Youth activists share their hard-won lessons

Indonesia (Bali)

Youth activism is on the rise, thanks in part to the actions and visibility of people like Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai, yet how do you learn how to do it well?


This is the question Melati Wijsen wanted to answer when she founded YOUTHTOPIA, a platform for youth activists wanting to learn from those who have years of experience. But the journey that led to the founding of YOUTHTOPIA began almost a decade ago at the kitchen table in Bali, Indonesia.

Bali’s Biggest Clean Up 2020, Petitenget Beach, Seminyak, Bali, Indonesia. 15 February 2020. Credit: Jenya Kadnikova

At the ages of 12 and 10 sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen wanted to make a change in their community after coming home from school inspired by the actions of people like Nelson Mandela, Lady Diana and Mahatma Ghandi. They asked themselves, “What can we do as children living in Bali, NOW, to make a difference?” That’s how their first initiative, Bye Bye Plastic Bags, was born in 2013.

It turned from an idea into a 7-year campaign, culminating in the ban of plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam on their home island Bali in 2019. Throughout this experience, speaking to over 100,000 students from all over the world, they were often asked how others could do the same. In 2015 the idea of YOUTHTOPIA had already began to grow, although it was only in 2020 that Melati first spoke publicly about it, at the World Economic Forum. Although she kept waiting for the initiative to be ready, in 2020 she realised that “It’s ready, people need it, young people are waiting for a project like YOUTHTOPIA, and here it is.”

Opening Press Conference. Leaders from government, business and civil society launch the media programme of the Annual Meeting 2020 by sharing their plans and expectations for the coming week. Melati Wijsen, Founder, Bye Bye Plastic Bags, Indonesia speaks at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2020 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, 21 January. Media Village – Press Conference Room. Copyright by World Economic Forum/Ciaran McCrickard.

YOUTHTOPIA is now a community centric platform with learning at its core, one which wants to become the global number one “go-to” HQ for young changemakers. They create peer-to-peer programmes for emerging young changemakers, guided by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and made by young frontline changemakers. It’s an organisation for the youth made by the youth and since 2020 they have created about 108 education programmes.

At the heart of their organisation is the Circle of Youth Network, which is made up of individual young changemakers who have their own projects. The first members of the network were drawn from Melati’s friends from her years of activism. “Every conference I would go to there was always the same handful of young…changemakers invited.” Now they have an open application process and people reach out to be part of the network.

Seseh Beach Clean-Up 2019 with ZDF, Pantai Seseh, Bali, Indonesia. Credit: Erik Ginanjar Nugraha

Melati explains that it was easy to get to the first 150 changemakers but now they are working on expanding it to make sure there is diverse geography representation and diverse focus—not just climate activists but also those working in educations and other fields. They research widely and try to bring forward the young changemakers who are not so often in the limelight.

What do you need to do to be part of the Circle of Youth? YOUTHTOPIA looks for those who have their own project or a track record of change—can you show that you’ve been at it for more than a year and a half? “What we need to see is a bit more of that longer term commitment,” explains Melati. While there are initiatives that use Instagram pages or social media to create short-term change, YOUTHTOPIA is looking for tangible, hands-on, localised solutions.

YOUTHTOPIA changemaker with students.

Now Melati has almost 10 years of experience as a climate activist and she wants to share her knowledge with other young people around the world. As she explains, “I wish something like YOUTHTOPIA existed when I was 12 years old.” This thought drives the direction of the initiative, to be a place where youth can learn from each other and connect with other like-minded changemakers from all over the world.

“What I feel my biggest value is, is sharing what I’ve learned from 12 to 21 and putting it out there to help other 12-year-olds leapfrog the journey that I did.”

This support is crucial in an area that “feels very lonely on the front lines.” For Melati, “the power of YOUTHTOPIA is that it’s bigger than one person.” It brings together many different styles and commitments of changemaking to create momentum and a place of exchange.

YOUTHTOPIA member Ayu at the organisation’s headquarters.

An exciting development, launched in 2021, is their mini-grant project, in which they give 1,000 USD to five selected young changemakers from all over the world. The first round of funded projects ranged from a re-forestation project in Puerto Rico to typhoon recovery in the Philippines to raising awareness of e-waste in Indonesia. Melati knows from experience that one of the biggest barriers for young changemakers is funding but that “Young people can do so much with 1,000 dollars.” One of the barriers to funding is the complex and difficult grant-writing process, so YOUTHTOPIA designed a more youth-friendly grant application, and they are planning on developing a masterclass in this area (watch this space!). The mini grants will be run again in 2022.

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Written by

Claire Rosslyn Wilson, editor of Atlas of the Future (22 June 2022)

Project leader

Melati Wijsen


This project has been selected as part of JustFutures, a new storytelling channel that maps the work of people transforming our relationship with the planet and each other and bringing hope, justice, and systemic change into our collective response to the climate emergency.
Atlas of the Future is excited to partner with Oxfam Intermón and the SPARK project.

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