How Youth Activists Melati And Isabel Wijsen Are Creating A Global Headquarters For Young Changemakers
Melati and Isabel Wijsen launched activism group Bye Bye Plastic Bags when they were just 10 and 12 years old. Over six years, their continued protesting and education efforts eventually resulted in the official ban of plastic bags, styrofoam and plastic straws on their home island of Bali, Indonesia, showing the world the power of young people to stand up and enact change.
But the ban on plastic wasn’t the end of the sisters’ careers in advocacy. The duo explained that over the years, they met countless young people who also wanted to make a change, but didn’t know how. “We always got the same two questions no matter where in the world we were, and that was: ‘How can I do what you do?’ and ‘How can I be part of a larger movement?’” Melati says.
“That was never an easy question to answer,” she adds. The sisters realised their experiences over the past seven years gave them the unique ability to help other young activists develop the skills and tools they need to make a difference, be it training young people public speaking skills or teaching them how to lobby for policy change.
“We knew that there was a larger passion that was growing for us, and that was youth empowerment through peer-to-peer learning,” Melati says. In 2020 they launched Youthtopia, which the sisters describe as the headquarters for young changemakers around the world.
Here, we talk to the Wijsen sisters about their vision for the future of Youthtopia, the importance of alternative education and how they are helping young people find their “how”.
What are you hoping to achieve with Youthtopia?
Melati “Youthtopia is a community-centric platform with learning at its core. We use the 17 [United Nations] Sustainable Development Goals as a guideline and inspiration for all of our programmes. We have about eight different services. For example, Youthtopia Voices is the world's first speaking agency for young people under 25. We partnered with two existing and well established agencies based in Europe and in Asia. So we have quite a strong holding and support from traditional speaking agencies, but we get to choose the talent and the amplification of young people.
“We also have Youthtopia Masterclasses, which is our online edtech space with the same concept as MasterClass... Youthtopia's philosophy is no matter if you're young, we value your learnings and the lessons that you've experienced on the frontlines. And we truly believe that through that peer-to-peer empowerment, we can inspire more young people to action.”
What will be taught through Youthtopia?
Melati “All of the skills that we cover in our learning process and material for Youthtopia are foundational changemaking skills. So, how to speak in public, how to give a good interview, how to speak and reach out to politicians, how to create policy change—all of this through real-life examples from other young changemakers that have done this before or have experience at attempting it. It’s really about breathing life into the vision of becoming the headquarters of young changemakers, and everybody learning from each other and learning from mistakes, learning how to do it better.
“‘Youth empowerment’ has become such a buzzword in the last couple of years. Every conference I go to, it's kind of like a tick on the box, we have a young person here… which is great and don't get me wrong, it's a good start in the direction of getting young people at the table. But what we need to do is to be involved at a much earlier stage, before the big announcement, before the lights and the stage and the camera; [we need to be involved at] the brainstorming part. And that's what Youthtopia is enabling all of us to do, by coming together and strategising before all of that happens.
“Oftentimes a lot of these programmes on youth empowerment are for helping young people find out their ‘why’. But at Youthtopia, we strongly believe that our generation has a very strong connection to the why—why are we doing this? Why is it important? Why do we need to go out there on the frontlines, skip school and go to a protest? We are very connected to our ‘why’. It's now the ‘how’ that is important. And that's where Youthtopia comes in.”
We are very connected to our ‘why’. It's now the ‘how’ that is important. And that's where Youthtopia comes in
— Melati Wijsen
How do you choose the young people you want to be a part of Youthtopia?
Melati “Throughout the seven years [we organised Bye Bye Plastic Bags], we were blessed to be unknowingly building this network for Youthtopia—every single young person that we met that was like-minded or that had a big vision or shared the same idea, those were the people that we stayed connected with and are now eventually part of Youthtopia's growing network.
“Actually all of our programmes are led by young people, who we call our Circle of Youth. This is a network where Youthtopia recognises individuals who have their own track record of change, so either they've been able to establish policy change, created a lot of educational workshops or have their own project and ongoing effort. The idea and the vision behind Youthtopia is really to be the headquarters for young changemakers around the world.”
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You just opened your official headquarters in Bali. Can you tell us more about that?
Melati “Yes, we did finally. We have so many stories of starting the movement as sisters and brainstorming in the kitchen, the living room... the lobby of a hotel, basically anywhere that had a good internet connection and a plug—that would be our office. So finally, after seven years [we have an office]. It definitely feels good and is a big milestone for us to be able to have a headquarters based here in Bali.
“The [headquarters is] made out of five recycled shipping containers, fully powered by 15 solar panels. It’s a place where we also wanted to demonstrate true collaboration, so we highlighted 16 different partners based in Bali in our showroom, where there is everything from sustainable sunscreen to sustainable fashion. Because one thing we've learnt through our activism is the power of coming together and the power of true collaboration.”
You’re sisters but have also worked together for such a long time. What’s that experience like?
Isabel “Me and Melati always grew up super close to each other, we were each other's best friends. We’d have sleepovers in each other's rooms and call it a sister sleepover—”
Melati “—We still have them!”
Isabel “Yes! So, growing up that close with each other… definitely allowed us to work together in a smoother and more seamless way. We have very different dynamics when working on things. Melati is super driven, passionate. She'll get things done and she's very stubborn in a good way, whereas I'm outgoing, I love doing hands-on things and I like talking to people and meeting other young people... Our roles sort of naturally built themselves.”
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You became activists at such a young age. How did you juggle school with Bye Bye Plastic Bags?
Isabel “Melati and I definitely had an amazing support system that allowed us to really go out there and just start Bye Bye Plastic Bags, which was a crazy idea at 10 and 12 years old… We also had quite a flexible academic life where our school really understood the importance of what we were doing and viewed Bye Bye Plastic bags as like our life school—it was teaching us things that you couldn't learn in a four-walled classroom.”
Melati “I think one of the skills that we really learnt from that experience is time management, and also prioritising, which is something that our parents would always tell us growing up. We were in an environment where we could prioritise protecting nature as much as we had to prioritise learning Algebra Two. I think it really matters where you are and who is around you. And we're really lucky and privileged to be able to have had the kind of start that we did.”
Bye Bye Plastic bags was like our life school—it was teaching us things that you couldn't learn in a four-walled classroom
— Isabel Wijsen
What’s next for you both?
Isabel “Somewhere down the line, I'd love to really become a part of the food and beverage industry and be part of the revolution to make it more sustainable and environmentally friendly… I’d like to make a very positive, diet-friendly and healthy restaurant that's farm-to-table and completely off the grid. It’s a big idea and hasn't been done yet in Bali, Indonesia, really to the scale that I would dream my restaurant of being.”
Melati “For me, the next chapters of my life will be very much dedicated to building Youthtopia. It's never a boring day at the office or at work, I'm learning a lot in the space of education and I think there's a growing passion constantly for alternative education. But more specifically, how do we empower young people through education? So I think that's what I'll be focusing on for the next several years."
Listen to the episode of our podcast, Crazy Smart Asia, featuring Melati Wijsen.