Here Are the Young ASEAN Leaders That Will Inspire You This Earth Day

On Earth Day, it is easy to be overwhelmed by all the difficult environmental problems facing the world. Each day there are new reports of melting icecaps, illegal logging, animal extinction, and rising sea levels. The list goes on.

Instead, we challenge you to make a difference by drawing inspiration from some Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) participants that are making a difference.

Earth Day YSEALI Generation Earth
One year ago today, YSEALI Generation: Earth participants plant trees in honor of Earth Day.

#YSEALIGenEarth: Responding with Radical Optimism

It becomes easy to become resigned and accept this as our collective fate for humanity. Or, there is a second option. As James O’ Conner says:

“During crisis moments, the individual can make a difference with regard to the resolution of the crisis, since, by definition, no one knows or can know its actual outcome.”

Through human domination of nature, we have created this climate crisis. But as with every problem, there has to be a solution. Since there is only one Earth, we need to be the ones to learn to live within an ecologically sound world.

That is why this Earth Day, I challenge you to become like my friend Cherrie Atilano from the Philippines. Instead of being overwhelmed by the difficulties of the climate crisis, she calls herself a “radical optimist.”

ASEAN Earth Day
Cherrie giving a presentation at the YSEALI Generation Earth workshop.

I met my radical optimist friend Cherrie last year on Earth Day 2015. Cultural Vistas was implementing the YSEALI Generation: Earth Workshop, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, in Siem Reap, Cambodia. At the workshop, 64 participants from all 10 ten ASEAN countries and mentors from both the U.S. and ASEAN came together. It created a ripple effect that extended beyond the four days we spent together in Cambodia.

Throughout the workshop, we planted 100 trees in a community forest and created a protected area for fish on the Tonlé Sap lake. The mix of interactive sessions and experiential hands-on learning gave participants the tools they needed to come up with solutions to the issues that affect them in ASEAN.

ASEAN Earth Day
Cherrie (front row, second from right) with the ASEAN Green Power team at the YSEALI Generation: Earth Workshop. Pictured: Lacckung (Cambodia), Saven (Cambodia), Sandy (Philippines), Nom (Myanmar), Fa (Laos), Jerry (Vietnam), Cherrie (Philippines), Maureen (United States)

Each participant at the YSEALI Generation: Earth workshop was part of a multinational team. Every team developed a post-program project that would address an ASEAN environmental problem. These projects, guided by their mentors, were eligible to receive $1,500 in seed funding to get started. On the last day of the workshop, they presented their projects and began the process of taking what they learned from principal to practice.

The participants all returned from Siem Reap with a newfound passion for being agents of change in their local communities. Two examples of this are Jaydelyn Reise De Vera and Sandy Jan Labarosa. Each served as the group leaders of their post program projects: ASEAN Green Power and One Baby, One Tree.

ASEAN Earth Day
One Baby, One Tree volunteers had their first meeting this March. Jayde and Sandy joined forces to bring this group together.

After advocating for environmental change throughout 2015, they saw an opportunity for collaboration to make their projects even stronger. On February 6, 2016, the two teams came together to partner. On May 14, 2016, they will be doing a Zumba Dance-a-Thon fundraiser. In June, they will install vertical garden projects in schools, organize tree plantings, and distribute health supplies across the country.


Jayde and Sandy took what they learned last year over four days and turned it into a project that now has a life of its own. It is just one of the inspiring examples out of YSEALI Generation: Earth.

Earth Day ASEAN
Jayde and Sandy joined forces this February, 10 months after meeting each other at the YSEALI Generation: Earth Workshop.

#YSEALIoceans: Crowdfunding for a Healthier Ocean

This March, we also hosted the YSEALI Generation Oceans workshop, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, to tackle marine and coastal environment issues. The participants similarly broke into multinational teams and developed project plans.

Earth Day YSEALI Oceans Pramuka
YSEALI Generation Oceans workshop pose for a photo after planting donated mangroves to Pramuka Island in Indonesia.

One month later, these people have created 11 crowdfunding campaigns and have raised $2,434 for their projects. Each project is eligible to receive $1,000 in matching funds from the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta.

The sooner they raise funds for their projects, the sooner environmental change will be a reality. Here are a few of the projects you could support:

  • Empowering local communities to use seaweed as a natural biofilter
  • Educating youth about coastal issues through local language infographics
  • Translating fisheries legislation into local languages for fisherman
  • Rebuilding mangroves to protect coastal areas from natural disasters
  • Installing mooring buoys to prevent anchors from crushing coral reefs
  • Ranking ASEAN hotels based on their ocean-friendliness (aka “blue rankings”)

We are also inspired by Hendriyadi Bahtiar Daeng Sila, a leader mentor at the YSEALI Generation Oceans workshop. Hendriyadi is working on a hydroponic agriculture method to help rural communities in Indonesia have access to fresh vegetables. This project called Pulau Berkebun (Island Gardening) is now a semifinalist in the 2016 Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) Tech-I Competition.

This Earth Day, Do Something.

Between these two workshops, these YSEALI members are forging a youth-led environmentally conscious movement. For such a vast and diverse region like Southeast Asia, it’s serving as a basis for an ASEAN identity.

Even if we are wrong about climate change, there is still value in fighting for an ecologically just world. All it means is a better planet for people to inhabit. If anyone has any doubts, then I implore them to look at one of my favorite cartoons, drawn by Joel Platt in 2009.

So on this Earth Day, do not think that an environmental problem is too large or your measure to combat the problem is too smallThe movement for a more ecologically sustainable world is gaining energy and can always use new members.

Be a radical optimist and join in. What do you have to lose?

Learn more about the #YSEALIoceans projects you can support this Earth Day.

Aaron Eisenberg

Aaron's passion for international exchange began as he spent a semester in Venice, Italy. Like Venice's native son, Marco Polo, Aaron has now traveled all over the world experiencing and interacting with different cultures. In his free time he enjoys photography, cooking, reading and the hopelessness of being a Knicks fan.

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Aaron Eisenberg

Aaron's passion for international exchange began as he spent a semester in Venice, Italy. Like Venice's native son, Marco Polo, Aaron has now traveled all over the world experiencing and interacting with different cultures. In his free time he enjoys photography, cooking, reading and the hopelessness of being a Knicks fan.

View all posts by Aaron Eisenberg

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