ICP Co-Founder, Dr Maya Soetoro-Ng, Panel Remarks at Aotearoa New Zealand’s Festival for the Future Summit

Dr. Soetoro-Ng speaks to Dr. Merrin Pearse about how her childhood shaped her leadership experiences, the need for positive peace climate solutions, and ICP’s work in Aotearoa. Festival for the Future Summit took place through hybrid format 29–31 July 2022. As a national event with global reach to 40+ countries, Festival for the Future is one of the most inspirational conferences you’ll ever attend. Network with entrepreneurs and leaders. Engage in the conversations that matter. Build ideas and skills to transform our world for the better. This session is entitled Leadership for A Climate-Resilient Future.


Merrin Pearse: Let’s hear a little bit more about your story — let’s hear a little bit about you, in particular your childhood in the Asia-Pacific, growing up in Indonesia, moving to Hawaii, and can you share a bit about how these experiences shaped you as a person. And we’ll just do 1 or 2 minutes for each response.

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Well, I did grow up all over the Asia-Pacific, my mom worked as a consultant in a number of places, but we lived primarily in Indonesia, which was the home of my father. All throughout the Asia-Pacific, I had a lot of freedom — I ran through rice fields, across volcanic terrain and through rainforests and temples, and I connected with nature and community. And this inspired great love of land and connection, and also gave me many aunties and uncles to protect and love me. Throughout the Asia-Pacific, I witnessed the spirit of Gotong Royong, we call it in Indonesia; all hands together in grassroots leadership, building things together. This spirit speaks to the possibility of embodied social justice as we engage in movement-building. There was so much creative energy present — I was raised by a mother who nurtured a great sense of curiosity, and I would go with her after being homeschooled in the morning, to villages where she worked with weavers and tile-makers and batik-makers and shadow puppet makers and blacksmiths, and so on. The traits of curiosity, love, respect and acceptance were attributes that she endeavored to foster in myself and my brother, and which I also now hope to share with my children and my students and those traits and attributes were very deeply present in the relational culture of the Asia-Pacific region, in that sense that Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing”. I wrote a children’s book, ‘Ladder to the Moon’, in 2011 which discusses the lessons that Mom would have given to me and which the region also helped to shape in me. A lot of it is this notion of seeing things from multiple perspectives, but also being able to feel the threads of connection across pacific waters and to begin to enliven in one another a deep sense of commitment — so overall, it was a beautiful childhood.

Merrin Pearse: It sounds really cool, and what I hear is that you’re mixing across cultures, mixing across people of different places and societies, but also mixing with different specifies who we’re living in this world with. So second question: what was that moment when you started to become really interested in leadership and social change? Was there an early memory when you thought “my goodness, I’m leading this, I’m doing this”, that led on to take the next step?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Yes, I have taught a class in leadership for social change at the Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution at the University of Hawai’i where I work, but this idea of leadership for social change was really birthed through my time with mom in those early childhood hours as she engaged in sustainable community development, and worked to nourish community understandings of social change that embodied peace and the wisdom of frontline communities. I worked in New York City and enjoyed the constant companionship and innovation of educators who prioritized community service, and this notion that a meaningful education is one that breaks through the walls of the classroom to connect broadly and meaningfully outside. On the Lower East Side of Manhattan we built many bridges between school and community. There were service projects every Wednesday [for the students]. On the weekends I would take them to the Noguchi museum, the New York Historical Society, the Met and El Museo del Barrio, and many other places, but I also took them to visit their parents in the carceral system. We worked on fledgling decarceration movements, we understood art and storytelling from many vantage points, and the students contributed to their peacebuilding identity. A lot of this was about exploring the larger space and world beyond the 10 block radius that they felt comfortable with, and so pedagogy and education as I came to understand it, was really about finding our own capacity to be navigational leaders and peacebuilding leaders, which require a measure of courage and a lot of storytelling.

“A lot of this was about exploring the larger space and world beyond the 10 block radius that they felt comfortable with, and so pedagogy and education as I came to understand it, was really about finding our own capacity to be navigational leaders and peacebuilding leaders, which require a measure of courage and a lot of storytelling.”

Merrin Pearse: The next question that blends into this: not many people have a brother who has been President of the United States of America. Can you share a little bit about what you two got up to growing up, and how that interaction between you has led to your work as part of the Obama Foundation and your involvement with the Asia-Pacific Leaders program?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: I would say that I’m very lucky to have grown up not just with our mother, but also my brother Barack, who hosted me when I was a teenager in Chicago, during a period when he was engaging in a lot of voter registration, and was thinking about what it means to be an upstander and a community organizer. He was really engaging in a lot of leadership for social change, and that’s where you really begin to understand that the work of building community and leadership is about getting each person to find their tools and skills and story for engagement and participation. A lot of it is giving folks the belief and understanding that they can do something to impact communities, and for me this is peace and justice work. However, for me it’s not just negative peace — the absence of conflict — but rather the presence of positive, understanding systems of support, restorative practices, solutionary collaboration, rehabilitative programs, and narratives that transform conflict meaningfully. Environmental justice is a big part of that, and so, as my brother was engaging in a lot of community organizing, he inspired in me a fresh mindset, this notion that there is so much work to be done if we wash our eyes and see ourselves anew, that we can refresh our gaze and look at a new set of creative possibilities for the future, grounded in community. We can begin to change the endings of stories, we can make media that matters and see things from multiple perspectives, and re-write our umbilical stories, sometimes from the perspective of very different others. So for me, this is about positive peace and the presence of deliberative, action-oriented education that came to be understood in my mind as place-based, culturally-responsive education, bringing families, and youths and leaders together to help solidify the importance of positive peace. When he left the White House, my brother really thought about how we can nourish and support peacebuilding leaders all over the world; there are so many incredible people doing powerful, innovative work in the nonprofit sector and in government, but also as social entrepreneurs and much more. So how can we begin to amplify the strengths of the region? The Asia-Pacific region is vast, and is very near and dear to my family and our identity and experiences, and when the Obama foundation was established, we wanted to ensure that young leaders were uplifted and supported globally, and we wanted to bring cultures together, to share. Both Barack and I are multicultural, we are multi-faceted, and that is our greatest strength — our mom and these spaces helped nourish in us a certain flexibility that allows us to dedicate ourselves lovingly to our neighbors, and we don’t think in narrow and siloed ways.

The Asia-Pacific Leaders Program is where I dedicate much of my work within the Obama Foundation. I also work with the Girls Opportunity Alliance, but with the Asia-Pacific Leaders Program, I get to spend a lot of time working with, speaking with and learning from diverse leaders from all across the region. They are rich with integrity, they are values-driven, they’re ethical and collaborative. Whether they’re grassroots or top-down, they are generous of spirit, they’re eager to share opportunities that allows them to see the strength in others and open doors for others. So we want to build a different type of leadership network, that brings them not just to develop the leadership within themselves for their self-realization, but also this strong commitment to equity, peace and justice; that curiosity and open-mindedness that enables them to really want to share and learn with the cohort. A big part of what we endeavor to do in the Asia-Pacific Leaders Program is to amplify the Pacific as well, because the Pacific and Oceania is often overtaken just by sheer volume of people in Asia, and is too-often neglected. So we wanted to make sure that there was really meaningful representation from Pacifica.

Merrin Pearse: Yeah and that ties nicely into the next question, because the theme for this conference is about climate change. And when you’re talking about the Pacific region, we know so little about the actual ocean part of our world. You’re the Co-Founder of the Institute for Climate and Peace, so can you share a bit about the peacebuldingwork you do, and how it interacts with climate change, because often people don’t put those two dots together, but it’s like “environment” and “social” — they’re pretty much the same things. But also, I believe that there are a few things coming up for Aotearoa coming up in this space.

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Yes, I’m very excited about this work. The Institute for Climate and Peace really does think about leadership as well, and we think about climate futures, and we engage a lot of work to support and nourish practices and experiments with leadership in frontline spaces of knowledge and wisdom. We look at the leadership of family and collaborative connection and changemaking throughout the region, and we’re founded with this premise that true transformation must be based on the cultivation of positive peace to build climate resilient futures, and we must look at that intersection between climate and peace. As far as I know, there’s no other organization in the Asia-Pacific that operates at this intersection. The idea was to really focus on peace and justice as a catalyst for important climate solutions and movement-building. And the hope is that we can work with communities in powerful, hands-on ways, and build positive peacebuilding action plans in communities. We think a lot about navigational leadership, given our commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, with this time requiring that we navigate through storms and a lot of turbulence, requiring great patience, while maintaining a keen eye to the future and an ear bent low to listen to the surface of the water, but also all that resides beneath.

Communities with low positive peace levels have a natural disaster mortality rate 13 times higher than those with high levels of positive peace. This is the foundation that the Institute for Climate and Peace and the work of our many partners is built on — this notion of climate resilience and the resilience of communities as something that will lessen the adverse impacts of climate change, and will allow us to impact policy at every level — local, national and global — that will increase global climate resilience in a way that is about moving beyond technical solutions, and is about deep respect and knowledge for the work that is happening out there.

Merrin Pearse: This is a good opportunity to share with people that if COVID hadn’t been, you might have actually been close to New Zealand, so what’s coming up?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Yes, so we are excited to find and source solutions in Aotearoa. We know that Aotearoa is currently experiencing historic flooding in the North, which is wreaking havoc on communities and straining resources. There are rising sea levels and other issues which are impacting the fishing industry, which is being threatened by warmer water temperatures, reducing fish stocks and forcing companies to lay off workers. However, we also see so many powerful solutions in the community; there is an opportunity here in these communities to have a strengths-based approach to environmental and economic development that is not extractive, and is about regenerative economies, so that we can begin to develop solutions to challenge climate change. When we see the power of the Marai in grounding young people, in building generational knowledge, culturally-responsive conservation and practices, we feel fortified; as educators and policy-makers, we really value all the good stuff happening in Aotearoa.

We have built, through our [participation in the] Edmund Hillary Fellowship, as well as through the Obama Fellows and the Student Volunteer Army, a series of opportunities launching early next year. We will create a Pacific Partnership Hub for learning and exchange between Hawai’i, Aotearoa, and other islands in Pacifica, and will be amplifying the sharing of climate information and models of culturally-responsive positive peacebuilding and uplift community-sourced solutions. There will be this beautiful flow between Hawai’i and Aotearoa, amplifying Indigenous forms of wisdom around environmental conservation and climate solutions. We are going to be engaging in a lot of active listening, learning and engagement, and collaboration with partners on the ground like the Waihetu-Marai of Lower Hutt. The goals for the Hub will be to conduct educational and outreach activities, to facilitate partnerships with communities, and to conduct leadership training, especially for youth and women to uplift climate and peace leaders doing incredible work, but who need the support to extend their reach.

Merrin Pearse: One commenter [in the virtual session] says “leaving — way too many buzzwords”. I’m just sitting here going, “which buzzwords?”, no don’t leave the room! Tell me what I haven’t explained! What do you hear when you hear that comment? How do you talk to your audience about solutions that are coming up, or responses for climate change?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: I think we together are creating new language, which sometimes might feel like buzzwords. But I think the idea is that as we bring together the wisdom of past, present and future, it is about creating a new language. This is a Festival for the Future looking at tomorrow, and we need to find language that is better suited to the problems of today, but also the opportunities presented by tomorrow, and sometimes, that is about bringing in a language that has too often been disrespected and marginalized from periphery to center. And sometimes that means that we need to hear it again and again in order to feel comfortable with it and to begin shifting mindset a bit. I really think it’s a powerful part of what we need to do now. The language of the past isn’t always appropriate. I think that the Festival for the Future is about taking the best of the past and the wisdom gleaned from ancestors and those who came before us, finding what the challenges of the future. The climate challenges are huge and overwhelming; we need to be creative, sometimes create new language, and uplift the knowledge and needs of the communities that have not had a seat at the table to begin to honor and respect voices, languages and cultures that have been in possession of solutions, but also can create futures of great innovation that braid that past, present and future.

“The climate challenges are huge and overwhelming; we need to be creative, sometimes create new language, and uplift the knowledge and needs of the communities that have not had a seat at the table to begin to honor and respect voices, languages and cultures that have been in possession of solutions, but also can create futures of great innovation that braid that past, present and future.”

Merrin Pearse: It’s interesting — terms keep on changing, in this space and moment, what used to be “CSR” or “ESG” — these acronyms that are bounding around. Remembering the time with your mom, I doubt she would have used the word “sustainability”. So, like going into a museum, like how they target 6–12 year olds with their language, how would she explain it to both the grandparent and the young child? How would she describe sustainability to you?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Right now, “sustainability” is being challenged in many spaces because a lot of people are saying that we need to do more than sustain current levels — we need to draw down, we need to constrain — we cannot sustain these practices. But my mom would have just talked about the fact that we need to not take more than we need. That we need to take care to share, to listen to others, to uplift others, to be kind, to connect to our communities and listen to our elders, to support one another.

Merrin Pearse: When you say the words, and then stop and think about them, they really do resonate across time. The care, respect and love. So it’s wonderful to have talked to you about peace and climate. Is there a parting message you’d like to close off the last minute with?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Well, my hope is that everyone at the event thinks about how they can get involved, how they can help younger people perhaps, how they can bring this notion of climate work beyond the technical solutions and top-down governmental solutions and really think about low-tech and high-tech resilience-building within their communities and their environment — this notion that Aotearoa New Zealand has so much to offer on the global stage. It’s a very peaceful country and it has passed key climate legislation like the zero carbon bill, so there is much to share to inspire others. And we do have this capacity now, to work in deeply local, loving ways, with our aunties and our uncles and our cousins, but also globally to inspire others far away, as part of this climate emergency. We have COP27 coming up in November in Egypt. And youth! There is so much that they can do today, and this notion of “nothing for us, without us” — really bringing them in in ways that are loving and respectful and powerful.

Merrin Pearse: I love it — and I have to appreciate the audience and those who have been listening in and will listen to the recording over the next 6 months. We are already half of that journey, so it’s great that we’re already on it together. And we all know that there’s other steps — one of the other speakers today was talking about the person that stood up and danced — if you have a leader of a dance and no one stands up and dances with them. We’re seeing you today Maya as someone to get up and dance with, and there’s a party on the website. So thank you very much!

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Thank you so much, Merrin and thank you to all of you here as part of the Festival for the Future — Aloha

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Maya Soetoro is Co-Founder of the Institute for Climate and Peace, where she also serves as Chairperson. An award-winning educator in peace and international studies, she serves as a faculty specialist at the Matsunaga Institute for Peace & Conflict Resolution University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s College of Social Sciences. Maya previously founded the community non-profit organizations Ceeds of Peace and The Peace Studio and consults with the Obama Foundation’s Asia-Pacific Leaders Program.

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ICP Website

Ladder on the Moon’ by Maya Soetoro-Ng. 15 Jan 2013

Information on the Asia-Pacific Leaders Program by the Obama Foundation

Information on the Girls Opportunity Alliance by the Obama Foundation

Edmund Hillary Fellowship website directory

Information on the Student Volunteer Army