From being instrumental in the ban of plastic bags in Indonesia to creating systems of impact for youth the world over, Melati Wijsen is here to ensure that the change starts young – and now.
In 2021, an era of activism and changemaking, Generation Z has led the charge, using their ingenuity, feistiness, and adaptability to fight for an Earth that they hope to see for themselves. For Indonesian changemaker and National Geographic Young Explorer Melati Wijsen, 20, that charge began with plastic bags – the ones littering the shores of her native Bali. That was when, at the age of 12, along with 10 year-old sister Isabel, she got ready to take action.
“Growing up in Bali, the connection with the environment was very strong. We saw plastic pollution everywhere we went,” Melati says. The experience birthed Bye Bye Plastic Bags, a social initiative-turned youth-led non-governmental organization, driven by countless after-school meetings and the rallying of the young and the restless. Intended to raise awareness about the harmful effects of plastic bags, the group had significant impact in Bali, eventually forming teams worldwide and bringing about the ban of single-use plastic bags, straws, and Styrofoam from Bali in 2019.
But it did not stop there. Wijsen founded One Island One Voice, a movement involving organizations in the region committed to reducing waste. And in 2017, she set up Mountain Mamas, which empowered local women in Bali to support the Bye Bye Plastic Bags movement.
“It started because we saw people asking for alternatives, We saw an opportunity as well – to empower women in local communities,” Wijsen says about Mountain Mamas. “The social enterprise allows women to learn to make alternative bags from donated or recycled materials, and it generates income to help support their families.”
That mission set Wijsen on a path to driving environmental upliftment on a global scale beyond the ban of plastic, speaking at TED and the United Nations, receiving honors from Forbes, TIME, the World Economic Forum, and being one of CNN’s Young Heroes. Throughout, her mission has been to empower the young, inspiring them to become changemakers.
“When we started, we had no idea where we would end up, and today,” she says. “All the best I can hope is for other young people to see what is possible through our actions.”
Of course, none of that would have been possible without her family.
“Starting with my sister was the best adventure ever; we grew up like two peas in a pod,” Wisjen says. “So it was natural for us to start our activism journey together as well. We wouldn’t be able to have gotten this far if our mom and dad hadn’t supported us the way they did – driving us from event to event, helping us find meeting locations, and giving us the occasional pep talk when we needed it most.”
Leaving things to “the grown-ups” and those with power comes with its risks. “We didn’t want to wait until we were older until we started making a difference,” she says. That led to her most recent project, YOUTHTOPIA.
“YOUTHTOPIA is a natural next step after eight years to empower more young people to become young changemakers,” she explains. Born from the mission to help those who ask “what can we do,” YOUTHTOPIA is deemed a global “go-to HQ” for young people to come together and be part of a larger system of change. Connecting people through peer-to-peer infrastructure, it gives the youth worldwide the ammunition to not make excuses for delaying change.
Wijsen’s mission is to show how crucial it is to care about the world around.
“Start TODAY,” she says emphatically. “Find one thing that makes you incredibly excited, hone in on your strengths, build a team, and go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re too young to make a difference.”
Check out Melati Wijsen’s National Geographic bio
For more of SEEMA’s environmental coverage, check out Three Women Take on the Plastic Straws Menace