The National Geographic Society has chosen Cayman teenager Ben Somerville to be one of its ‘Young Explorers’.
Somerville, one of the founders of youth advocacy group Protect Our Future, is among just 24 young people, aged between 17 and 25, from 15 countries, who were awarded the Fall 2020 Young Explorer grant from the environmental organisation.
Nat Geo has awarded the 18-year-old a US$2,000 grant to help fund a project to preserve and protect Cayman’s mangroves.
In addition to receiving the grant, Somerville is now part of GenGeo, a global community of young people seeking solutions to build a sustainable future and thriving planet, organisers said.
To be considered for the Young Explorers grant, applicants first had to be nominated by two large environmental programmes. In Somerville’s case, these were two groups he had worked with over the past year – the Captain Planet Foundation and the Ocean Heroes organisation.
Once nominated, he then had to go through an extensive application process that was reviewed by National Geographic experts over multiple months, which involved him explaining his past work and his plans for the future. He heard in December that he had been accepted as a Fall 2020 National Geographic Young Explorer.
Somerville, in an interview with the Cayman Compass on 29 Jan., explained the process. “It was a ton of essays about who you are, who your organisation is, your goals, what you have done in the past, to see whether you’d been in the community or new to it, and then more logistic things, like where you’re from, your age, because they want a wide demographic of people,” he said.
Now that’s he met the other 23 new Young Explorers – on a Zoom call in January that included ‘breakout rooms’ – he said he’s amazed by the wide scope of the work each one is embarking on with their respective projects.
“What really struck me, what I didn’t know about the programme… was the diversity of campaigns and organisations that people have. I thought I was going to get in there and everybody was going to be really focussed on reefs and mangroves… There were people from Africa, the Middle East, South America, all over Europe, every place that you could think of, and they were doing such impactful work,” he said.
“Like, there was a girl who focussed on grey water and she spent four years by herself and with other organisations just conducting scientific studies before she even started her campaign.
“Just to see everyone sharing such dedication towards their projects and tackling them in a unique manner was inspiring, but also allowed me to understand that, with this community, I’m going to able to think so differently than I have before, because now I’m brought into something in which we all communicate daily and we can pitch ideas off each other to see what’s going to work, what’s worked in the past for other people on certain topics.”
Under the Young Explorers programme, he said, the group can help press each other’s campaigns forward, “and then that overarching, on top of everything, is that yellow rectangle of National Geographic, who is kind of the big brother of all of this. They see what we’re doing and they can help whenever needed. They can provide us with resources, like, if we’re doing things that require cameras, they have an application form where you can request any sort of camera. They’re providing an outlet for us to be successful.”
Somerville, along with fellow Cayman International School student, Dejea Lyons, set up Protect Our Future two years ago. With both graduating from high school this year, they’re passing the mantle of the leadership of the organisation to younger students, Somerville said.
Since its inception, when a small group of students from CIS would gather to discuss environmental and other issues, like mental health, Protect Our Future has now grown to about 85 members, including students from six other schools. Protect Our Future Junior, which involves younger students, has also been established.
Now that it’s been around a couple of years, Somerville says he believes people are beginning to take the group more seriously and come to the realisation that the opinions and campaigns the students hold are their own, rather than those of teachers or parents or other groups using them as “pawns”.
“The fact that we have been doing this for so long and have been seen for so long and have created actual events [means] that people understand it is us that are passionate about this and it’s not a teacher at a school or a parent,” he said.
He added that connections with organisations like Plastic Free Cayman, the Captain Planet Foundation, the Cayman Islands National Trust, Ocean Heroes, and now with National Geographic meant Protect Our Future was gaining a reputable reputation “where we’ve gone from a group of kids in a classroom in school with banners protesting for something to more of an organisation pushing for positive change”.
Protect Our Future was among the environmental groups that opposed the controversial proposed construction of a cruise ship port in George Town, and in December 2019 organised a protest at the waterfront, calling for protection of local reefs.
Somerville said that, in years to come, he hopes Protect Our Future will continue to be a youth-led group, with support from alumni like himself.
The teenager is currently applying to universities in the United States and hopes to study mechanical engineering, and go on to work in sustainable development.
In a statement, Nat Geo said of its latest Young Explorers, “This year’s cohort is truly impressive: 24 people from around the globe, between 17 and 25 years old, who are on the frontlines of the most complex and urgent issues of our time. They’re addressing topics such as ocean and biodiversity conservation, food insecurity, plastic pollution, and the impacts of drought and water scarcity.
“They’re promoting safe, inclusive learning environments, and ensuring all children have access to quality education. They’re encouraging storytelling among youth, empowering them to be proud of their heritage and experiences. They’re paving new ways for young scientists with innovative solutions to combat environmental and health issues.”
Since the inception of the Young Explorer grants, National Geographic has provided more than 370 grants for work in 79 countries.