About a month ago, the Council of Governments of the Center Region hosted two young professionals from Southeast Asia who learned on environmental and sustainability issues.
Chiew Ee Kwong, from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Anh Thu Phan (Tess), from Hue, Vietnam, arrived at State College in mid-June and stayed until July 17. They are part of the Southeast Asian Young Leaders Initiative professional fellowship program, through the International Association of City/County Management. The U.S. Department of State funds the program and gives young Southeast Asian leaders the opportunity to work with U.S. counterparts in nonprofit organizations and state and local government offices across the United States. United.
The Central Region Climate Action and Adaptation Plan was a high priority for COG and the two fellows, Pam Adams, COG Sustainability Planner Center Regional Development Agency, said. COG wanted them to experience community in the actions they take in relation to the plan. Kwong is a dispute resolution lawyer and Phan is a lecturer in environmental law. Their fields of intervention are energy law and policy.
Kwong and Phan had several networking experiences as they not only met with local government leaders, but also connected with Penn State, the Waste and Recycling Authority and the Citizen lobby for the climate.
“It wasn’t just local government, but we tried to share what’s happening in our community because it’s going to take us all together to work on these actions,” Adams said.
Shelly Mato, COG Waste and recycling management program administrator, works in the sustainability of solid waste and works on integrated actions in the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan with regard to solid waste. She showed the fellows how the whole economics of waste management works. They visited a landfill in Williamsport, the recycling center and where the metals are taken. In Vietnam, there are no landfills, which opened Phan’s eyes. Kwong found it interesting how the recycling center worked with the local government and said recycling here is much easier than in Malaysia. Recycling is encouraged there, she says, but it can be difficult to find the facility or the bins to do so.
“It’s pretty good to see that here you’re not only encouraging people to recycle, but also educating them,” Kwong said.
As part of the fellowship, Kwong and Phan, and the other 23 fellows placed in the United States, submitted a proposal of what they would like to do as the next step. Of the grantees, 25% of the projects are selected to take place.
Phan said there was a lot of research and attention focused on the impact of climate change on forestry and agriculture in Hue, but not much on urbanized areas. After learning about the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan here, she hopes to use it as a model to apply to her community.
“Next, I want to draw the attention of the government officer, as well as other researchers in my city, to how to do more research on the climate impact on the urbanized areas of my city,” he said. she declared. “If we win the project, I’ve asked Pam (Adams) to come to my city and then we’ll have a kind of working seminar with my university.”
Kwong said there is a Penn State Law course that teaches environmental and public conflict mediation. She said that there are two public universities in Malaysia that have expressed interest in introducing a postgraduate program in climate change law. She would like to design a course on the model of the environmental and public conflict mediation course so that it is adapted to local conditions.
“What is interesting is that they use mediation… to resolve environmental disputes, to stimulate discussion on environmental issues, whereas I think in Malaysia the primary method of resolving environmental disputes is usually the dispute, so you just go to court. It’s not always the most efficient way to solve issues and problems,” Kwong said.
Takeaways from the program
The first step to doing something is always the hardest, Phan said, but it’s always worth taking.
“I think even at State College, it’s not really easy to get the whole community involved in the action plan. In Vietnam, it will probably be very difficult. They’re going to put it away for a long time and they don’t really want to take the first step,” Phan said. “But here I think the COG has done pretty well to take the first step with the Climate Action Plan. And I think they also have a lot of challenges in implementing the plan here, but they are doing the first step anyway, so I really want to bring it back to my communities to tell them how to take the first step, and then we can plan the next step.
Kwong said she learned the importance of bringing together different stakeholders to work on climate action and adaptation, which includes local governments, the private sector and the local community. There are local governments in Malaysia that have action plans on climate change, but this is only driven by the local government, she said.
“Stakeholders (are not) really involved in the development of the plan. So when you do that, there can be a disconnect between what you think is good for the community and what the community actually needs,” Kwong said.
COG executive director Eric Norenberg said people around the world in local governments are often busy and forget to look beyond their own community, department or agency. This program reminded him that there are other ideas and much to learn beyond county and even Pennsylvania borders.
“I think it will be a lasting connection that will hopefully not only benefit the Center region, but each of their organizations and their countries. And beyond the goals and focus on sustainability, I think it’s also helped build relationships that will lead to a better understanding of our countries,” Norenberg said.
Mato said the experience also allowed them to see their own programs differently.
“Sometimes I feel like the actions we take are so small in the huge picture of what needs to be done. Even our climate adaptation action plan, which is incredibly goal-oriented and contains wonderful goals, I always think “Oh my God, it’s such a small, small piece.” But then you tell someone else about it and you realize that each of these small pieces is adds up and you forget it sometimes,” Mato said.
The COG would like to participate in the program again in the future.
State College was a ‘change of pace’
Their time at State College wasn’t all work. Kwong and Phan attended a rotating meeting, had tea with State College Mayor Ezra Nanes, had lunch at a neighborhood picnic and hung out with Norenberg’s dog. They went to WingFest, watched the 4th of July fireworks, toured Belleville and learned about the Amish, visited the Boal Mansion and more.
Kwong is from a big city, so State College was a nice “change of pace” for her.
“What’s kind of interesting is that even though State College isn’t a very big city, I like how they have a lot of cultural activities. More than I would live in a small town in Malaysia, for example, lots of cultural arts activities. So it’s been pretty fun,” she said.
Phan had originally planned to visit larger cities like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh while she was in Pennsylvania, but decided she preferred to spend her time here due to the tranquility of the location. Everyone was very welcoming and friendly here, she said.