All they need, she says, is a community, a space in which to learn, and “a way to envision the accelerated path to change we so urgently need to see in our world.”
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