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Willy Missack: Consulting grassroots communities

Willy Missack: Consulting grassroots communities

Using stories and lived experience to create change

Queen’s Young Leader, Willy Missack tells Leading Change about sustainability, working with youth and how he uses stories from grassroots communities to protect the environment.

In 2014 Willy was running a project to bring water to communities on the island of Tanna, in Vanuatu. In 2015 – not long after he had received the Queen’s Young Leaders Award – his water project was destroyed by Cyclone Pam, along with homes, crops and infrastructure.

But Willy was determined that it would be rebuilt.

Re-establishing the Water Project

On the island of Tanna – as with many places in Vanuatu, the water system dried up in the 1980s when the old system stopped working.

“It’s expensive to replace,” says Willy, “So they have to begin from scratch.”

Returning home in January 2017 after completing his masters degree, Willy set up a community meeting to develop an approach to rebuilding the water system. The meeting included chiefs, as well as women, children and young people, who all took part in the discussion.

This led to the creation of a Water Team – 37 young people who were committed to working with local people on the Water Project and other local issues – who Willy trained to run the project.

Willy consulting a community

Consulting a community

Sustainable water

It was during a meeting of the Water Team that Willy was recruited by Care International to run seven water projects. When they saw how Willy had trained the Water Team, they recruited from among the young people as well.

The seven Care International projects did not include Willy’s own water project but he was able to continue working on that at the same time. And while he was working for Care he refined his approach, so that in each community, “we have set up a water committee to look after the water system”.

Willy ensured each project’s sustainability by “providing one or two week’s training for the committee – and even the community as a whole” so they could maintain the water systems.

And he made sure each community would be able to cover any future expenses. “They put a small fund within the whole community to continue to sustain the system in the long term.”

Tanna Water Committee

Tanna Water Committee

Vanuatu Climate Action Network

Willy got involved with the Vanuatu Climate Action Network (VCAN) through is work with Care. VCAN is linked to the Pacific Island Climate Action Network (PICAN), which is made up of representatives – one each – from every Pacific island.

“From the national level, the Vanuatu Climate Action Network contribute to bringing the civil society voice to the network for Pacific Islands,” says Willy, adding that PICAN reports to COP 23.

“So there’s national to the regional body, then the regional body brings those voices to the UN negotiation. I am the civil society representative in the United Nations for negotiation on climate change and environment.”

This means Willy takes the message from the grassroots communities he serves, directly to the United Nations.

To do this he travels to the small communities he got to know through the water projects and asks for stories about “what they’re doing in the community, climate change and how they can contribute on reducing those effects of climate change”.

Leaflet about the effects of plastic from Vanuatu Clean

Leaflet about the effects of plastic from Vanuatu Clean

Using stories to create change

On a national level, Willy has used this technique to contribute to policy.

“More and more, the Vanuatu government involves me in all the discussion around climate change because they know I am the person who represents the civil society organisations and the grassroots organisations,” he says.

He consults community groups to get their views on particular issues. For example, he recently asked them about plastic bags.

“First of all I asked them if they want to help the government to invent a policy that will really suit their needs,” he says. Then he asked for stories, for lived experience “so that the government can use this story to create policy that will also suit you”.

Willy gathered stories about plastic gathering on beaches and the amount of littering that was witnessed.

“One of them told me a story that many times when they’re on the track they notice the only thing that people drop out on the track is the plastic bag. They eat something and they don’t need the plastic so they throw it away on the track. They just throw it through the window.”

Willy took these anecdotes and stories back up the chain and on 1 July 2018, plastic bags were banned in Vanuatu.

“And I find it very useful because when the government create this programme it reflects exactly what the grassroots needs.”

Defining sustainability

Willy has completed his water project work with Care and is now working with Oxfam. “I’m co-ordinating what we call Vanuatu Humanitarian Team,” he says, “That is in addition to the work I have as VCAN.”

So he will be taking the message from the grassroots to the powerful for some time to come.

“Everything comes from them,” he says, adding that he has told civil society organisations, “Use me as a pen to write. I will be the tool. You will be the expert.”

And he plans to share his own lived experience with changemakers.

“Many people talk about and try to give a definition of sustainability,” he says. “The true meaning of sustainability comes only when communities are owning their own development. And that is a story I really want to share.”