Melati: “We may only be 25% of the world's population, but we are 100% of the future. And that future starts today, and it all starts with YOU!”
Issue XIV Cover Feature Empower
Written Interview by Ishita Shukla
Melati is a 21 year old full time changemaker and movement builder. She founded Bye Bye Plastic Bags at the age of 12, since then, Melati has spoken on world stages such as TED and the UN, she recently co-chaired the World Economic Forum GPAP committee, sat on the inaugural Expert Advisory Panel for the Earthshot Prize, and has had her film, Bigger Than Us, premiere at the 74th Cannes Film Festival 2021. Today, Melati launched her new company, YOUTHTOPIA, focusing on youth empowerment through short, meaningful peer to peer programs and providing them the tools they need to be changemakers. Her vision is to make YOUTHTOPIA the go to platform for young changemakers.
You and your sister, Isabel Wijsen, were just pre-teens when you founded ‘Bye Bye Plastic Bags’. Can you tell us the backstory behind your initiative?
Melati: When we started BBPB you have to remember, we had no “business plan” no strategy, and even no funding. But what we had was a clear vision and LOTS of passion. Our mission was simple: We wanted to make our island home of Bali plastic bag free. It wasn’t rocket science growing up on the island that plastic pollution was a really big problem. Plastic was everywhere. It was our wake up call. We made things happen because “If not us then who? If not now then when?” After all, us kids may be 25% of the world’s population but we are 100% of the future.
What were some significant moments that finally led to the ban of plastic bags, straws, and Styrofoam on your home island Bali in 2019.
Melati: First of, it's important to acknowledge that there are so many organizations involved! Bali is really lucky that so many people and initiatives care about its environment so much! Bye Bye Plastic Bags was the first organization that was led by youth, so in that way we like to think that we helped the movement share and show its urgency. “If kids are speaking up and want change, we should take this a little more seriously” . There were countless government meetings and business stakeholder meetings with different groups to find out the best way forward! Finally, two governors later and many hours of meetings we saw the ban come to life! Our work is not yet over though! We still have a lot to do and now we focus on helping with the implementation of the ban.
From a zealous teen to being selected among ‘FORBES Top Ten Most Inspiring Women in the US’, it has been an intense journey so what was the biggest hurdle you have faced till now?
Melati: Especially in the early days, when change isn't happening fast enough my biggest challenge is to stay hopeful! This was one of the biggest frustrations because I didn't understand (and still sometimes don’t understand) why it takes this long to pass a simple legislation that would make a big difference! Today I have learned to surround myself with positive people who are working in the same fields, this reminds me that the movement is happening and the change is coming.
You graduated high school in 2018, a year before your peers, how has your school and community supported your environmental activism?
Melati: Support from teachers was so important and it allowed me to become the changemaker I am today. I remember working really really hard to be able to graduate a full year earlier than planned, it was because I had this really deep urge to get started as a full time changemaker. Today, when we onboard new BBPB team leaders around the world one of the criteria we look for is whether or not the team leader has the support of the school. This is necessary if we want to create long term change.
The world came to a halt during the COVID-19 Pandemic, how did it affect your mental health and activism?
Melati: Actually, personally speaking at the start of the pandemic, I didn't realize at first how much I needed to hit that pause button. 2019 was a crazy hectic year for me, I was on my GAP year, filming a full feature film and I was barely ever home. So when the pandemic had its first rounds of lockdowns it was a scary moment where I personally also had to pause. At first it was difficult for me to stop my usual routine of travel > talk > travel > film > travel > talk etc etc …but in that moment I realized how much I actually needed that moment of pause. To be home, to grow veggies, to be with my family.
But there was also a growing fear and worry that even a pandemic would not change our behavior, would not be enough to push our leaders to do the right thing. So, still today I work harder than ever to accelerate the positive change we need.
RAPID FIRE ROUND WITH MELATI
Describe yourself in three words
An advice to 12 year old Melati.
Your favorite subject in high school?
One quote that you swear by.
The most inspiring person in your life.
Determined, Passionate, Hard-working
Pace yourself! It is a loonnnggg road towards change.
English! I loved reading and writing.
“The grass is greener where you water it” and one more: “We grow in the direction of the questions we ask and the stories we tell.”
My sister, for always being brave to try new things and being humble in her process of growth.
You have always believed that community participation is the key to revolution. How did you encourage more and more youngsters to join the movement?
Melati: Easy! By making them feel a part of the movement. We need everybody, whether you’re into surfing, cooking, dancing, or the environment this movement concerns you and needs you! It was also key for us to keep our narrative as inviting as possible. We do not believe in excluding or pointing fingers, that time is now over. We need to work together and amplify + uplift all of the skills we have and contribute it towards solutions. Look for the best in people and invite them in!
Lastly, your documentary film ‘Bigger Than Us’, premiered at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. What was your biggest takeaway while traveling the world to gain and spread knowledge on various issues such as food security, child marriage, etc?
Melati: Wow, this experience changed me! As an 18 year old, suddenly learning and seeing with
my own eyes, the challenges and solutions were insane! It felt like a huge responsibility to share everything that I learned about while on set. I think the biggest take away is that everything is connected. No matter where we are or what we are doing, we all have a role to play. I am empowered and hopeful that our generation will lead the change!