It's been a whirlwind weekend for high school junior and newly named Arctic Youth Ambassador Brianna Riley, 17, of Kiana.
"It's been quite the journey," Riley said. "At first I was nervous. I didn't know anybody. It was my first time coming to Anchorage by myself. But, it turns out everyone is so amazing."
She and 21 other high school and college students from Shishmaref to Unalaska flew to Anchorage over the weekend for the first planning summit of the ambassador program.
It's a joint venture of the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, and Alaska Geographic, which is a nonprofit partner to the state's federal land agencies.
The youth, who represent 16 communities ranging from villages to cities, will serve in this capacity throughout the duration of the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council, ending in 2017.
"One of the major roles of our chairmanship is to raise awareness of the Arctic and the fact that we are an Arctic nation among Americans and around the world," said Erin Robertson, the Arctic public affairs officer for the state department. "We're basically looking at these unique youth voices that can help to raise awareness from a very personal perspective."
Climate change, its effects, and possible adaptations to it will likely be the focus of the chairmanship with other goals being to look at ocean safety, security and stewardship, and economic and living conditions in Arctic communities, Robertson said.
"We find that in public communication, young voices are incredibly inspiring, compelling, and very powerful to engage a public audience to listen in ways they otherwise maybe wouldn't to some of the conversations around the changing Arctic," said Ann Mayo-Kiely, the education program director for Alaska Geographic.
Perhaps one of the most unique stories comes from ambassador Jannelle Trowbridge, 18, of Nome, who is currently studying biological sciences as a freshman at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
She was born in Michigan but after elementary school, her family packed their lives into a 31-foot sailboat and sailed through the Great Lakes and across the Northwest Passage to Nome, where they've lived since she was in seventh grade.
Few people have made the journey through the shipping route that's becoming more open and trafficked as warming temperatures and diminishing sea ice make passage more feasible.
Last summer, Trowbridge participated in the Alaska Native Science and Education Program's summer bridge internship, working with the U.S. Geological Survey on a boat in the Chukchi Sea collecting bivalves for a sea ice project.
Her experience on the water has shaped her views on a number of issues she hopes to address as an ambassador.
"Being in Nome and being where boats go by and seeing the rich ecosystem that's there, something that I would want is an oil response team or some better system for dealing with a potential disaster up there," Trowbridge said. "In a broader sense, I'm always an advocate for science. We need to know what's happening in our environment, what changes are happening, and how the ecosystems are adapting or how it's corrupting them. We need that data; we need that research to happen."
Establishing personal priorities, talking points, and goals is a fundamental component of the program. When the students were initially nominated, they had to pair with a mentor who would help guide their individual progress over the next two years.
"One real motivation is they'll feel further empowered and supported as leaders for Alaska and their communities, they'll see that they do have very valuable experiences and perspectives and be encouraged to continue on these paths that they are already on toward some significant leadership roles," said Mayo-Kiely.
Esau Sinnok, 18, of Shishmaref, has set lofty goals for himself. Currently a freshman studying political science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Sinnok hopes this program will put him on the path toward representing his community at higher levels in the future.
"Hopefully, I can try and run a campaign for mayor wherever I reside to gain experience in politics. Then, I can try and run as a senator or governor within the next 20 years I'd say," said Sinnok with a smile.
He considers Shishmaref, like Kivalina, a "frontline community" for climate change, which will be his focus. He's seen his village lose three to four meters of land a year to erosion as storm surges and a lack of sea ice take their toll on the barrier island.
One of the challenges communities like his face in combating the change is a lack of funding, he said. He hopes this program will give him exposure to politicians and potential sources of funding that he can tap into down the line.
"We cannot get experience or knowledge if we cannot attend these types of events," he said. "In my perspective, we need to be more involved in these types of policies and negotiations because we are the future leaders. We will take over the positions that these leaders have in 20 or 30 years."
That ground-level experience is one of the reasons Trowbridge is looking forward to participating in the program.
"I think it's very important to have youth included from the beginning so they understand the systems they're taking part in, the opinions and forces that they're up against, and so that they find what they believe in based on their experience and based on where they live and what they care about," she said. "You can't just have a bunch of youth who get out of high school and then throw them at the policies and say, now, organize a state. I think it's very beneficial to have youth in the very beginning, in the roots, in the process, being some of the people and some of the influences on what projects we're funding and what policies we're making."
Organizers say it's valuable to have students from around the state who can each bring their own unique perspectives to the table coming together to discuss issues of local, statewide, national, and international interest.
"For them to have an exchange of ideas across the state is really powerful," said Sarah Boario, assistant regional director of external affairs for the Fish and Wildlife. "This is a huge, vast state. You can spend your whole life here and barely scratch the surface. For these young people, it's a great opportunity to learn more about their state and the differences between the communities, the different challenges and solutions, and really work together as one."
Kimberly Pikok, 18, is a senior at Barrow High School. She hopes her time in the program will help her develop her communication skills so she's able to better articulate these issues to local residents.
"I hope to be able to talk to my community about the effects of climate change and the future of Alaska because this place means too much to all of us. We all connect to it either in a subsistence way or we fell in love with the scenery and it would be disappointing if everything we love about Alaska just goes away," Pikok said.
She's seen changes out on the tundra around Barrow in her lifetime, which is one of the reasons the melting permafrost is a top concern for her.
"It goes with our family traditions. We pick berries in the summertime and in the fall. We don't want those traditions to change but they're going to have to change because our climate is changing, too," she said.
Kotzebue's Macy Kenworthy, 19, said community connection is a top priority for her, as well.
She's currently a sophomore at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where she's working on a double major in secondary education and chemistry.
"A lot of people in Kotzebue have their opinions but a lot of times they try to find a platform to get their voices out and be heard and sometimes they make it pretty far, but I'd like to be another platform where I can listen to everyone there and get them even further -- to committees and policymakers -- and make sure everyone is heard," Kenworthy said.
For Riley, the young ambassador from Kiana, creating positive change in her village is of the utmost importance.
Though she'll focus on climate change like most of her peers, she will also be paying special attention to ideas for supporting healthy communities.
"We recently got a liquor store and sometimes kids can't go play outside because there's too many drunks. So, I want to know more how I could change the overall health of my community," she said. "I think being part of this program will give me the next level of respect from our community leaders and our elders, so I feel like they'll listen to me more and I'll have a say when I go to meetings."
While the program is guided by the international Arctic Council, encouraging grassroots change and participation in regional affairs is another facet of its mission.
"We would very much like to have more Alaskan communities involved in the dialogue around the Arctic and having these youth involved will quite likely bring their communities into the dialogue much more effectively than if outsiders came into those communities," Mayo-Kiely said.
In addition, having an ambassador from these communities is something local residents can be proud of. Riley said she knows her family is proud and supportive -- something she takes seriously in her commitment to her new role.
"When I found out that I became an ambassador it was just the day after I found out my grandfather died," she said. "It was something like a sign from him because he used to support me a lot. He hoped that I would become something great and that I won't be afraid to do anything."
You can find out more information about the Arctic Youth Ambassadors by visiting arcticyouthambassadors.org.
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.