After almost two years of preparation, the students of Skagway School’s Climate Change Project made the trip to the Marshall Islands to see the effects a changing world has on that nation.
“For 13 days and 13 nights we lived, breathed, ate, drank and spoke the Marshallese culture – to the best of our abilities,” student Danny Brady said to the Skagway School Board on April 25.
Mikah Larhman, Kara Whitehead, Zach Breen, Denver Evans, Micah Cook, Steaven McKnight, Brady, Jessica Whitehead and Eliza Myers have been raising funds for the project since the School Board approved the excursion in October of 2015.
Through the tail end of March and in early April, the students of the Climate Change Project enjoyed the fruits of their labor, making the trip to the Marshall Islands for a week and a half spent working, interacting with Marshallese people and learning about issues in that part of the world, with few minutes left for fun in the sun.
After flying out of Anchorage and enduring a brief layover in Hawaii, the group touched down in the Marshall Islands – a chain of atolls and volcanic islands in the central Pacific Ocean. When they’d landed some 4,500-plus miles away from home, the students explored the capital of Majuro, and the first revelation of the trip was not far behind.
“Something that I think surprised us all was when we went to the ocean side, there was a lot trash and debris along the shore,” Myers said. The students quickly learned that trash was a major issue for Majuro Atoll. The large landfill on the island is overflowing, according to the students, and the Marshallese are struggling with ways to dispose of their waste.
The group of young Skagweigans were kept busy during their time there. Most days, Myers said the group would wake up at 6:30 a.m., jumping from meeting to meeting throughout the day. Kent Fielding, one of the teacher chaperones on the trip, said there were many days that the students were on the move from 6:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Sometimes they would have time for a sit-down lunch, other days the kids would grab food and eat on the fly. Throughout the trip, the students worked on travel blogs, where they recounted their activities on the trip and their daily experiences.
During their stay, the students attended the First National Oceans Symposium.
There, Whitehead said leaders from all over the Marshall Islands’ atolls gathered at a convention hall on Majuro to discuss pressing matters for the nation, such as waste disposal, fishing regulations, sewage treatment and pollution.
“This symposium was not fully focused on climate change, but how to protect one of the most important things to the Marshallese people: the ocean and more specifically its coastal reefs,” Whitehead said.
In a presentation to the School Board on April 25, many of the students spoke of the ocean’s encroaching moves on the Marshallese people’s dwindling land. The beaches of Majuro are lined with sea walls to help stave off the unwanted approaches of the waves, though even the sturdy cement sea walls protecting the wealthier parts of the island are defeated when the king tides roll around.
The sea walls vary from expensive, cement structures in well-to-do areas to makeshift sea walls fabricated from old coral, logs, rocks and even trash stacked up with nets thrown over the whole arrangement.
People of Note
Networking with various notables in the Marshall Islands also took a sizable chunk of the students’ time. They met with United States Ambassador Karen Stewart and interviewed her on everything from her responsibilities under President Donald Trump to the history of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands. The secretary general of the Red Cross in the Marshall Islands, Jack Niedenthal, spoke with Skagway’s students about his involvement in the Marshallese community.
Even in just talking to their taxi drivers, the students received local viewpoints on what is happening to the Marshall Islands and how climate change impacts the culture.
“Some people who are making money on more westernized things like factories couldn’t really care less, whereas other people who are more substance farmers, living on the land, growing taro root…it was very interesting to see the wide variety of people and their different takes on things,” Evans said.
One of these taxi drivers left a lasting impression on the group; an act of kindness that won’t be soon forgotten.
While traveling about, one of the students lost their wallet in the middle of downtown Majuro. After taking a taxi back to their hostel, the student realized they’d lost it – along with all of their IDs and money. The whole wallet, cash and all, seemed like a lost cause.
“And then ten minutes later, the taxi driver came up to the door, and was like ‘you forgot this,’” Evans said. “And everything was still in there when she got it back.”
Many of the Marshallese people were quiet as the students began interacting with them.
“Once they are comfortable with you, they will speak forever,” Evans said. “Everyone is very, very friendly.”
During the trip the students met with a well-known player in the field of climate change: Tony deBrum, climate ambassador for the Marshall Islands.
“He’s this old-school guy with new ideas about how the Marshall Islands can be revamped into this modern society, but also continuing traditional values through renewable energy and new teachings, and stuff like that,” Brady said.
Brady recounted how he’d asked deBrum if he was afraid for the future of his home and culture, to which the Marshallese ambassador replied, “I don’t have time to be afraid!”
“They are a proud people, but they need our help,” Brady said.
Near the end of the trip, the students met someone else of importance: President Hilda Heine, the head of state for the Marshall Islands.
Having grown up to the idea of Secret Service and armor-plated government SUVs, Brady said the meeting was far different from what the students had expected.
“We expected something similar to that,” Brady said. “And then we go in and find out that we’re just meeting her inside this restaurant that she likes.”
While Heine was protected by bodyguards, Evans said it wasn’t to the level of a U.S. President.
“She just seemed from my take just very, very knowledgeable about every single thing that we were able to ask her about,” Brady said.
Meeting Heine was one part of the trip that stood out to Evans.
The president has focused on promoting education within the Marshall Islands and improving the educational powers the islands currently have. In addition, Evans said Heine has been encouraging women to continue their pursuit of education, instead of having children at a young age.
“There are girls getting pregnant in seventh grade, just because there’s a very large push, it’s their culture, to start a family, get started very, very early,” Evans said. “And that’s pretty much their position, is the stay-at-home mom.”
The World Spins on
The Marshall Islands were chosen as the destination for the trip for a number of reasons, but Fielding said he had hoped the students would see how vulnerable an atoll is when it comes to rising oceans, and also be able to think of their home from a different point of view.
“I wanted them to experience a different culture, but also to start to think about the world in a different way,” Fielding said. “Because it is hard, if you haven’t been out of Alaska or Skagway or the west coast, it’s hard to think about how different the world is in other places.” Fielding said he also believes once a person starts traveling and making those international leaps, one develops a tendency to continue making those connections and continue to see the world from a broader point of view.
“One thing that’s happening locally is there is a lot more talk about climate change,” Fielding said, referencing a discussion by the Borough Assembly on climate change on April 20, and a local group working to raise awareness for climate change [Editor’s Note: This group is Take Action Skagway. See “Earth Day in Skagway” on Page 8 for more information.]
“As a nation right now, we have a leader who doesn’t really believe climate change exists, so more talk, more education about climate change I think is one thing that is needed, and then we need to start changing our energy patterns,” Fielding said.
By their own accounts, meeting influential players like Heine and deBrum stuck in the student’s memories. Something else the trip lodged in their brains is the drive to continue the project. In Brady’s own words, “we have no intention of stopping.”
Brady said one thing the group hopes to do moving forward is to hold a climate change conference in Skagway in the fall, to talk about the issue with local residents.
The students of the Climate Change Project have also discussed GoFundMe accounts to raise money for the Marshallese people, book drives to provide reading material for the students they met on their trip and many other options.
“It doesn’t end here,” Brady said. “I think that’s our main thing, is that we just want to keep going…we just want to do something more, we don’t want to end it with this trip.”