How Two Sisters Are Creating a Network of Global Activists

global activists picking up trash

Photo Credit: Mangostar/Shutterstock

When garbage washes up on a beach so voluminously that, on a daily basis, it could fill a 14-story building, that could be considered a "garbage emergency."

And that is what was happening in Bali, a famously idyllic island in Indonesia. "Was" past tense, because of the actions of two young Balinese women — girls when they started — who took action.

From Malala Yousafzai to Greta Thunberg, more and more young people are rising up as activists and innovators. Sisters Melati Wijsen, 19, and Isabel Wijsen, 17, are the two change-makers who led a campaign to turn things around in Bali, and have launched a global effort.

“Growing up here on the island of Bali, my sister and I spent a lot of time in the environment,” Melati tells CircleAround. “It isn't rocket science to see plastic [is] ending up in places it should not, especially in nature.”

We said, ‘Enough is enough, what are we gonna do about it?’ ” Isabel adds. “At the time, we were 10 and 12 years old, so we did some research and learned that over 40 countries at the time banned single-use plastic bags. So we said, if they can do it, so can we.”

In 2013, the sisters launched their first initiative, Bye Bye Plastic Bags (BBPB), aimed at reducing the use of plastic bags in Indonesia and around the world. The program is meant to raise awareness and educate communities about the harmful impact of plastic in our environment, animals, and health. It’s also meant to empower people to create anti-plastic policy campaigns, organize community cleanups, participate in speaking engagements, and more.

Over 45 locations around the world have active BBPB teams, led by community youth members who carry out the original mission begun by Melati and Isabel. “I loved seeing how our team locally grew,” Isabel tells CircleAround. “It was such an organic but fast growth of young people gravitating to our events, our mission. It was so exciting to be able to make new friends.”

Today, the sisters have embarked on a new project called YOUTHTOPIA. This is a “community-centric platform with learning at its core” with peer-to-peer activism education programs based on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations.

The sisters tell CircleAround, “During the seven years of campaigning with Bye Bye Plastic Bags, we spoke to over 150,000 students in all corners of the world. And no matter where we were, there were always the same two questions: How can I do what you do? How can I be a part of the change the world needs today?”

The sisters aim to make YOUTHTOPIA a global “go-to” headquarters that “brings young people together, ignites their passions, and grows their skills to become active changemakers.” 

“I love connecting and being on the ground with other changemakers,” Melati tells us. “Through our work, we have been able to travel to so many countries, learn about so many different cultures, and one thing that is constantly staying the same is the motivation and passion of young people to bring positive change.”

These small moments every day are what keep us going. We celebrate them as they are confirmations that we’re doing something right.

YOUTHTOPIA includes YOUTHTOPIA Voices, an innovative agency specializing in supporting and amplifying youth activists under 28 for speaking engagements. It also has the Circle of Wisdom, a network of “experts and professionals who want to support and gently guide our generation to the next level of our full potential.”

Their mother, Elvira, is especially proud of her daughters' work, and is an active member of their initiatives. “From the sideline, I watched as they grew and grew and grew,” Elvira tells CircleAround. “I wanted to support them as much as possible, in the best way, to ensure they kept a good balance.”

One of the biggest challenges of being a young changemaker is dealing with the frustration and burn out when change does not happen faster,” says Melati. “It is exhausting to hear the excuses, the reasons why we can’t take action. Dealing with that at a young age was really tough!”

We have many high moments where we feel like no matter what, it is all worth it,” Isabel adds. “We love moments where we go for a walk and see a farmer bring one of the bags we distributed, or the Q&A session after a talk at a school. These small moments every day are what keep us going. We celebrate them as they are confirmations that we’re doing something right.”


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