This Arctic Life: Young Leaders Lend Voices on Culture and Climate Change

Sally Jewell, U.S. Secretary of the Interior

By Sally Jewell

Yesterday, at the opening of the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic (GLACIER), I had the opportunity to meet some extraordinary young Alaskans who are taking important steps to make a meaningful impact on the future of their communities. These young leaders realize there is a need to increase understanding and awareness of our rapidly changing Arctic environment, among the fastest-warming regions on earth.

Their voices and solutions for how to sustain communities, cultures and the environment in a changing Arctic are the reasons why they were selected for the United States Arctic Youth Ambassadors program. In the coming months, an additional 10-15 youth ambassadors will be selected. The program was created by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. State Department in partnership with nonprofit partner Alaska Geographic to increase outreach and education during the U.S. Chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

I had the privilege of meeting James Chilcote, Haley Fischer, Barae Hirsch, Griffin Plush and Byron Nicholai, who are the next generation of conservation and community leaders – young Arctic stewards of their cultures, and our lands and resources, who we must invest in now to help us take action against a changing climate.

I learned a lot about these young students’ lives in Alaska and their plans for the future. James, a Gwich’in Athabascan from Arctic Village, who will attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks this year, said his dream in life is to keep the porcupine caribou safe from environmental harm; Haley recently participated in the Inter Tribal Youth Climate Leadership Congress and is a member of  a whaling crew in her home town of Barrow, Alaska; Barae is president of the West High School Green Team in Anchorage and is a teen reporter for the Alaska Teen Media Institute; Griffin is a member of Alaska Youth for Environmental Action, who will study environmental policy at the University of Alaska Southeast this year; and Byron Nicholai, who remarkably, has more than 18,000 followers on Facebook, is a talented musician from Toksook Bay who performed for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the Arctic Council Chairmanship reception.

Four Arctic Youth Ambassadors with Secretary Jewell and Secretary Kerry

(Byron Nicholai, Barae Hirsch, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, James Chilcote, Griffin Plush, Haley Fischer (not pictured))

These young leaders are impressive!

We also discussed the challenges of building awareness of the Arctic. Even within Alaska, many young people from Alaska’s largest urban areas, like Anchorage, have never had the opportunity to engage with other youth from rural Alaska or been to a village. They know little about how the rapidly changing environment in more rural areas is affecting the daily life and culture of their peers. And urban and rural youth often lack the opportunity to participate in life-changing leadership experiences in the world of policy deliberation and decision-making. That’s a big reason why the Arctic Youth Ambassadors Program is necessary – to provide an avenue for youth to do just this. 

Over the next two years, these young ambassadors will learn more about Arctic communities, cultures, and the environment that provides the basis for the food supply for Arctic families, as well as their cultural and spiritual identity. They’ll do so through a series of rural field expeditions, science seminars, and engagements with Alaska Native elders and other leaders from around the world.
For the next few days of this important dialogue at the GLACIER conference, the students will attend key policy sessions with trained scientific and policy experts to familiarize themselves with issues like Arctic climate change, biodiversity, the sensitive Arctic ecosystem and the dependence Arctic residents have on these resources. Their assignment is to apply their communication and social media skills, to amplify these lessons on a local, national and international level with their peers around the world. After this training, they will serve as mentors to the new ambassadors who will join them in the fall.

When we can excite and encourage youth to serve their communities and serve as an inspiration to the next generation of leaders, as we know these five ambassadors will, then we’ve invested wisely in our future, and more importantly, in theirs.