The Philippine Star
STARING NOW FOR T HE FUTURE ISSA BARTE
One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, “When did it all start?” I could tell you about the time I learned about trees in class. Realizing that they need the world around them — the soil, our exhaled breaths, the sun, and other things — to care for them to grow, just like I needed my family and friends to do the same.
I could also pinpoint the exact day and conversation that led me to starting an NGO with my best friends. These details would all seem to answer the question. Yet these are only partial answers.
I first learned about the climate crisis through global warming and the powerful pictures of starving polar bears on melting caps of ice. As a little brown Filipino kid, I was at a loss for what I could do for the melting sheets of ice countries away from where I was in the Philippines. I felt helpless. What could I do from here?
My answer: not much. The issue was too big, too grand, and reserved for only the most extraordinary people who had all the expertise in making it better. That wasn’t me. I settled on just recycling my school paper.
The feeling of helplessness consumed me for years, reading all the articles on our warming planet. Then, like an alarm blaring off when I turned 23, I told myself to just try. I planned a tree-planting trip as a birthday celebration with my best friends. It was that fateful day when I met kids just like me — small brown kids who were doing what I thought I couldn’t: dedicating their careers to preserving and conserving our world. Romano spearheaded a reforestation effort through a seed-saving campaign, Gab used his photography to tell the stories of our home, Romina spent weekend after weekend tree planting, and Raf made the whole reforestation project actually happen for the Yangil Tribe.
It would be an understatement to say my whole world flipped over, realizing how wrong I had been. Suddenly, I saw myself in those people I met, and realized: you don’t have to be these extraordinary people on our screens to do the extraordinary work. Kids like me can do it — and they are. Representation matters; it’s what made me believe I could.
I couldn’t shut up about this idea: that if people just knew they could help, they would. In 2019, two of my best friends, Maita Jalandoni and Clara Petersen, said yes to a three-month project called Fund the Forest with just one goal in mind: garner P1 million for MAD Travel’s efforts to grow a whole new forest alongside the Yangil Tribe in Zambales. “A whole new forest in our lifetime,” I said. “Let’s make it real!” They were in, and so was everyone else who came and supported us.
I don’t think I need to really gush about the power of social media, but I’ll say this — it is a mega tool in our work up to this day. In using social media for our advocacy, we were able to reach thousands of other kids (like-minded or not) to at least acknowledge the fact that there is something that needs to change. Social media gives us the opportunity to have opportunity. It’s an avenue that provides us the chance to make something extraordinary.
My adventure with social media started when I began asking strangers questions like “Tell me something you always wanted to say,” or “When was the last time you felt the happiest?” on my page. Then I’d create art pieces out of the answers I’d accumulate from these people I’d never met. Throughout the years of sharing my art, I had been sent messages thanking me for creating things people could connect to. Some even said it had saved their lives. Social media, even with its faults and ill reputation, connects us (or gives us the opportunity to do so). Art could change things and so we decided to use it in building our project. Like they say, art is a reflection of reality, and reality is what we needed to badly change.
The simplicity of sharing an idea through art and storytelling, the simplicity of that three-month-long project, is now For the Future, a non-profit project with 11 team members. We have mobilized to over 60 areas in the Philippines planting trees, giving people solar lights, water filters, housing materials, sending immediate relief to typhoon victims, supporting community pantries, creating communities, and so much more.
In the technicalities of achieving it, there were a lot of road bumps. Maita, Clara and I were inexperienced in both environmental matters and the NGO world. But what we did have were backgrounds in advertising, marketing and communications — and so we played this to our advantage. Marketing our message was easy, but refining our intent, defining the problem, finding the solution, and studying our advocacy — these were things we had to really work on. We needed a deeper understanding of what this was all about to be more than a Band-Aid solution.
We needed to do the work to make up for our lack of expertise — and I decided to make the time to do so. I quit my day job and halted my master’s degree while having to explain to my parents that this was the right thing to do. I wish I could say it gets easier, but it’s still as difficult living with the choices I made two years ago. I live on my own now and juggle two part-time jobs to support myself in my NGO work. It’s a process of (as cheesy as it sounds) heart, soul, conviction, and frequently, an empty wallet. This reality I built for myself, I know, is full of uncertainties — uncertainties I know will never end in this life I made.
“But it’s worth it, right?” Yes, because I choose to believe so.
Two months ago, when I was sent to Bicol for our Typhoon Relief project, a boy asked me, “Who’s the luckiest person you know?” It was nighttime, my body was tired from community visits, my mind tired from my second month on the ground. Yet, without a blink, I heard myself say: “Me.”
I still remember the feeling of the smile on my face as I said it. Everyone around me nodded, maybe not quite going along with my answer. But I wasn’t taken aback. I sat with holes in my clothes from the distributions, a swollen foot that blew up from hiking barefoot because of sandals that didn’t fit right, and no financially stable day job. Yet I had the gall to go on: “All the things I love, I can do. Somehow life let me put them all together, not perfectly, but also not just for myself. A life I can say is also for people I haven’t even met yet.” So let’s bring it all back. When did it all start? My final answer: With the choice to let it begin.