Why We Care About Southeast Asia

I climbed aboard the USS Enterprise as a child living in Singapore, when the ship and its crew refueled in the newly-independent nation’s outer harbor before heading back to support the conflict in Vietnam. I had ‘a clue’ about the conflict because my parents insisted on making sure my older siblings and I were aware of our surroundings, and, well, Southeast Asia was a theater of warfare.

Now, this region – the ASEAN region – is locked in a tug-of-war between China and the United States, both nations seeking to win the hearts and pocketbooks of its 625 million inhabitants, the majority of whom are under the age of 30 years old.

And, more than 90% of my 200-plus LinkedIn and Facebook contacts in this region are also under the age of 30. They are a part of a rising generation of the Young Southeast Asia Leadership Initiative (YSEALI) initiated by the U.S. Department of State in November 2013.

Members of the YSEALI Generation: Oceans Regional Exchange from Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam were selected to participate in a U.S. study tour focused on ocean conservation in September of 2016.

To apply an overused exclamation, these young people are awesome. That is, if you consider people under the age of 25 whose second jobs are to establish nonprofits to educate kids on deforestation, or to help bring together a cross-section of people to create a think-tank whose purpose is to identify solutions to community-wide social problems awesome.

Or, those who take a year of their life off to explore the roots of their culture and transform the lessons learned into lesson plans for primary school students. Or, those who have chosen to put their energy into assisting fishermen transform into ocean stewards, and educate farmers on a 21st century scheme of multi-cropping with fields of solar panels.

The success of YSEALI is that it has engaged this energetic and educated group of young people, and has plugged them into a network of their peers, and a network of peers from the United States. Cultural Vistas has been privileged to be selected to implement four YSEALI projects – Generation EARTH Workshop in Cambodia, Generation Oceans Workshop in Indonesia, the Generation Go NGO! Workshop in Philippines, and implementation of the YSEALI Seeds for the Future small grants program.

We take seriously not only the effort to address YSEALI’s four themes (civic engagement, environment and natural resources, entrepreneurship and economic development, and education), and to create learning opportunities for the members, but also to facilitate the development of an “ASEAN identity” among these future leaders of the 10 member nations.

Want to meet a couple of them?

YSEALI alumnus Nashrudin Kusain of the Philippines discusses issues pertinent to NGO management at a November 2016 workshop in Cebu.

How about Nashrudin Kusain, whose passion for environmental justice plays out in his work with ADAT-BETAD, Inc. in Mindanao, Philippines. In a nation under increasing attack by powerful typhoons growing out of warmer Pacific Ocean waters, Nash lives and works in a conflict zone and cares to train young people in sustainable development practices, organic farming, and basic renewable energy technologies. He is helping to create an Eco-Army to mitigate the effects of rising seas his local community is battling.

On the other side of the ASEAN region, Aung Mon Myat is working to raise awareness about unsustainable environmental practices involving waste disposal in Yangon, Myanmar. Not only is he organizing clean-up projects in the capital city, his activities asks these volunteers to conjure up innovative ways to build a sustained personal responsible approach to managing trash and waste.

.@YSEALI has engaged a generation of energetic + educated youth, plugging them into a network of their peers.

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His example is indicative of the plight of many cities in the ASEAN region – concern for quick economic growth before development of infrastructure that could manage that growth in a sustainable way. Like many in his generation – in the YSEALI generation – he understands it is the people who must work together to foster a better physical environment for themselves.

These activities build upon Cultural Vistas’ involvement in the region, which also began in earnest in 2013, with the implementation of the first of two ‘classes’ of the American Youth Leadership Program, programs sponsored by the U.S. State Department. And, where are some of these young people now?

Meet Jamie Withorne, a sophomore in political science and government at Columbia University in New York. Following up on working with refugees at Lutheran Social Services in her home state of South Dakota, Jamie has already completed internships with the International Refugee Assistance Project and the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., and studied for a semester in Copenhagen. In summer 2017, Cultural Vistas has arranged an internship in Vietnam for Jamie.

Jamie (center) traveled to Singapore and Malaysia as a high schooler through the American Youth Leadership Program. Before heading off to a summer internship in Vietnam, she recently spoke about the impact of her international experience at an event Cultural Vistas hosted in New York this past May.

And, meet Kirsten Brodeen, currently studying international business and management at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Kirsten doesn’t follow trends, she helps to create them. After graduating high school in Colorado, she organized her own gap year in Germany.

She was selected to be an intern for the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, but could not accept it because she wasn’t an enrolled student. Oh well, she was able to arrange an internship for herself at Commerzbank AG in Berlin. Not bad for a 19-year old high school graduate. Kirsten is offering volunteer support to a winner of the 2016 YSEALI Seeds for the Future small grants program.

Or, follow Yousef Rahman, a Levine Scholar studying civil engineering at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. He has completed internships at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport and the U.S. Green Building Council, but it was his activist bent that helped lead Cultural Vistas to select Yousef to be a youth mentor at the YSEALI Oceans Workshop in Indonesia.

Why should the United States care about Southeast Asia? If you believe the 21st century is to be Asia’s century, the United States needs to carefully foster good relations in the region sandwiched between China and India.

#DYK: Four of the world’s fastest growing economies are in ASEAN ????????

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Or, if you believe the United States is more than capable of maintaining its cultural and economic influence worldwide, it cannot ignore this region of 625 million consumers.

Why does Cultural Vistas care about this region?

Exchanges are means to grow strong, mutually-beneficial relationships between peoples in different regions. Each region has expertise, passion, innovation, insight, and hospitality to share with other.

We want to make this happen for as many as possible!


Learn more about the impact of our work to strengthen the ties that unite people and communities around the world in our 2016 Annual Report.