Menu Menu

Exclusive – In conversation with Selina Leem

We went to the Natural History Museum’s Generation Hope: Act for the Planet event to speak with the climate justice activist, poet, and spoken word performer about how young people can use their influence and actions to drive positive change for the Earth’s future.

Selina Leem is a climate warrior, poet, and spoken word performer from the Marshall Islands. She was the youngest delegate to speak at COP21 and has also spoken at COP26, where she made a ‘passionate plea’ to world leaders for increased action on addressing the crisis. To date, she has raised concerns on permafrost melting, forest fires, and droughts and continues to bolster awareness about her country’s lack of funds and expertise to adapt to the impending impacts of our environmental emergency – which scientists predict could see the nation disappear within the next fifty years or less. In her words: ‘my people are counting on me to share what is happening in the vast ocean of the Pacific. Too small for people to see, too far for people to reach, and a number of 52,634 people too little for people to care. Our islands are not just barely-there dots on the maps for many to turn a blind-eye to; they are our home.’


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by thred. (@thredmag)

Thred: When did you decide to dedicate your time to safeguarding the future of our planet? What made you want to take it to a global height, from project to mission to life’s work?

Selina: As a child, my grandfather would reprimand me and tell me that the ice in the North and South poles was melting and that the water would eventually flood our islands. This was terrifying. I would have nightmares of my family drowning and me desperately trying to save them. This made me extremely conscious of the changing environment around me and I began to pick up on increasing temperatures and rising sea levels year in year out. I quickly realised just how dire the situation had become and decided I had to do something about it.

Thred: It must have been difficult having this early realisation – to be so young and so acutely aware of your changing environment. How has this translated into your mission today?

Selina: All of the experiences I had during my upbringing I’ve put into spoken word or poetry that I’ve performed in front of audiences to bring home the emotion and fear I felt at that time – and still feel today. It’s crazy because this is supposed to be the decade of action and we aren’t on track.

I want to ignite this sense of urgency in people so they are compelled to act.

Thred: You’re a prime example of how young people are finding creative solutions to combat the climate crisis. Many say that to bring about tangible change and incite real progress, we need to be focusing on our niches and channelling our passions. What’s your take on this?

Selina: Creativity connects us with our core which is our emotion and what makes us human. I’m privileged to have been born in this era because it’s so easy to mental health, setting boundaries, and how to move forward with my generation. We’re part of a community so that when eco-anxiety is gripping my heart and I feel so overwhelmed by the state of things I’m able to feel grounded and remind myself that I’m not alone, we’re all in this together, and that if I need to take a break to look after myself it’s okay because they’ll keep fighting for me in the meantime.

Thred: Your passion evidently lies in encouraging the world’s younger generations to step up, rather than shut down, against any matters they are passionate about. Why is this so important? And how can Gen Zers deal with the universal – and often overwhelming – feeling of powerlessness in the face of climate change so that their mental health is protected?

Selina: I’ll be honest, the past few years I did withdraw. I couldn’t handle everything and I felt like an imposter when I was standing on stages and encouraging people to feel hopeful, because in these spaces we’re expected to spread a message of hope. I felt like I was lying because I was so wrought with fear and as a result couldn’t believe the words I was saying anymore. Eventually, after feeling as though my mental health was deteriorating, I was able to seek help. I would really encourage this. My therapist has given me tools so that I avoid bottling up and this is what I would recommend because it’s a natural human instinct to bottle things up but we shouldn’t.

Thred: This kind of work is vulnerable; you’re opening yourself up to a lot of pain. It’s not easy which you’ve highlighted, but you’ve also shown that there is a way out. Most often through community which is invaluable in this space. How beneficial has this been for you specifically?

Selina: As a storyteller and someone who likes to share the stories that are around me, I love listening to the stories of all the other amazing activists in these spaces as well as those of our elders. Being able to see the passion that drives them and what keeps them grounded is so inspiring.

It serves as a reminder – especially when I leave these social arenas to go home – that there’s a really special connection between the people fighting for our planet.

One I don’t really find in my circle because they’re focused on other things, which is very fair of course, but it’s so empowering being surrounded by people who share the same passion and commonality.

Thred: Why is storytelling so important in the fight against climate change?

Selina: Because it’s human. It’s how my grandparents taught me to keep our cultures, proverbs, morals, and values alive. This is why I find it a very powerful and effective tool to use.

Thred: Too often, young people are excluded from decision making spaces. How can we ensure there is greater youth involvement in the conversations aiming to instigate change?

Selina: In the Pacific, we really value respect towards our elders. When I started this work at 15 I was criticised a lot by my elders who told me that because I was a young girl, I had no place in the work of the adults. I had to fight hard to ensure that my voice was being heard because my stories are not uncommon, they’re very much shared by a wide group of people. It’s important that ego is being let go of as well because it’s not the elders against the young – we all need to work together on this. It’s a collaborative effort. We need to be united in order to fix this.

Thred: How can we bolster intergenerational communication?

Selina: One of the most basic, and arguably one of the hardest things to do, is to learn reflective listening. I see a lot of people fighting each other. Listening, but listening to create arguments in their head while staying in defence mode.

I think it’s really important that all of us learn to just sit and reflect and remove our ego from the situation so we can see the holistic picture.

Thred: It’s an intersectional issue that’s disproportionately affecting marginalised groups who continue to show up with resilience and offer solutions, regardless. How can we be amplifying the voices of those that deserve to be heard most without resorting to tokenism?

Selina: When people from the Global South get invited to exclusive spaces, we are grateful in spite of the fact that more could be done to fully utilise our time there because we’ve always been given so little. It’s so important for organisers to really listen to our stories and say, ‘what part of my network can I connect this person to so their work will be fully supported in the way it deserves?’ Listen to us and get our feedback on how representation could be more effective.

Thred: Besides the changes we can make on an independent level, what’s the best means of approaching influencing change on a grander scale? Aka how do we shift the focus of the conversation from individual to corporate action so that the onus isn’t on us alone?

Selina: Social pressure. We underestimate the power of us as consumers and voters, how important our voice is and how it can lead to dramatic change. Collectively, we need to be demonstrating how, as a momentum, we can shake these forces to shift the narrative.

Thred: What advice would you give to young people looking to make a difference in this sphere but who are struggling to figure out where to even begin?

Selina: Look into your homes. Look at your community and see what’s being done and what isn’t. Ask how the climate crisis is affecting your backyard. Let that be your motivation to start.

This is not the end, we still have time, focus on that time to keep you going.