A Voice for Alaska through the Arctic Youth Ambassadors Program

By Amanda Keith posted 01-20-2016 02:12 PM


From the metropolitan city of Anchorage to the snowy tundra of the North Slope, Alaska’s terrain, its populations and its challenges are diverse. As the largest in the United States, it is also the most vast and wild state with 15 national parks, 16 national wildlife refuges and America’s two largest forests. So, it’s no wonder that, while the United States serves as chair for the Arctic Council from 2015 – 2017, this unique state plays an important role in discussions on sustainable development and environmental issues.

Chugach National Forest, Alaska

The Arctic Council promotes cooperation, coordination and interaction among eight Arctic nations to discuss issues such as global warming, sustaining communities and protecting wildlife to preserve the global Arctic. To increase outreach and education during the US chairmanship, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and its nonprofit partner, Alaska Geographic worked with the State Department to create a truly innovative program known as the Arctic Youth Ambassadors Program to bring together students with a committed interest in Alaska.

The Arctic Youth Ambassadors Program includes 22 students, ages 16 – 20, from 16 Alaskan communities who educate the public about the challenges Alaska faces and voices their ideas for solutions. Throughout the US chairmanship, these students will attend trainings, summits and meet with high-level government officials to voice their thoughts and concerns. Already, students have had the opportunity to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to talk about their lives in Alaska and discuss ways to protect the Arctic.

Arctic Youth Ambassadors meet with U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

According to Ann Mayo-Kiely, Program Director for Alaska Geographic, many of the students have a diversity of interests in Alaska. While they all share concern for Alaska’s environment and communities, some have a particular focus on traditional cultures and music where as others are concerned with social welfare and economic opportunities for Alaska Native communities. “We help them learn to speak about what’s important to them,” Ann said. She explained that for them to be true ambassadors for the Arctic, it was important that they communicated the issues that mattered to them most and that they spoke with confidence and a sense of "Alaska pride".

Arctic Youth Ambassadors talk about the importance of the Arctic and their role in protecting it
Watch the Video here.

Not only are student ambassadors asked to represent their communities to the Arctic Council but they're expected to take an active role in educating the public as well. “People [outside of Alaska] are amazed by Anchorage,” Ann said, with moose and bear visible within the city limits. Imagining more remote communities and the traditional cultures that dominate many parts of the state are attributes that the student ambassadors know well but that the public may not understand. That's why much of the program is dedicated to providing students with public speaking skills and how to articulate their message to a variety of audiences -- so they can tell the world what living in Alaska means to them.

Arctic Youth Ambassadors are interviewed after attending a training summit. Watch the interview here.

According to Sara Boario, Assistant Regional Director-External Affairs of the USFWS, Alaska Region, the success of the Arctic Youth Ambassadors Program to date is “the result of building expertise in outreach and education over many years.” The USFWS and Alaska Geographic have a longstanding relationship through their many outdoor education and youth initiatives and have built a reputation as a model for program partners. They also received additional capacity and resources from the State Department which allowed them to select students from across the state rather than one particular region.

While the Arctic Youth Ambassadors program is truly innovative, engaging youth to speak on behalf of public lands is something every organization should consider. If your organization would like to learn more about how Alaska Geographic and its partners achieved this program, here's a few tips from Ann and Sara.

Ann and Sara's Tips on Engaging Youth to Become Voices for Public Lands

  1. Pair students with mentors to ensure ongoing support: As part of the application process for the Arctic Youth Ambassadors program, students identified a teacher, guardian or parent to help them meet program requirements and to do outreach locally. Mentoring is especially important for statewide programs where in-person meetings are more expensive and time-consuming.

  2. Be flexible with students and the way they communicate: There is no one-size-fits all approach to communications. Adapt to what students have and reach out to them, whether it's through Facebook, Instagram, phone calls/texting or through email. Different approaches work for different students. 

  3. Take away barriers: Even low program fees are barriers for students. Identify funding for transportation and training expenses so that the students are able to participate.

  4. Don't underestimate teenagers and the immense amount they have to offer: Teenagers have leadership potential and can play a mentorship role in their own communities. Have confidence in their abilities and follow through with the support they need to lead.

  5. Have fun! Interacting with youth in this way is exciting and worthwhile so make sure you're having fun and that you adapt your program so it's mutually beneficial and enjoyable.

Do you have a story worth telling?

Our monthly Member Spotlight features Public Lands Alliance Member's exceptional work on public lands and highlights their success. If you would like to share your organization's story with the public, or if you would like to recommend a nonprofit for consideration, contact Marketing and Communications Manager Amanda Keith at or 301-946-9475 ext. 223.