Meet Charitie Ropati, WWF’s 2023 Conservation Leadership Award winner

Charitie Ropati looks at the camera wearing a dark shirt with leaves on it and turquoise earrings

WWF is honored to announce the selection of Charitie Ropati as the recipient of the WWF-US Conservation Leadership Award for 2023. This prestigious award is given annually to a young conservation leader for outstanding contributions in the realm of protecting the planet. It provides a monetary award as well as access to a global platform and experts.

Charitie Ropati (she/her) is a Yup’ik and Samoan Indigenous scientist, scholar, climate activist, and advocate for education equality. Ropati, 22, is a graduate of the University of Alaska Anchorage and is currently finishing a degree in anthropology and civil engineering and applied sciences at Columbia University. She is an Arctic Youth Ambassador and works on multiple projects related to climate action and advocacy for Native American involvement in the sciences. Ropati developed an inclusive and historically accurate sub-curriculum on Indigenous peoples for the Anchorage School District, highlighting the traumatic history of colonization and its impacts on today’s Native communities. She was key in the passing of a policy to allow students of color in the district to wear cultural regalia at graduation and is the co-founder of lilnativegirlinSTEM, a network for Native women and girls in the sciences to share resources and opportunities. Ropati’s research examines the ways that the climate crisis affects plant ecology in Alaska and how this relates to cultural resilience.

One of the most important concepts underlying Ropati’s work and advocacy is interconnectedness. In explaining the ways global warming affects fireweed, a plant native to Alaska, she emphasized that when plants are impacted, so, too, are the Native communities that have a relationship with them, and that climate change’s impacts on Alaska and its people are connected to centuries of trauma because of colonization. She talks about how the long-term oppression of Alaska Natives has wreaked havoc on communities’ infrastructure—both in the physical sense, such as buildings, roads, and fish camps, and in the social sense, such as education, traditional knowledge, spirituality, and interpersonal relationships. This dysfunction, she says, can make the impacts of the climate crisis that much worse. Ropati highlights that only 0.3%-0.5% of science and engineering degrees are held by Native Americans or Alaska Natives, which is significantly lower than the total percentage of this ethnic group in the US. How much better prepared to face the climate crisis could Native communities be, she wonders, if there were more Native scientists and engineers, using Traditional Ecological Knowledge—the ongoing accumulation of knowledge, practice, and belief about relationships among living beings in a specific ecosystem that is acquired by Indigenous people over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment, handed down through generations, and used for life-sustaining ways— alongside Western science? Further, would climate change even be as extreme if Indigenous communities had been able to continue their largely in-harmony-with-nature ways of living without colonization?

Inequity in education has been a focus of Ropati’s activism since she was 13.

“The Anchorage School District is one of the most diverse in the country, yet my family and I faced a lot of discrimination,” she said. “There is a lot of erasure and a lack of Indigenous autonomy in the classroom.”

When Native students don’t see themselves and their history and traditions represented in what they’re taught, it can be very discouraging and detrimental to their educational success, she said. She developed an Indigenous-focused curriculum that the district still uses today and continues to advocate for better educational outcomes for Native Americans in all of her work. She is making waves by highlighting the importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge for other scientists wherever she goes. LilnativegirlinSTEM, the organization she co-founded, has organized workshops and discussions on what it means to be Native in the scientific space.

“If the Earth isn’t healthy, our families and our communities aren’t healthy.”

Charitie Ropati
WWF’s 2023 Conservation Leadership Award winner

“I want to challenge young kids back in Alaska to think about what a scientist looks like,” Ropati said. “A scientist is a hunter. It’s someone who gathers berries and someone who’s able to really understand the ecology in the tundra in Alaska, to survive in the Arctic."

Asked about how she balances her studies, advocacy, and personal life, Ropati smiled and answered by centering her relationship with her community.

“Knowing that home will always be there comforts me. I'll always have a place to return to. I'll always be able to go back to the land and gather food, be there with my community, sing, and dance,” she said.

Despite everything they have faced, Ropati said, Native communities are resilient and continue to fight for their lands, to be joyful, and to take care of each other.

“When we’re able to create a space where our kids are able to dream beyond what they’re told to be, and beyond a colonial construct, that is rooted in climate justice,” she said.

Forging lasting community relationships is also one of Ropati’s goals for how she’ll spend the monetary portion of her award. She is planning to attend the international climate talks in Dubai this December, where she hopes to build solidarity with other Pacific and Pacific Islander youth, celebrate the power and impact of young climate activists, bring Traditional Ecological Knowledge to the forefront, and continue pushing countries on climate justice. She is also planning to purchase a professional camera to document Native people’s stories in the Arctic for lilnativegirlinSTEM.

“Centering the voices of diverse communities, especially youth is at the heart of Charitie’s commitment to environmental conservation,” said Charles Sumpter, WWF’s senior director for diversity, equity, and inclusion who served on the selection committee for this year’s award. “Without the inclusion of powerful voices like hers at the table, humanity will be unable to successfully confront the growing challenges we all face, from the devastating effects of climate change on vulnerable communities to declining global biodiversity. Charitie’s unique outlook on how the global community meets those challenges gives me tremendous hope about the future—it should give us all hope.”

Keep checking WWF’s social media channels for more features of Ropati’s work. You can also keep up with her on her Instagram and her website.