How can young people address climate change? Ben Charles of Bethel is taking on that challenge as part of a new initiative from the Inuit Circumpolar Council. He’s been named to a new group called the Emerging Alaska Inuit Leaders Initiative.
This year has been a big year for young climate change activists. A lot of people are familiar with Greta Thunberg, who made international headlines with her school strike for climate change. Indigenous youth have also been speaking out about climate change, especially in Alaska.
The 2018 National Climate Assessment report says that rural Alaska, specifically Alaska Natives, will face the brunt of climate change impacts. And Alaska Native youths are witnessing those changes up close. At the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention last month, two young Indigenous women stood up to the microphone.
"I am Indigenous, and we are not here to fight with our own people. We are here to stand together. This is a serious issue. We are worried about our future generations, and we are crying up here," said one of the women, Quannah Chasing Horse Potts, who is Gwich’in Athabascan and Lakota Sioux.
They persuaded AFN to pass a resolution declaring a state of emergency for climate change. The AFN resolution and Thunberg's notoriety have helped set the stage for what Charles hopes to accomplish.
"There’s an old Yup’ik saying that says things unfold or things unveil themselves at the proper moment, and I believe this is the era of where we’re no longer — Indigenous peoples, Yup’ik peoples, Inuit peoples, Alaska Native and American Indian — we’re no longer afraid to speak up," Charles said.
As part of the Emerging Alaska Inuit Leaders Initiative, Charles is tasked with helping Inuit youth across Greenland, Alaska, Canada, and Siberia express their perspective about climate change in their communities. He has two years to do that.
The initiative builds off the Utqiagvik Declaration passed in 2018. It lays out 10 goals that the Inuit want to fulfill that uphold their values and customs. Those include food security, language revitalization, and, of course, climate change. But Charles almost didn’t apply.
"I was hoping others would apply," Charles said.
Charles manages the museum at the Bethel Cultural Center. He carves masks, and he is heavily involved in other social issues in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. But people kept pushing him to apply, and after some research and self-reflection, he did. He said that he felt he could do more than just focus on the Y-K Delta.
"There’s more that I could accomplish to advance Indigenous Alaska, and especially Indigenous Inuit and the issues that we face," Charles said.
The word “leader” is written into the initiative, but Charles sees his role as helping to bring people together to resolve issues, which is the type of leadership that aligns with Yup’ik customs.
"For me, I still see each one of us as children until we obtain that Yup’ik awareness. There’s one of those stages of awareness where we no longer think of ourselves or look inward, but look outward and think of others and our environment," he said.
Part of the job requires meeting with some of the world's top policy leaders, but Charles is not afraid.
"The best way to approach talking with any individual, not just leaders, is to be yourself, speak your mind, and know what issues you would like to see remedied. Because at the end of the day we’re just people," he said.
Charles is flying to Greenland and Madrid in the next couple of months as part of the initiative. And once the two years are up? Charles says that his goal is to continue to work with youth, and to craft a framework that will help future youth to continue this work.