Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

a basket of writing from author Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

On Marshallese Youth and COP21

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It’s taken me a while to pull apart my thoughts at the seams and unravel that one and half week I spent in Paris at the COP21, the world wide conference on climate change that took place in December. But today marks the first official day of Spring 2016 classes at the College of the Marshall Islands. A new semester, new students, a new year, and even a new government administration. And a lot of promise – or should I say, a lot of promises. COP21 itself was another set of promises. For me, COP21 was a whirlwind of performances, panels, interviews, sprinting from one event to another, getting lost on the cobblestone streets and alleyways of Paris, navigating taxi drivers and subways, finding the right words to describe home, and gaping in awe at the sheets of light that is Paris.

I learned a lot being there with the Marshallese delegation especially, under the leadership of Tony deBrum, a climate champion and leader in the arena of climate negotiations. But with the new semester, and with a new administration that is notably marked by its youth, it seems fitting to focus on the ways in which COP21 did something it’s never done before – which is engage our young people.

During the week leading to the COP, our non-profit, Jo-Jikum, launched a campaign focusing on the number 1.5 as a target goal, the global temperature that would ensure the survival of our islands, and that we wanted this number prioritized in the Paris agreement. We planned to have an action on Majuro that would align with all the demonstrations happening around the world. We also identified the untapped potential of young people overseas itching to be a part of the action as well – we figured a social media action was a manageable way to show their support from afar.

Our campaign asked all our supporters to take photos of themselves with “1.5 to stay alive” slogan, as well as “climate justice” and “Marshall Islands” and post it to their facebook or social media networks. And we were all pleasantly surprised many rimajel rise to the occasion. Just a tiny sampling of the posts are below:

Across our newsfeed were photos of students, siblings, families, politicians and even soldiers abroad taking photos with the slogan. I noticed that it even sparked a dialogue here and there, sometimes with adults asking what this number meant, and many times with their children answering their parents’ questions. Art was created. Music was created. Just this past week, I was startled to find that someone (someone awesome) had tagged the blank space of a store front.

For many of you reading this, it might not seem like much. Perhaps you had no idea that there was this tiny population of islander kids taking photos of themselves with this number on facebook. Perhaps social media campaigns seem done, and overdone – or as many have critiqued, it seems too easy to be a “social media activist”. Or perhaps social media just isn’t that important, or impactful, in day to day to lives.

But keep in mind, there are about 1.5 billion active facebook users – social media just can’t be ignored in this day and age. And with our islands being one of the few with fiber optics, we have easier access to internet than most of Micronesia.

Another thing to keep in mind: there are very few opportunities to be an “activist” in the Marshall Islands. It seems that many of us learned long ago, I would say mostly from the tragic legacy that is the US nuclear testing, that we aren’t allowed to demand more. That we can yell till we turn blue, and no one will hear us. That the world can turn its back on us, ignore us, and that we will continue living, even if it’s not really living. Sometimes it seems like our society has learned that it is easier to wade through our lives, and never dive into the depths.

The activist culture that is common and prevalent in the United States such as the Bay area, New York, or in Hawaii with the Mauna Kea movement, is not present at the moment here in the RMI. There hasn’t been a movement that included or prioritized engaging our youth as a population, in doing something, fighting for something that matters, something bigger than ourselves. That’s what made these photos so exciting for me to see.

And it was as if our young people were ready for it. It was as if they’d been thirsting for it. A chance to use their voice. A chance to lend their voice to a choir of freedom fighters, warriors.

We were the ones in Paris, our RMI delegation. But seeing these photos, splayed across our newsfeed, reminded us that they were with us too. We were all in this together. And I can say that we’ve never been engaged in this way at any other COP.

The Paris agreement, as I’ve said to a few journalists already, is no way near perfect. There are gaps, vague spaces to fall into. Women’s needs are ignored, indigenous rights, tragically, was not prioritized. We have a lot of work ahead of us and a long way to go.

But when I first heard the announcement that 1.5 was in the text, I almost didn’t believe it. And although we of course can not take credit for 1.5 being in the agreement at all, we can say we lent our voice to the fight. (Although, it’s of note that at least  Al Jazeera highlighted our campaign. You can fast-forward to 12:40 – 14:00).

What I can see us doing now is taking the formula and the energy that came out of our campaign, and bringing it to other areas in our lives. If we, as a rimajel youth, were able to hold the world accountable, why can’t we hold our leaders in our country, our local council, our community members, even ourselves accountable as well? Why can’t we demand change, demand justice, or even just demand more – from everyone?

As we go into this new year, into this new semester, I can only hope that our youth will continue to demand more – from us teachers, from their local leaders, their family, their community and especially from the new crop of senators, our new administration. Because, honestly, we deserve more. We deserve better. And we just need to keep remembering that. And, more importantly, we need to believe it.

Author: Kathy/Dede

Kathy Jetnil Kijiner is a Marshallese poet and activist. Her writing highlights the traumas of colonialism, racism, forced migration, the legacy of American nuclear testing, and the impending threats of climate change. Bearing witness at the front lines of various activist movements inspires her work and has propelled her poetry onto international stages. She has performed her poetry in front of audiences ranging from elementary school students to most recently over a hundred world leaders at the United Nations Climate Summit, where she performed a poem to her daughter, "Dear Matafele Peinam". Currently she lives and works in the Marshall Islands, where she teaches Pacific studies courses full time at the College of the Marshall Islands. She is also Co-Director of the youth environmentalist non-profit Jo-Jikum, which empowers youth by educating them on the importance of environmentalism and mobilizing them to work toward solutions for environmentalist issues. Check out their website: www.jojikum.org

2 thoughts on “On Marshallese Youth and COP21

  1. The use of strategic hashtags or catchphrases totally gets mainstream media’s attention to always stay current on news, so social media activism makes that impact!

  2. I’m glad to hear that more youth are involved.

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