Environmental leaders without borders

The East-West Center in Honolulu is fostering a vibrant network of young leaders who are equipped to create innovative solutions to 21st century environmental challenges.


East-West Center Environmental Leadership circle Photo: East-West Center

Each year, the East-West Center (EWC) in Honolulu hosts a number of U.S. State Department-funded international youth leadership institutes with the vision of helping to foster a vibrant network of young leaders who are equipped to create innovative solutions to 21st century environmental challenges.

Participants between the ages of 18 and 24 from Southeast Asia and elsewhere engage in five weeks of experiential activities in Hawai‘i and on the U.S. mainland to expand their knowledge about the environment and build leadership skills through active learning methods. They work in teams with businesses, NGOs and government agencies to design and facilitate environmental awareness and action projects in their home communities.

After more than seven years and nearly 250 participants, the programme’s coordinator, East-West Center Leadership Education Specialist, Christina Monroe says “it’s become clear to us that if we want to foster leadership in youth, we must let them lead.”

A key outcome of the institutes is participants creating home country projects that are eligible to compete for up to US$ 25,000 in funding from several State Department alumni grant programmes. “We want our participants to experiment and gain confidence in leading a process of change, as well as knowing the content,” Monroe says. “It’s so rewarding to see these young people designing their own programmes by adapting methods and tools from our institutes, learning what works and doesn’t and managing their own youth staff teams. They’re actually doing leadership, and that’s the real outcome we hope for.”

Alumni projects that have successfully competed for grant funds include:

  • A ‘hackathon’ on disaster risk reduction titled ‘BEYOND ASEAN’ – Be a Young Hero on Disasters.’ Organised by a team of EWC leadership institute alumni in Bandung, Indonesia and Bacolod, Philippines, the three-day event built a community of empowered Southeast Asian youth who developed ideas for disaster preparedness and engaged with established institutions to advance their community initiatives. “Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine myself to be leading two international projects before turning 25,” reported one of the project leaders, CJ Nazareth from the Philippines. “As my mentor told me, it is a rare privilege to be part of something bigger than ourselves.”
  • An environmental leadership accelerator programme for high school seniors from underserved communities in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. During the week-long programme, dubbed the Chili Padi Academy after a favourite regional hot pepper variety, the students pitched innovative solutions to sustain livelihoods and advance environmental protection in their communities. Local and NGO mentors then guided the participants in project implementation and techniques for collaboration.
  • Publication of a book Faith and Nature for distribution to faith organisations and individuals keen to ‘green’ their places of worship in Singapore and beyond.
  • Environmental awareness and peace-oriented social entrepreneurship events in two areas known for violent political unrest – Mindanao in the Philippines and southern Thailand. Standout participant projects included a heat stress analyser to help farmers improve crop growth and a test-preparation tutoring programme to bridge the educational gap for high school students in conflict-affected areas.
  • A project to design, produce and distribute reusable bags and raise awareness about single-use plastics and consumer responsibility in locations in Indonesia, the Philippines and Cambodia.

On the afternoon of 2 September East-West Center environmental leadership programme staff will host a special Conservation Campus for interested Congress participants. On a site visit to beautiful and historic Kualoa on O‘ahu’s northeast coast, the educators will simulate some of their hands-on teaching methods which include tools from problem-based learning, design thinking and social labs.

Ultimately, Monroe says, the teachers often find they have as much to gain from the programme’s students as the other way around. “The global community has much to learn from these talented young leaders,” she says.

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