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Youth Leadership from the Pacific Island Nations: From Tuna to iTUNA and becoming Citizens of the World

Students boarding a boat to learn about sustainable fishing practices. (Photo source: World Oregon)

By Ashley Lin

According to the International Organization for Migration, by the year 2050, up to a billion people may become climate change refugees. This is most alarming in the Pacific Island nations, where rising sea levels, warming oceans, and unsustainable fishing practices are already putting citizens in jeopardy.

For the nations making up the Pacific Freely Associated States (FAS; comprised of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau), fishing is the top economic driver—specifically tuna fishing, which provides local food security. But recent research indicates that increasing acidification in the Pacific Ocean—a function of climate change—is causing staggering levels of damage to tuna larvae. Add this to the ongoing problem of overfishing, and one can understand the motivation behind FAS’ recent call-to-arms to find new ways to ensure sustainable tuna fishing.

One way has been to begin to develop the next generation of FAS leaders who will foster regional collaboration, promote sustainable practices, and preserve tuna resources for local communities. And so, FAS leaders established the TUNA Diplomacy Youth Leadership Program (TDYLP).

As part of the program, students recently spent a week with host families in Portland, Oregon, while participating in workshops on long-term sustainable management of marine resources. Students then spent two weeks at a camp in Newport, Oregon, where they participated in a diverse range of activities from meeting with local fishermen to participating in beach clean-ups.

All this was made possible with support from the organization World Oregon whose mission it is to create a pipeline for international engagement so Oregonians of all ages can be informed and active global leaders. Support also came from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI.  To fund the program, World Oregon had received a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. And there at the camp, the FAS students joined forces with U.S. students interested in learning how to make a difference environmentally through grassroots organizing and influencing environmental policy.

At first, the FAS youth group and the U.S. youth group appeared to have separate agendas. For those from the FAS, learning about sustainable fishing practices was the central focus. In the words of one of the teens from the FAS group, “Our biggest priority is our tuna industry, which offers us jobs,” and “Our main focus is on stopping overfishing by educating our community so that better jobs [and] better futures can be possible.”

In contrast, for the U.S. students, learning how to engage in global activism was the main focus. In the words of one participant from Portland, OR. “[we hope to] conduct workshops about sustainability, host beach cleanups, and potentially raise money to donate to professional causes, [and[ we hope to raise awareness of the climate crisis related to fish and oceans in Micronesia.”

Despite these differences in focus, all of the students recognized how local community issues connect with the greater global climate crisis—and by bringing students from the FAS and the U.S. together in shared workshops, the students acquired a common language to engage in dialogue around issues related to environmental sustainability and marine resource management. Furthermore, this intentional convening of youth leaders passionate about protecting a fragile, shared ocean ecosystem generated a natural spirit for environmental action.  Not surprising, after only a short time together, a community of globally-minded youth changemakers was formed—one that ensured that the conversations didn’t remain isolated by country.

The most tangible and remarkable outcome of this coming together was the establishment of a new activist group—explained here by Arora, one of the teens: “Me and Kiran [another U.S. TUNA diplomat in the program] had a brief discussion, and came up with an idea for one unified group, in which all the islands and the US worked together. It was late at night, crazy thinking was happening, and all the girls loved the idea. The next morning, the idea was pitched to the entire group, and the rest is history.”

The idea Arora was referring to is iTUNA, the International Teens Upholding Nature Association. Inspired and led by participants within the TUNA Diplomacy Youth Leadership Program, iTUNA demonstrates how becoming an effective youth climate leader can follow from first identifying as citizens of the world and recognizing the interconnectedness of environmental challenges. In the words of Larry Huang, a sixteen-year-old participant from Vancouver, Washington, “iTUNA was influenced by the Tuna Diplomacy Youth Leadership Program because it showed us how students from different countries canlearn to work together.” In the weeks after the program, Huang was elected by his peers to serve as President of this new, youth-led organization.

According to the youth leaders, iTUNA’s mission is to mobilize youth in an effort to spread awareness of and combat climate change, as well as provide care for our oceans and environment. One youth leader from FSM (Federated States of Micronesia), Zedikiah Young-uhk, showed her eagerness to get started helping out as she explained: “In the FSM, the delegates from four different islands are currently undergoing work in their respective island to achieve two main goals; raise awareness about the importance of fisheries and combat plastic pollution through clean ups. The other countries have other plans in mind. For example, the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ delegates plan to recruit youths to assist in conservation projects and raise awareness about the need to use better fishing practices through workshops.”

Although each country has its own specific problems and methods, iTUNA is assembling a group of youth leaders from around the globe who are organizing their communities around a shared concern for protecting and conserving marine and terrestrial life. By advocating for climate justice through a shared identity as citizens of the world, these students are able to amplify their impact. Larry Huang put it this way: “We wanted to be able to enlist the help of youth around the world to reach our goals. Therefore, we decided to form an organization where we could work as one to make the most amount of change. We are also always looking for other high schools that want to start iTUNA clubs and join our international network.”

Currently, iTUNA is preparing to launch chapters in Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and the U.S. (Seattle, Federal Way, Des Moines, Moses Lake, Honolulu, Las Vegas). The organization, led by an international officer team, with country representatives and regional directors, already has over 25 committed club presidents creating iTUNA clubs in schools this fall.

What started as the Tuna Youth Development Leadership Program, a country-exclusive organization, has transformed to become the iTUNA movement, inviting youth climate leaders from all over the globe to join and explore sustainability and climate themes from an intercultural and international perspective. In short, iTUNA is now developing youth climate leaders who identify as citizens of the world.

Ultimately, this means students have the ability to act locally while coordinating regionally and thinking globally. Programs such as TYLDP understand that allowing students to develop a world citizen identity is more critical than ever to effectively address complex issues such as marine conservation and environmental sustainability. It is by making connections across national boundaries that students start a lifelong journey of caring for the natural environment: not only at home, but all around the world.

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