Born and raised on the island of Saipan in the Mariana Islands, a US territory in the Pacific Ocean, Sheila Babauta spent much of her adolescent life at the intersection of intensifying climate change and militarization. While pursuing a future in public service was not a part of her initial plan, for Sheila, it was a natural field for her to land in. Now, the passionate leader is currently serving her second term on the 22nd Northern Mariana Legislature in the House of Representatives.
As the youngest representative in the legislature and the youngest woman to win in her district, the Asia Pacific Leader has taken on an impressive roster of roles in the House: chairwoman of the Natural Resources Committee, vice chairwoman for the Education Committee, and a member of the Health and Welfare Committee and the Ways and Means Committee. In addition to her work advocating for her community, Sheila always takes time to connect with her neighbors and draws strength from the young people who show resilience, joy, and hope in everything they do.
We sat down with Sheila to learn more about her home, her story, and her special experience at COP26, where she attended a roundtable conversation with President Obama and other climate activists.
Q: To get started, could you tell us a bit about your home and its history? What are the Mariana Islands like?
A: The Mariana Islands are a beautiful tropical paradise in the Pacific ocean. When you visit Saipan and the Mariana Islands, you’ll experience one of the most consistent weathers in the world at around 88 degrees. So we have blue skies, big fluffy clouds, wonderful sunsets that color the sky purples and different shades of pinks and oranges. Our waters are very clear and very warm, with incredible biodiversity. You can often see dolphins swimming in the ocean from our shores. We have land crabs and beautiful birds in our jungles.
That’s the tropical paradise that I grew up around. Now, however, we’re starting to see our shorelines disappear. We are beginning to see invasive species take over our jungles. And so that’s where climate change starts to impact how we experience our land, and our waters. Our coral reefs are some of the most beautiful in the world. We have people visit from all over to come and dive, because we have some of the most popular diving spots in the world. And so we’ve begun to see our coral reef dying and aren’t as colorful.
Once you start driving around our island, you might notice that many of our historical sites are related to the military and World War II. We have places like Suicide Cliff, Banzai Cliff, the Last Command Post, and those are our tourist sites. So as a visitor, you would begin to wonder, ‘Where are the indigenous sites? Where are the indigenous people, where did they gather?’ That’s not something that you would easily find because our history is typically taught from when the Spanish came onward.
You’ll see tanks, and you’ll see bombs, and all these remnants of World War II as places that we encourage our visitors to visit. And then you will also experience limited accessibility to certain parts of certain areas of our different islands. So as you begin to visit all the sister islands, you’ll see that there’s a military presence that still exists today. Upon visiting, you’d also see a lot of the local people wearing military uniforms because we have the highest per capita of enlisted servicemen and -women.
All together, it’s a stark contrast, and it’s why I do the work I do. People need to understand our complicated history to understand our present, and we all need to be willing to take action to combat climate change to protect our future.
Q: On that note, can you tell us about the work you do now? How did you first get started?
A: Well it all started when I left my island for ten years to study at the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa and Kapiolani Community College. I spent a few years studying in Washington, too. Here on Saipan, it’s normal for us to move off the island to continue our education. After ten years away, I decided it was time to come home. I missed my home very much, and I missed my family. And when I got home, I started volunteering. That’s how I made connections with others, and that’s how I figured out my passion for my community. From there, I started attending local public hearings and public meetings.
Around the time that I got really interested in serving my community, we were experiencing a tourism boom and an unsustainable, 2,000-room resort development was being planned for my community—right in front of my house in fact. And so I started attending these public meetings to voice my concerns and the concerns of community members. Many of my relatives and my friends weren’t comfortable asking questions at these public hearings, but they would give me questions to ask. Slowly but surely they started encouraging me to run for public office. It was just not part of my plans, but here I am.
I realized early on that speaking up at public hearings and visiting the legislature to make public comments for the record simply wasn’t enough. I had to be at the decision making table to truly make a difference. So I decided to run for office with the support of my family and with the support of my community members.
Q: Your work must be demanding. What keeps you going when times get tough?
A: My favorite part of my work is any time I get to interact with our youth. I get invited often to speak to classrooms, or give speeches at induction ceremonies. Last term, I adopted a youth center and it is undergoing construction. The center was actually completed when I was in Glasgow for COP26, and although I couldn’t attend the grand opening I was really excited about it. Anytime I’m around kids, I feel energized and hopeful. Ultimately, young people encouraged me to take this path serving others, advocating for our natural resources, and finding lasting climate solutions.
I’ll always remember when I was having a really hard day in the Chamber and was feeling super defeated. I drove straight to the youth center. As soon as I parked all the kids ran up to my car, and they had no idea what kind of day I had had. They just thought that I was the youth center person who adopted the place, who provides lunches and buys pizza. Someone who collaborates with other organizations so they can come in and teach them how to play ukulele and host basketball training. All the kids ran up to my car and were just so excited to see me, and were saying, ‘Hi Miss Sheila, Miss Sheila, you’re here!’ That immediately lifted my spirits. I couldn’t believe it. Oh my goodness, it was powerful.
Q: To close, how has the Obama Foundation Leaders Asia-Pacific program helped you along in your leadership journey?
A: Since being in the first cohort of the Foundation’s Leaders Asia-Pacific program in 2019, I’m so proud to say that to this day I’m in contact with many of the leaders I met when we were together in Malaysia. The experience of being in a new place around like-minded, passionate, hardworking individuals who don’t give up, that’s the kind of energy that really does make a movement happen. And it really does make the world a better place.
The program opened my perspective on the relationships that can be built between Asia and the Pacific, because I was raised to believe that our relationships were limited. Meeting all those other leaders and seeing the work they’re doing, and how it intersected with the work that I’m doing was powerful. It was an amazing environment to be in.