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Pacific Islander Poets Use Art, Stories to Urge Climate Action at UN Conference

Terisa Siagatonu, 27-year-old Samoan-American spoken word poet born in San Francisco, California, was one of four poets selected to perform at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris, France. Courtesy of Terisa Siagatonu

Four Pacific Islander spoken word poets representing Samoa, the Philippines, Guam, and Australia were selected from an international contest to perform at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris.

The four winners of the Spoken Word for the World contest—Terisa Siagatonu, John Meta Sarmiento, Isabella Avila Borgeson, and Eunice Andrada—were announced in November, and performed during the UN conference scheduled between Nov. 30 and Dec. 11.

"The poems that won us the chance to come and perform in Paris all revolve around our experiences as Pacific Islanders — who will likely be alive when our islands sink due to global warming and climate change," Terisa Siagatonu, a Samoan-American poet from the Bay Area, told NBC News.

The Spoken Word for the World contest, sponsored by the Global Call for Climate Action (GCCA), was inspired by a performance by Marshallese poet and activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner at the 2014 UN Climate Summit in New York, where she described the affects of climate change firsthand. Jetnil-Kijiner saw a connection between the power of poetry and climate change conferences and worked with GCCA "to uncover some of the world's most passionate Spoken Word artists who want to create poetry that aims to change the world," according to the contest website.

"Coming to Paris wasn't only about winning the chance to read our poems," Siagatonu said. "It was about having the opportunity to connect with those who are on the front lines when it comes to the climate action we hope to take as a global community."

Across the four winners' lives, climate change hits home.

"For my family living in the Philippines, climate change is an everyday reality we see through typhoons which are flooding our towns, collapsing our homes and increasing in frequency and intensity," Filipina-American poet and contest winner Isabella Avila Borgeson told NBC News. After Typhoon Haiyan — one of the strongest storms recorded in history — hit her mother's hometown, Tanauan, Borgeson spent nearly two years in the Philippines engaging in relief and rehabilitation efforts.

"This issue is important to me because it means the survival of my homeland, and of my family — many whom are still dealing with the devastating impact of super typhoon Haiyan," Borgeson said.

While the winners were thrilled to be in Paris for the first time, Siagatonu said she was disheartened by the reality that the communities most impacted by climate change are often invisible in political spaces.

"It's hard to be at the biggest gathering on climate change in the world, and feel like no one from your community or homeland is around you or being represented," Siagatonu said.

In her winning poem, "Layers," Siagatonu addresses how socioeconomic statuses complicate the fight for climate action: "Too worried about going broke to worry about going green … too rich to care about it affecting them, too poor to prioritize caring about how it affects them."

Filipino poet and contest winner John Meta Sarmiento told NBC News that being able to represent his region among all of the leaders in Paris was an honor. Born and raised in Guam, Sarmiento described climate change as having an adverse affect on people's physical, mental, emotional, and social health.

"For me specifically, the forest fires in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea created a harmful haze in our air," Sarmiento said. "I was sick for weeks, coughing, and riddled with headaches."

The youngest contest winner, 18-year-old Filipina poet Eunice Andrada, started doing spoken word poetry two years ago as a way to explore the devastation of typhoons on the Philippines and the resilience in the Filipino spirit. She told NBC News that she hopes her stories and poems will continue to inspire global leaders at the conference in Paris.

"We're here to challenge the narratives surrounding these talks and to bridge the gap between climate experts and the rest of us, who experience the effects of climate change in our daily lives," Andrada said. "We don't know the statistics behind it — because we don't need to. We see how it devastates our communities firsthand."

Throughout the 11-days-long UN conference, the winning poets along with Jetnil-Kijiner performed at numerous events, meetings, ceremonies, parties, and gatherings — all in support of climate change.

"It's amazing how many spaces want us to perform for their events here at the negotiations," Siagatonu said, "because I know that there was a time where having spoken word poetry on the agenda was not a thing, you know? But now it is."

The poets say they believe spoken word poetry is proving to be a powerful tool in the conversations around climate change.

"Many people are uninspired by political rhetoric, numb to all the scientific or political jargon," Sarmiento said. "I think spoken word artists have the ability to take ideas that are difficult to understand and present them in compelling rhetoric."

Sarmiento said he never imagined his poetry would take him this far, and in addition to convincing leaders to act sooner rather than later, he hopes his time in Paris will inspire people around the globe to pursue their passions.

"I want people to see what I'm doing and say, 'Hey, maybe I could do something like that, too,'" he said. "I want people to believe they can contribute to positive change through their talents, through their passions."

Siagatonu echoed Sarmiento's statement, saying, "Art creates change, or at the very least, it inspires it. I think artists can teach those in power a thing or two about love, justice, and peace."

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