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Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner


The Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club’s newly launched Changemakers Exchange offers an inside look into works of expert makers and creators. Our own version of an artist-in-residence program, Changemakers Exchange facilitates the sharing of ideas and inspiration between Surfjack guests, locals, and our resident artists, activists, designers, chefs, and entrepreneurs.

Our first featured Changemaker is Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a celebrated poet and spoken-word artist hailing from the Marshall Islands. Kathy was selected as one of 13 Climate Warriors by Vogue in 2015 and the Impact Hero of the Year by Earth Company in 2016.

In collaboration with the Honolulu Biennial Foundation, we gathered an intimate group of climate change leaders, artists, and members of our community to hear Kathy perform live on our penthouse lanai. This poem, titled Dear Matafele Peinam, was originally written for the world leaders of the United Nations Climate Summit in New York City. See her live performance in room 1035 below.

We also had a chance to sit down and chat with Kathy about her inspiration, the story behind Dear Matafele-Peinam, and her future plans as an artist and an activist.

What inspired you to start writing poetry?

I always liked reading, and legends and storytelling are a big part of my culture. I grew up hearing stories from my grandmother, but I think the biggest thing was reading a lot of different stories and recognizing that there was never really anything that looked like me in them. So writing wasn’t necessarily meant to fill that gap at first, it was just a way for me to understand the world around me. As I got older though, it became more like, why don’t I see myself in these stories? So the purpose of my writing shifted from a way to understand the world, to a way to place an imprint on the world.

When you were writing the poem that you performed at the Surfjack, what was your original vision or your source of inspiration?

I was selected as a civil societies speaker for the United Nation’s climate summit in 2014…and they asked me if I could write a new poem for this event; something that speaks to the climate movement. I always joke about the fact that they asked me to write a poem that could save the world. The bar was high and I didn’t know how to do that—who does?—so I just asked them to send me as many images from the climate movement as possible, because I didn’t know too much about it, I only knew what we were doing in the Marshall Islands and in the Pacific. I was really inspired by those images because I realized that there are so many people around the world who are fighting against climate change. I thought to myself, I don’t know how to write to world leaders (there was supposed to be over 100 world leaders at this summit), I don’t know how to write about a movement, but I had just had my daughter (she was seven months old) so I decided to write to her about what I want her to know.

Climate change summit

Kathy speaking at the UN Climate Summit 2014

Do you have any suggestions for people who want to help fight climate change?

I think it’s important to do the research yourself—to see what kind of organizations are out there that are raising awareness about climate change. Take part in those—go to those meetings, go to those marches—but it’s also as simple as acknowledging that this is a reality. Don’t turn away from it, challenge your friends and family members to acknowledge it as well. 

I’ve been reading a lot about how to preserve yourself in this era because it’s so exhausting, especially as an activist, you think, how do you do everything? You can’t do everything, right? For me, I have a foot in the door with this climate change issue so I’ve been sticking to that and fighting for that as much as possible, because I understand this issue and I have a connection. I don’t expect everyone to just jump on board and exhaust themselves, but it’s important to figure out small ways to contribute to being more green. I mean, there are trillions of dollars in oil, there’s got to be some money that can go towards creating other solutions. 

Are there any world organizations that you really admire?

I really like the work of, I’ve met the founder Bill McKibben a few times. I’ve read his book and I admire his work. It’s a great international organization and we’ve jumped in on a lot of their campaigns in the Pacific. They have a section called Pacific and I’m going to Fiji for a retreat with other Pacific youth warriors to raise awareness. I also like Climate Generation—they just brought me on to do a speaking gig in Minnesota, and they’re creating a curriculum for teachers on how to teach about climate change. I recently learned about CultureStrike based out of California. I haven’t met anyone from there but I’ve been reading their manifesto that’s sort of about how to use culture and the arts to create a movement. That’s something I really believe in, too—that art should serve a purpose. I mean yes, write about leaves and sunsets, that’s beautiful, but I also feel like there’s so much going on in the world that at this point our art needs to serve a purpose.

As both an artist and an activist, what are some of your plans this year to continue to spread your work to people around the world?

Well I have my book out right now [Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter], and I have different speaking gigs coming up in places like Japan and London. Also, COP 23 is coming up. It’s the conference of the parties, a United Nations conference on climate change worldwide. It’s taking place in Bonn, Germany, but this year’s president of the conference is from Fiji. It’s a big deal because it’s also the first time a Pacific Islander is at the helm, so we’re galvanizing to support the him [Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama]. That’s taking place later this year in November. But in general, everywhere I go, I try to perform my poetry, I try to connect with people and learn about the area I’m going to, and of course, I always share stories from the islands.

Photo by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin

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