Manila, 29 June 2016 — Meet Melati and Isabel Wijsen, a sister duo in Bali with a passion for the environment who started campaigning at age 10 and 12 to stop plastic bags and spurred a global movement for change. What can we learn from their leadership journey, and what are their 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
Born in 2000 and 2002, sisters Melati (15) and Isabel (13) grew up in Bali with their Indonesian father and Dutch mother. Melati flew to Bali ten days after she was born, and her sister Isabel was born there. “We feel like Bali babies,” they chimed in.
Their father hails from the neighboring island of Java, and builds traditional wooden houses with a modern touch, for export to buyers around the world.
“Dad is adventurous,” Isabel kicked off. “He made us fall in love with nature. I remember how he taught us to dance in the rain when we were small, and to paint our faces with mud. He was always optimistic, and believed in us, and made us believe in ourselves.”
Added Melati: “He told us stories since we were very young, about fruits, people, and nature. That inspired us so much. One of my favorite stories was about the bald rambutan fruit (rambutan gundul) as a metaphor for being true to your self. I think he made up many stories from his own imagination, and that helped us explore meaning and possibilities in everything, in a playful way.”
Their mother is in the real estate business and manages villas, which are rapidly becoming a preferred way of staying in Bali for many visitors who like a local touch.
“Mom is a hard worker, and is always teaching love and compassion,” started Melati. “She is going out of her way to do what is right, and to be kinder than she has to be. She brings balance and kindness into everything we do in our family.”
“Among our friends, not everyone tells their parents stuff,” added Isabel. “Yet we do, because our parents are our best friends too. We have a stronger relationship with them than with most people. I’m looking to my Mom as a hero. Our Mom and Dad are always there for us.”
Discovering their passion
They continued explaining the influence their parents had in their life.
Isabel: “We see our parents as warriors because they showed us how they stand up for what they believe in. And they provided us with space and with guidance. We learned how to not take more than we need, and to stay true to our roots. And we laughed a lot with them!”
From primary school, Melati remembers finding a passion for reading and spending time in her fantasy world, often with love stories. While Isabel discovered her passion for the performing arts.
Melati: “We played a lot, and making tree houses in our village was a favorite pastime. In school, we even did a survival course that taught us how to make huts and construct a water system.”
Entering a green school
Melati and Isabel are attending Bali’s Green School, which is known for its focus on sustainability and for adopting an entrepreneurial approach to learning that is integrated with local communities, thereby helping students to become change makers.
The campus features buildings made of bamboo with a wall-less design, inspiring “open minds, open hearts, and a great love for nature,” as the school website says.
In this unique environment, the two sisters were exposed to environmentally-conscious education from an early age.
Isabel: “My involvement in musicals and plays soon took on new messages, like climate change, and how it affects local communities. In a play we created ourselves, I acted the part of a local kid in Kalimantan who learned how to play with orang utans. We named the play Wisdom.”
Spreading their wings
As they entered middle school, their mother created an experience year during which they were home schooled while visiting places like Athens, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Venice.
“It was an incredible experience for us to travel outside Bali and learn about the Greek philosophers while standing right there where they gave their talks two thousand years ago. It really made our text books come alive,” explained Melati.
What they learned in Europe and the Middle East was reinforced in school.
Isabel: “We learn a lot by doing, from experience. The school is focused on shaping green leaders of today. That has made us into what we are now.”
Environmental awareness went beyond books and videos.
“From kindergarten to graduation, we’re in the middle of the jungle. We learned to have a deep connection with nature,” said Isabel. “We are in nature here. From day one you have your feet in the soil. It shows you how much you should care for the environment. We know what it means.”
Becoming green leaders
How did their school affect their growth? What did their process of becoming a green leader look like?
Melati reflected: “At first, everything happened in daily life and our studies. And then, at a certain moment, you have an awakening. It’s a deep moment, when things suddenly come together and you see that you have to take action, to take a lead. For me and Isabel, that moment was about garbage.”
“Whenever we went for a walk in the rice fields or for a swim, we saw garbage everywhere. And then we learned about it in class, and we discovered how leaders like Gandhi found ways to take a stand for change in their time. That is when we realized that we could also do that in Bali, together with other kids.”
Joining the Global Initiatives Networking (GIN) Youth Conference in 2013 became a turning point for them, and marked the start of their campaign to rid their beautiful island of the scourge of plastic bags.
Isabel: “We learned that garbage was a problem not only in Bali, but around the world. It started when we joined the GIN networking event in our hometown Canggu. We were the only speakers there below age 25. We were 10 and 12 years old then.”
What words did they use to make leadership come alive?
Melati: “For me, leadership is the ability to show compassion and motivate others to follow what you believe in.”
Isabel: “Leadership and being a leader means that you can empower everyone around you to fight for the same cause and to take ownership and responsibility.”
While sharing their dream, and working closely together for what they believe in, the two sisters have different personalities and practices every day.
Isabel introduced her sister Melati as the more introverted of the two, and an excellent writer who relaxes with a pen and paper.
Melati: “I like to get up early in the morning and do a gratitude roll every night. Before I start at school, I do a mindfulness exercise to ground myself in the now, centered and calm.”
Isabel is the more extroverted of the two, as she explained herself.
Isabel: “In the morning I like to stay in bed until the last minute. Mornings are stressful for me. I practice mindfulness and gratefulness, and I am a social butterfly so I do look forward to school and being with friends. … On stage, we can turn around, and it happens naturally for Melati to talk more then.”
They cautioned against labeling themselves and others.
Melati: “Introvert and extrovert is like any other label. It can be limiting. It’s best to stay true to your pure core and keep discovering.”
Developing their leadership
Melati explained that she did not see herself and her sister as leaders before they started their Bye Bye Plastic Bags campaign.
“It was our campaign that really helped our leadership to come out. We started off with so many questions. How to do it? We knew that we could not do it alone, and that we needed a team. We took the responsibility to start, among six best friends, and from there on it happened organically, together.”
Isabel: “The lessons in class, and seeing the garbage in our island, gave us a final push to get going. We realized that we needed to do something, even at our age of 10 and 12. We did not have to wait until a certain point in life to make a difference. Now was the best time!”
Their campaign gathered a strong team of collaborators, and other team members now host events when Melati and Isabel are away traveling to spread the message.
Melati remembers how it all started moving from the couch at home, when the computers came out. How would they put their intention into action?
“When we started looking for ways to get help, we had the good luck to stumble upon the Avaaz site, where people create online petitions. They decided to support us, and soon we had a petition up and running to ask the governor of Bali to say no to plastic bags. In the first night, six thousand signatures came in. Our campaign was born!”
Three years later now, Avaaz is still one of their biggest supporters, they explained.
Melati: “At first we didn't realize that we had the potential to be leaders. Then we discovered it, and it made us stop and think. It showed us the power that we youth have, and that we can be leaders whatever our age.”
As they set out to implement their campaign, more questions rolled in and challenges cropped up. Why did they not focus on the entire garbage problem, why only plastic bags?
Isabel: “People asked us many questions. We thought about it and looked at what was realistic for us. We were kids. We decided to start with what we could do, campaigning in local markets, and setting up a pilot project with a village. We learned to see ourselves as in the warm-up to the tremendous momentum for change that we see happening now.”
After 2 years of campaigning, they had not yet met the governor. Around that time, they visited Gandhi’s museum in India, and learned how he reached his goal for change in society by starting a hunger strike. This inspired them.
Melati: “When we announced that we would go on a hunger strike for our campaign to stop plastic bags in Bali, many people said not to do it. Eventually, we compromised and started a food strike from sunrise to sundown.”
Their resolve paid off. The day after starting their food strike, the governor’s assistant sent a car to pick them up from school to have a discussion. Then they met the governor, and he expressed his support for their campaign.
As their advocacy grew, the sister duo traveled to meet more people with their message.
The support they received from their parents and other adults in their community also made a difference.
Melati: “We were supported to take a social initiative. And learning how to become effective communicators was key. We didn’t know yet how to approach governments, and hosts to organize events. Our team worked hard on our communication skills, and parents and volunteers guided us.”
Isabel: “We learned how to deliver a message, and to focus on understanding what you’re really saying, and to believe fully in that. Our public speaking skills have grown a lot. We used to have cards in our hands and we were shaking while standing on stage. Now our skills have grown massively.”
They explained how their confidence as leaders grew through practice.
“Being consistent in our practice was key. And getting smiles of encouragement from team members and adults helped so much to boost our confidence.”
They also learned to adjust, for example in fine-tuning their message and managing expectations.
Melati: “At first, our message was to ban plastic bags. Then, as we learned how to work with government, and what they could support, we changed our message to saying no to plastic bags. That happened as a result of our discussion and cooperation.”
The sisters believe that it is the right time for the young generation to speak up.
Isabel: “As youth, we are giving a voice to our concerns for a sustainable world. We embody that. Our generation is speaking up that it’s time to change.”
Melati: “It would not have worked 10 or even 5 years ago. The time for change has never been better than now. Everyone is ready. The governments are realizing it too. We are so lucky to build and be part of this momentum.”
To a global stage
As their campaign audience grew, the sisters were invited to deliver a TED talk in London in September 2015.
Melati: “We were so excited. Our first visit to London! And all the building up, the preparations behind the scenes. Having coaches to guide us. And practicing it time after time to each other and in the mirror. No one could know, it had to be a surprise.”
Isabel: “It was so overwhelming for us, in the most positive way. We were the final speakers at the event, and we got a standing ovation. It was amazing to be part of the TED family, with such positive energy.”
Half a year later, more than 1 million viewers had watched their talk.
Three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia
So what are Melati and Isabel’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
First, believe in yourself and your team.
“The way to start leading is by believing in yourself. That comes first. It starts inside, and you can do it together with your team.”
Second, find your passion.
“For us, this was about preserving the environment, to deal with the garbage problem. We looked around in our own surroundings and we saw where we could make a difference. Our passion was for action.”
Third, start making a difference.
“It helps to start with something you can do immediately. Then create a realistic timeline, and set yourself goals that you can work towards, step by step. We started our campaign to replace plastic bags in our own local communities, and it grew from there.”
We had started our conversation in the Green School after Melati and Isabel finished their classes, and by this time we were continuing our discussion in the car on their way home, to make sure they had enough time do to their homework.
I asked what was coming up for them, now that their advocacy was spreading in ripples.
Starting to feel tired from the school day and our intensive conversation, the two young leaders shared how they kept a practical focus on their next steps.
Isabel explained that a local event was coming up in the weekend, where their team would gather in a market place to offer people alternative bags when they handed in their plastic bags.
“We keep working on stimulating a good mindset among the public. To show that alternatives to plastic bags are available.”
Melati explained that after their TED talk, the team had decided on four pillars for their work in 2016, to keep focus and avoid scattering attention and energy:
First, to produce an educational booklet of 25 pages in Indonesian language, for primary school kids, and to campaign to have this included in the curriculum.
Second, with a vision of “One Island, One Voice,” to accelerate their Bye Bye Plastic Bags campaign in Bali by inviting shops to publicly adopt the campaign, put the campaign sticker in their shop window, and have their names published.
Third, with a vision for Going Global, to encourage youth leaders around the world who had contacted them after their TED talk, to start their own practical initiatives and join the Bye Bye Plastic Bags movement from their cities and countries around the world, including New York City, Jakarta, Australia, Nepal, and Myanmar.
Fourth, to influence the decisions of world leaders and politicians with a message of youth empowerment.
Melati concluded: “We want to share the most important lesson we have learned, that young leaders don’t have to wait until they are older before they can take action. We started our campaign when we were 10 and 12. Now we are 13 and 15. Youth can make change happen. We feel that this is an important message for political leaders. Youth is not influenced by personal gain. From our pure intention can come great change in society. When they support us, we can make change happen together.”
The support of communications teacher Mr. Gandabhaskara Saputra to have the conversation with Melati and Isabel at the Green School is gratefully acknowledged.
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