Gershon Cohen, coach of the Haines High School Drama, Debate and Forensics team, flew to the Marshall Islands last month to help develop debate programs in that South Pacific country.
"This is halfway between Hawaii and Australia," Cohen said. "It’s one of the smallest specks of land in the world, really."
His Haines team last February earned a third-place finish in 3A at the state competition in Anchorage.
When the Marshallese Ministry of Education was looking to pay for a visiting coach’s trip to the capital, Majuro, former Skagway coach Kent Fielding recommended Cohen. Fielding and Skagway students traveled to the Marshall Islands a few years ago for a DDF performance on U.S. nuclear weapons testing there.
"(The Ministry of Education is) trying to have a debate program, because they recognize that their kids are going to need to be proficient, persuasive public speakers, and, in particular, in English," Cohen said. "The country has a mean elevation of about three feet, and as the oceans are rising, unless things change, they know they’re going to not have a country in a very finite period of time. Nobody knows exactly how long."
In mid-July, Cohen stayed in a small, concrete-block apartment and led a one-week workshop in the sovereign country that has a median age under 22.
"There are 68,000 people in the whole country, spread out over hundreds and hundreds of miles of these little atolls, and 30,000 of them, almost half the population, live in the Majuro Atoll, which is one little collection of islands in the southern part of the country," he said.
Cohen instructed a class of a dozen high school teachers from various islands.
"The debate topic that I chose for them to debate during this workshop was, ‘If the Marshallese are forced to migrate, will the Marshallese culture be lost?’" he said.
Cohen said one argument "for losing the culture" was "their culture is based on the land that they occupy."
"They were incredible ocean navigators, traveling hundreds and hundreds of miles across the open ocean, looking for little specks of coral," he said. "Where they live is what provides them with what they’re used to seeing, which is the foundation of a lot of their language. The plants that are there are what they traditionally used for food and clothing."
Some debaters referred to other forced migrations and emphasized "if they maintain their language, food, dress and their rituals and customs, they should be able to maintain the culture," Cohen said.
He said most Marshall Islands residents have never left the country due to the expense, and debate research was all the more difficult due to a lack of computers and Internet access, but a few of the Marshallese teachers found a way to impress.
"Some of them were very shy and it was really hard to get them to want to speak, but some of them had clearly been in the Western world a little bit more, and they were quite engaging," Cohen said. "They’re very smart and very resourceful people."
When he wasn’t leading the workshop, Cohen swam, snorkeled and had more interaction with the Marshallese people, whom he called "incredibly friendly and generous." Cohen also viewed student displays at a science fair.
"Every single project in the science fair was about some issue related to either climate change or conservation," he said.
Cohen said he would like to return to assist the Marshallese with their transition.
"We made a lot of progress and we enjoyed each other very much," he said. "They asked me if I would be interested in coming back, and I would be."