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Bring Locals to the Table: The Importance of Community Involvement for Success

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

At the 2020 Virtual Island Summit, an online conference hosted by Island Innovation, the world was able to learn from four young professionals who are leading conservation initiatives from their small island, big ocean nations around the globe. Each ocean advocate brought a unique perspective on how to engage the next generation in protecting the ocean.

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Yolanda Joab Mori is a community organizer from the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) working to preserve the future prosperity of her home. She has been a keynote speaker at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, World Forum on Natural Capital, United Nations ECOSOC Youth Forum, the UN High Level Political Forum, and is an alumnus of the inaugural Obama Foundation Leaders Program for the Asia Pacific. She’s worked on community-based climate change adaptation and education, with focus on women and youth engagement across the FSM for ten years and serves on the Board for the UN MGCY (United Nations Major Group on Children & Youth). She recently begun a new position as the Blue Prosperity Micronesia Program Coordinator.

“The ocean is the one thing that connects all of us, from the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) to the Maldives to Bermuda. Even for those of us not living right by the sea, everyone who drinks water and breathes needs the ocean. There is no doubt that we cannot live without it, so at the very least we should give it the respect it deserves. To quote my friend Jasmine Mendiola, “We can never do the ocean justice for how it serves us, but we can try.”

My home, the FSM, is a small country of 607 islands with a landmass of only 207 square miles. In contrast, our Exclusive Economic Zone occupies over a million square miles of the Pacific Ocean. We aren’t so much a small island developing state, but rather a large ocean state. And this status as a large ocean state affects everything we do, from our livelihoods to our culture to our families and to our sense of identity.

I am a mother to two young children, but I also still think of myself as a daughter to many; to my mother, the women who helped raise me, and, also, to Micronesia itself. These familial roots are what connects us to the planet and to each other, and in the FSM, we still cherish that very real connection. The pride, the gratitude, and the powerful sense of identity is what makes conservation and advocacy so natural for so many islanders.

I’ve been an environmental advocate for about ten years now. And one of the most important things I’ve learned is that conservation initiatives need to be community-driven and community-led to be sustainable. I’ve seen so many organizations that come in fixated on goals that they’ve set without locals, and only end up setting up projects that don’t last. Projects cannot be sustainable if they are not reflective of the local community’s needs. When our community is listened to and involved from day one, we then have a sense of ownership over the work because we’ve built it together and played a meaningful role in it.

From my experience, there are three pillars which should be incorporated into all programs in order for them to have lasting success:

1. Authentic community partnership

2. Valuing local knowledge

3. Youth and women’s involvement

Any initiatives need to incorporate traditional knowledge at all levels of research and engagement. There is so much to be said about the knowledge that exists within these communities, especially with the elders. We need to switch from a place of going in and telling people what we think we know, but rather work from a place that asks “What can we learn from you and what can we learn together?”

There is also so much potential and opportunity when working with young people. For six years, I worked on a program taught about climate change and environmental science in schools, and the opportunities available to them in the world. We reached 10,000 students, all of whom will inherit the climate crisis. And all of them can make a huge impact: when youth are empowered and are provided the opportunities to get involved, it makes an impact. Passing the torch to youth is a very powerful way to bring to light the importance of this kind of work.

Fighting for my islands has always been rooted in my heritage and in who I am, but when my children were born, the fight became about them and their futures too. It was about knowing I did my part for them, ensuring they don’t bear the burden of climate change and inherit an uncertain future.”

Watch the recording:

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