Shishmaref's Esau Sinnok recognized by White House as Champion of Change
Esau Sinnok of Shishmaref was one of ten people selected by the White House as a Champion of Change for Climate Equity. The program was created as an opportunity for the White House to honor individuals who empower and inspire members of their low-income and underserved communities to prepare for and adapt to climate change.
In April the White House asked for nominees, people who help their communities meet the challenges climate change presents. In her speech at the White House on July 15, Managing Director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality Christy Goldfuss said there was “steep competition” for the ten coveted positions. The Climate Champions are from around the United States, from Louisiana and Massachusetts to California. Sinnok was nominated by Alison Barnwell, Youth Training Coordinator for Alaska Youth for Environmental Action.
Sinnok, 18, was the youngest Champion and the only person from Alaska to be recognized by the White House this year. He was also one of two champions singled out by Goldfuss. She praised Sinnok for giving a voice to the community of Shishmaref through his advocacy and activism.
In an interview with the Nome Nugget, Sinnok said learned that he was nominated through an email from the White House. Though he has traveled across the United States and internationally raising awareness about climate change, the invitation from the White House “overwhelmed” him. Even after the fact, Sinnok still gets animated describing his reaction to the honor. “My heart was beating, I was actually going to the White House,” Sinnok exclaimed.
Sinnok’s interest and investment in the environment is due in large part to his rural Alaskan roots. Sinnok is from Shishmaref, a small community facing an enormous threat from climate change. Sarichef Island, where the village sits, has lost about 3,000 feet of land in the past 35 years. In his lifetime, less than 20 years, Sinnok has already noticed changes in the ecosystem. Berries ripen a month earlier and winters are rainy, which causes the snow to freeze and makes food inaccessible to the animals.
The barrier island loses more and more land with each storm and although the future of Sarichef Island is bleak, Sinnok wants to be able to save the traditions and culture of Shishmaref. He believes that the best way to do this is through relocation, which is an extremely costly process. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates the relocation of Shishmaref to be somewhere between $180 to $250 million. Sinnok wants to raise awareness of Shishmaref’s struggles in order to get the community the support it needs. “I really want to have a secure future, not just for me but for the next seven generations, the Esau Sinnok juniors, so they can have the privilege to live the lifestyle that I have for the past 18 years,” he said.
During the ceremony, Sinnok participated in a panel discussion with a moderator and four other Champions of Change. Sinnok said he was told the morning of the panel that he was slated to participate, so “I just spoke from my heart.”
Wearing a collared shirt and tie under his kuspuk, Sinnok introduced himself in Iñpuiaq and gave a brief history of Shishmaref and the community’s exposure to climate change. He spoke of the death of his uncle, who lost his life after falling through ice he believed was frozen. In past winters, the ice would have been frozen solid. Sinnok said he thinks about his uncle and the way he died, each day. “I don’t want anyone to ever lose a family member from climate change,” he said.
He said he learned from the other panelists what they are doing to combat climate change so he can eventually apply some of their techniques in Shishmaref. “Whenever I travel I try to learn and write down every single thing so I can bring it back, so that I could hopefully become a mentor to other young youth,” he said. Through this and other trips, Sinnok learned how to organize, talk and lobby to legislators and find resources to project his voice.
Sinnok is easily one of the most active young environmentalists in Alaska today; he is involved with several different environmental organizations and initiatives. Last December, Sinnok traveled to France to attend the Global Climate Summit in Paris as an ambassador for the Sierra Club. At the summit, Sinnok was interviewed by publications from across the globe, which helped bring worldwide attention to a widespread problem seen most clearly in Alaska: climate change. Sinnok is currently running for the Executive Committee for the Sierra Student Coalition, because he hopes to involve more people of color in environmental conversations.
Sinnok serves as an Arctic Youth Ambassador, which means he has the opportunity to attend meetings of the Arctic Council. Sinnok is also a Youth organizer for the Alaska Center for the Environment’s Alaska Youth for Environmental Action program. Last spring, Sinnok attended the Alaska Youth for Environmental Action summit as a youth trainer, where he led fellow young Alaskans in conversations with legislators. “Do everything you can to continue to make a positive change in your community,” Sinnok urged, giving recycling and patronizing local businesses as examples.
Despite his impressive resume, “I’m just a small village kid, so if I could do it anybody could do it,” Sinnok said of his whirlwind year. This attitude is why he believes so strongly in getting youth involved in climate change discussions. “We just need more youth involved in any type of movement,” said Sinnok. “Their voice is very powerful, and no matter where they come from they can make an impact in their community.” Sinnok wants to become a mentor to youth and urges them to contact him. “I’d love to tell them the resources they need to they can travel and get their voice out there like I have been doing for the past year.”
Sinnok is currently studying Tribal Management at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and has aspirations of running for Governor of Alaska in 2030. “I want to make a positive change for the State of Alaska; that’s why I’m so determined to run for governor,” he said. As governor, he would strive to represent rural communities on the front line of climate change, such as Shishmaref and Newtok. He would also bring a rural perspective to the head of the table along with knowledge of life in a remote area and the problems, such as the high cost of living, alcoholism and suicide. So far, only two of Alaska’s 11 governors have actually been born in Alaska, and none have been from the state’s rural areas.
Sinnok has already planned his career path to becoming governor. After earning degrees in Tribal Management and Rural Development, Sinnok wants to return to Shishmaref and run for either city mayor or tribal council president. From there, he would like to become either a senator or representative for District T before running for governor. “I want to represent the real problems that Alaska Natives face on a day to day basis. I want to bring out those voices and bring out those problems,” in order to ultimately fix the problems for future generations.
Sinnok has spent the summer working for Alaska Geographic in Anchorage, where he is a Youth Program Assistant. In this role, Sinnok encourages youth to do outdoor activities, such as hiking, kayaking and canoeing. He has spent a large chunk of his summer break traveling, from West Virginia to Florida to Yosemite, to different environmental meetings for youth.
After leaving Washington, Sinnok went back in Shismaref for a few days to film a video with Alaska Geographic, the Sierra Club and the Arctic Youth Ambassador program. The film will focus on three main topics: subsistence, culture loss and preservation, and climate change. What will set this video apart from the many videos of Shishmaref is that it will mainly show the youth perspective on the issues. “What we’re thinking of his having a very unique and special video that nobody has done before and has the youth perspective,” Sinnok said. He hopes that the film will eventually be showcased in the Anchorage’s Beartooth movie theatre. First, though, he wants to make sure his community approves it and gets a copy of it. “It’s not going to be our video, it’s going to be (Shishmaref’s).”