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Meet The Y-K Delta's New Arctic Youth Ambassadors

Courtesy of the Alaska Geographic Field Institute, Katie Basile/KYUK

Two young adults from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have been selected to serve as youth ambassadors to the Arctic Council.

Over the next two years, Kate McWilliams and Ben Hunter-Francis II will attend high-level meetings around the world and discuss the Arctic’s changing ecosystem. For both McWilliams and Hunter-Francis II, the ambassadorship gives them a chance to focus on climate change and look for solutions.

Ben Hunter-Francis II has been helping gather food for as long as he can remember. "Ever since I was in a car seat," he said with a laugh.

As a kid in Marshall he was always fishing or hunting. He’s also a traditional drummer and dancer; Yupik culture is important to him.

Kate McWilliams grew up in Bethel. She’s passionate about the Y-K Delta’s culture too, particularly the ways in which its communities have adapted to their environment. "I grew up here and I think I want to live here for the rest of my life," she said. "I love it."

But climate change is transforming the Arctic’s ecosystem and shifting its economy. McWilliams and Hunter-Francis II are both grappling with the challenges that their communities are facing.

Hunter-Francis II, who’s 19, is increasingly concerned with preserving traditional ways of life and protecting them from corporate interests. He passionately opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "Inupiaq people have been living off the land for thousands of years," he said. "And if all of a sudden an accident happened, they'll bring harm to the land."

McWilliams, age 20, wants to strengthen the Y-K Delta’s infrastructure, particularly on waste management, recycling, and alternative energy. "What I'd like to focus on is how communities can be more sustainable," she said, "and how they adapt to the changes in climate." She’s studying sustainability at Claremont College in Southern California, but she said that a lot of what she’s learning in school isn’t applicable here. Many of her classes are focused on cities.

As Arctic Youth Ambassadors, Hunter-Francis II, and McWilliams will have a chance to explore these issues with some of the Arctic’s top scientists and political leaders. Over the next two years they’ll attend meetings held by the Arctic Council’s working group on the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna, or CAFF. It’s an international group of government officials and scientists who monitor circumpolar biodiversity. They track the health of shorebirds, polar bears, and native plants.

McWilliams is looking forward to learning from the other attendees at the meetings. "I think we're on the forefront of, like, a lot of new and serious issues," she said, "so it will be fun to be part of the problem solving."

Both Hunter-Francis II and McWilliams will also be assigned mentors at CAFF and will attend CAFF meetings in other countries, an opportunity they're particularly excited about. Hunter-Francis II can’t wait to go to Finland. "I'm a big big hockey fan and there are a lot of good Finnish hockey players," he said. "And I’ve never been out of the country before."

McWilliams and Hunter-Francis II attended their first Youth Ambassadors meeting in Anchorage last weekend.