Mercedes Kashatok and Muriel Reid on stepping up to the challenges of a changing Arctic

People gathering shellfish in a bucket

: 19
: 20

Mercedes: Anchorage, Alaska
: Sitka, Alaska

Arctic Youth Ambassadors (AYA) Mercedes Kashatok and Muriel Reid have witnessed the effects of climate change firsthand and are passionate advocates for Alaskan communities. Mercedes, a sophomore at the University of Alaska Anchorage, recently hosted a panel on addressing climate change at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. Muriel, a member of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, has worked at her tribe’s environmental lab, testing shellfish for marine toxins. She is in her first year at the University of Alaska Southeast. The Arctic Youth Ambassadors program was established in 2015 by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Department of State, and Alaska Geographic, and WWF is a sponsor.

What are some of the challenges Alaskan communities face?

Mercedes: I’m concerned that Anchorage has hit record high temperatures in recent summers, which has been detrimental to wildlife and our way of life. Climate change is throwing off entire ecosystems, shaking rural communities that rely on produce and fresh fish for food.

Muriel: In my tribe, the biggest issues revolve around state government policy. With environmental changes occurring, the government isn’t taking into consideration how accessible herring and other resources are, and it isn’t allocating enough of the herring to us. Our tribe needs a more dominant seat at the table, so we’re now working to redefine our role in the government. We’re trying to keep our values and culture alive.

What do you hope to accomplish through the AYA program?

Muriel: I am interested in storytelling and outreach on climate change and colonization in Alaska. AYA staff recently connected me to a grant so I could create an art show about just that. I hope this project will further inspire the conversations already occurring in Alaska about these issues.

Mercedes: I’m hoping that I can use my work with AYA and my knowledge about how climate change affects communities to advocate for the homeless. I’m currently working on an article about Alaska youth mental health amid the COVID-19 pandemic and homelessness in Anchorage.

What are your aspirations for the future?

Muriel: I’ve always been aware of politics, but now that I’m an adult I feel I need to step up and do more to make a difference. And the ability to do more comes from knowing who’s who, government-wise. The more I know about Alaska’s government, the more changes I can make. It’s important to me that my tribe achieves a stronger presence in the government and that more actions are taken relating to climate change.

Mercedes: For myself, I hope to continue to be an advocate for Alaskan youth and to be a respected leader in my community. My vision for Alaska—and the country—is that we come together to address the climate crisis. It needs our urgent attention.

Testing water samples for toxins produced by harmful algal blooms helps researchers like Muriel Reid understand how warming oceans are impacting food resources that tribal citizens rely on.

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