As climate activists go, 19-year-old Melati Wijsen got off to a very early start. She and her younger sister Isabel grew up in our hometown of Bali, Indonesia – an idyllic island paradise that also happens to have one of the world’s largest plastic pollution problems.
In 2013, at the ages of 12 and 10, Melati and Isabel decided to do something about it. Over secret lunchtime planning sessions with their classmates, they launched Bye Bye Plastic Bags and created a youth-led movement to get plastic bags banned. After six long years of grassroots organization, petitions, beach cleanups, setbacks, rallies, roadblocks and even a hunger strike, Bye Bye successfully lobbied the Balinese government into banning single-use plastic bags, straws and styrofoam.
The success of their initiative gave Melati a global platform and an all-new mission – to connect and empower young change-makers everywhere.
We sat down with Melati for a chat about her road to activism, her advice for aspiring change-makers and her new organization, Youthtopia.
Your career as an activist began way back in middle school. What set you and your sister on the path to organizing and environmental activism?
Growing up here in Bali played a huge part, as well as the family I grew up in and the school that I went to. But for me, the biggest [factor] was growing up in Bali, because it allowed me to create such a strong connection with the natural world.
Bali has everything – rice fields, rivers, beautiful mountains, beautiful beaches... it was our playground every single day. I think growing that connection [with nature] allowed us to understand how important is, and how one we are with it. So, when we started seeing problems within the environment, we thought, “We have to take action. We can't wait anymore.” And the rest is pretty much history.
What made you focus on plastic bags specifically?
I think it was because they were in the plastic pollution scope and [they were] something we used ourselves, so we knew that we could stop using them. And if we could do it, our neighbors could do it, our friends could do it, and so could the government. It was kind of the foot in the door for the larger conversation of, "Hey, it's not just plastic bags, [it’s] about the straws, the styrofoam and waste management as a whole.”
Getting this ban passed was obviously a very long process and a huge undertaking for your organization and community. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced along the way?
One of my biggest frustrations was learning how to work with the government and all [its] complex layers and unexpected obstacles. “We're not able to do this change. We need to go to that department.” The left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing, which simply allowed for a lot of excuses. As a young change-maker, it was frustrating to see that change wasn't happening fast enough.
Bye Bye Plastic Bags was a youth-led movement, and your new initiative, Youthtopia is focused on empowering young leaders like you around the world. What makes youth movements so important in this moment, and what unique strengths do you think young activists have?
I think my generation has a wealth of information at our fingertips that no previous generation has had before. We are able to connect with people on the other side of the world. We are able to do our own research and ask big questions. [The internet] is a really big tool for us to be able to organize and because of that, we're able to accelerate change.
This momentum that we're building as a movement is backed up by a sense of urgency. We know that all the bad things will happen in our lifetime if we don't take action and seize the potential for good. I think it's that excitement and that fear all mixed together that’s pushing us to act now. We have to take it in our own hands, lead by example, show what's possible, and start creating new systems today because we don't have the luxury of [waiting].
The sheer number of systemic problems in our culture can feel pretty overwhelming. What advice would you give to other young activists that want to tackle a big issue in their community, but don’t know where to start?
First and foremost, you have to sit with yourself. What are you good at? What do you enjoy doing? Once you come up with [those answers], I think your intentions become a lot clearer. This can help you create a vision for how you want to take part [in addressing the problem] and how you can contribute to the solution.
Creating change doesn't always mean standing at the front lines and holding a big megaphone, right? It can also look like being a research intern, engaging with your local community, going door-to-door to ask survey questions... Find your unique way of taking part in this massive movement for change because we need all the skills and you have something to contribute.
To sum it up: find something you're good at, something you enjoy, and then attach it to one goal or mission. The clearer you are in the change you want to see, the easier it is for people to be able to understand you and most importantly – to change with you.
Preach! This is a perfect segue to discussing your new organization, Youthtopia. What's it all about?
Youthtopia is the vision that came out of eight years on the front lines with Bye Bye Plastic Bags, speaking to over half a million students on- and offline. Whenever my sister and I shared the story of what we were able to achieve at 10 and 12 years old, kids would line up in front of us afterwards and ask – “How can I do what you do?” And that's where Youthtopia comes in. We're a community-centric platform with learning at its core that works with frontline young change-makers with projects of their own to help them create peer-to-peer programs from concept to delivery.
That's the unique aspect of Youthtopia. We're not an institution. We're not a school. We don't teach anything that a standard textbook can teach. We provide skills from real life young change-makers to empower rising youth activists because we need to accelerate the change we want to see in the world.
So, we have a couple of questions that we like ask everyone we chat with. First of all, if you could instantly change the world in one way, what would you do?
I would change the education system because [societal] change starts in the classroom. When we really [learn] what the problems are, we're going to be more passionate or incentivized – we’re going to feel a responsibility to contribute whatever skills we have to create change.
Imagine if students from every single school would spend the same amount of time learning about the climate crisis and the refugee crisis as they spend on Algebra 2. This is where we need to start prioritizing.
What is your personal definition of sustainability?
Every time I get this question, I remember my third grade teacher explaining sustainability to me for the very first time. He was saying, "Imagine if we take all of the world resources and leave none for the future generation. That's not sustainable." Sustainability is about that bigger picture – not just you, not just right now, but the long-term picture for our environment, our communities and our resources.
What are some ways that you bring sustainability into your everyday life? Any hacks, tips, new things you’re trying?
I think what's really important to know about sustainability is that it's always going to be a learning process. Whether it’s individual or systemic, change doesn't happen overnight. Be gentle with yourself! When starting on this journey it’s really about being daring enough to take the first step, even if it may not be correct. Eventually you’ll learn, and you’ll do better.
Someone that I had a conversation with the other day was like, "If you're talking about creating a sustainable change in your home, pick one room and start with that.” Flipping it out with products that are more sustainable is one way [to do that.] Another way is to ask yourself two questions when you go to the store – where does this product come from, and where will it end up? If you can't answer one of those questions, you probably shouldn’t buy it.
We’d love to know what you’re working on right now. What’s next for you?
I'm working on Youthtopia – building it out to become the headquarters for young change-makers globally. We're filming some Master Classes, we’re building our speaking agency for young people – lots of exciting things! I graduated [from high school] a year early specifically to come and focus full-time on Youthtopia and I’m really happy that I get to do that now.
If you want to keep up with the amazing work Melati is doing, head on over to Youthtopia. Also keep and eye out for her documentary Bigger Than Us, coming out later this year.