Hoang Thi Minh Hong is the founder and director of CHANGE, a non-profit organization that protects the environment. She is the first Vietnamese woman to visit Antarctica and was one of 12 outstanding civic leaders selected from 12 countries to participate in the first Obama Foundation Scholars program at Columbia University. The program aims to empower civil leaders and help them find effective solutions to complex global problems. Last March, Hong was on the Forbes Vietnam list of top 50 most influential women in the country.
In a New Year’s day tweet celebrating the start of 2019, Mr. Obama mentioned “climate hero” Hoang Thi Minh Hong as one of the young leaders who inspired him to act for positive change. The former United States president noted that Hong had spearheaded many initiatives in Southeast Asia to make the world greener and cleaner.
In 1997-98 environmental protection was a strange concept for many people in Vietnam. You were 24. What kick-started your environmental journey?
Two trips to Antarctica in 1997 and 2009 are the milestones that mark the transition from having an awareness of environmental protection to a determination to act for the environment. When I first visited Antarctica in 1997, I was overwhelmed by the breathtaking view of Antarctica. However, the landscape has been threatened by global warming and I realized the importance of protecting the environment. Travelling back to Antarctica in 2009, I found the impacts of climate change is getting worse. More of the glaciers and polar ice caps have been melting, creating more risks of rising global sea levels. I told myself that my projects should not only stop at raising awareness of environmental protection, but also towards taking action in protecting the environment. I used to have days of screaming all over the place to talk about Antarctica, about the environment. Everyone was eager to listen, but when it came to organizing local environmental activities, they gradually faded away. My savings were running out. I depended on my friends, while I wandered around doing volunteer work. Sometimes I got tired, but the images of a magnificent Antarctica kept reminding me to try to do something for the environment.
Most people realize it is important to protect the environment. But, changing habits is difficult. How do you approach this problem?
Yes, an example is the call to limit the use of plastic bags, straws, cups, and foam boxes. When everyone is so busy, it is difficult for people to refuse to use them because of the convenience. But it does not mean that we can be indifferent to the negative effects of disposable plastics on the environment. It is important to make every individual aware that environmental protection an urgent issue today, not in the future. The problem is no longer merely protecting natural resources or wildlife, but protecting the health and wellbeing of each person. Start with the simplest things. For example, it was easy for me is to stop using straws, because when I was young, I drank coffee, tea, and smoothies without straws. For some students it might be to quit the habit of buying bottled water. They can bring their own bottle of tap water to school, because it is expensive to buy bottled spring water. From an economic aspect, this habit might be easier to drop.
In the case of environmental protection, as well as in many other social issues, it is better to light a candle than sit and curse the darkness.
Can you tell me more about how you connect with the community?
There is a saying by former President Obama that I really like: “If we want to change the world, then we have to build communities. And to do that, we have to connect with people through stories. Storytelling is the best way to get people to act together.” That is how I draw young people to participate in my projects. I believe that the younger generation, once it has an awareness of environmental issues, will act wholeheartedly for a green planet. When you trust and give young people the opportunity to express themselves, they apply their abundant energy and youthful enthusiasm to any project.
I communicate by telling stories and am starting to see positive feedback. For example, the plastic reduction movement over the last two years has engaged not only non-governmental organizations such as CHANGE, but many student groups, start-ups, businesses, and agencies. Solutions for disposable plastic products are increasingly pursued by many start-up entrepreneurs. For instance, food production facilities in Dong Thap province plan to make straws from rice flour. My efforts would be just a needle in a haystack without the contribution of young volunteers. I am always optimistic about the contribution of the younger generation, adding to a community’s strength.
What was your most valuable experience when participating in the Obama Foundation’s Scholars program?
Studying at one of America’s top universities was a great thing. The Obama Foundation’s Scholars program had a very exciting schedule. Each week, we had a lot of interesting lessons about history, and the political and social issues of the United States and the world. We would meet and talk to distinguished guests who were famous speakers from many fields. We also participated in training workshops to strengthen leadership, management, conflict resolution, speech, and creativity skills. There was also the opportunity to join business meetings with individuals and organizations active in social and development issues. I was invited to teach a class at Columbia for senior and graduate students about illegal wildlife trade in the world. These activities enhanced our knowledge and provided us with an opportunity to share our rich experiences and practical knowledge in different fields in different countries. Getting to know the other 11 scholars who were leaders of prominent social movements in various countries, helped me a lot in self-development.
How does it feel to be on the Forbes top 50 most influential women in Vietnam list?
I am very happy and proud to be among very respectable names in other fields. I am glad there is recognition, not only for my own efforts, but for the social work and civic duties of others. Having traveled to many countries and participated in many programs, I have found that all over the world the efforts of social activists like us are appreciated by leaders, reputable organizations, universities, and international communities. I look forward to receiving further support in Vietnam so that the movement of environmental protection is more and more influential.
You are an inspiration for many young people, especially women. Who inspires you?
First Lady Michelle Obama. While studying in the U.S., I had the opportunity to meet her twice. Michelle is a wonderful, intelligent, confident, sharp woman, and also very charming and extremely affectionate. When we met, she hugged and greeted each one of the scholars – a very tight hug like you would have with a close friend. Being very involved in women’s issues, she was happy when eight out of 12 scholars participating in the program were women. She praised me for doing so much for the environment. I told her that my “save the world” team at CHANGE are mostly female. She sent a message to the women at CHANGE, as well as to other social organizations in Vietnam, telling them to give their best, but to remember the balance between work and life. She said to be yourself, no matter what fashions you like, the colour of your hair, or what music you prefer. Do the things you love, don’t limit yourself with social pressures, make yourself happy, exercise hard to be healthy and get ready for great work.
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