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From Organized Demonstration to Non-profit Organization: The Origin of Breathe Mongolia — Clean Air Coalition

15 · Sep · 2020

By Jenny Han Simon

Breathe Mongolia was created in response to an issue.

Yet, the very dawn of Breathe Mongolia’s genesis was not in Mongolia, but in Times Square, NYC.

Beginnings

December 2018—Standing amidst the backdrop of Times Square’s flashing lights and a sea of people was a woman wearing a traditional Mongolian deel, holding a blue khadag—a silk scarf that symbolizes goodwill and purity—and a silver bowl. Both are part of traditional welcoming customs in Mongolia. In a city as diverse as New York, it’s not uncommon to see different displays of culture and ethnic costumes; however, this representation of Mongolia came with the message “Mongolia is suffocating” on a cardboard sign. Holding the silver bowl in her left hand and the cardboard sign in her right, the khadag draped across her arms, all while donning a gas mask, Breathe Mongolia founder Azjargal (Aza) Tsogtsaikhan juxtaposed the traditional image of the Land of Eternal Blue Sky with its most pressing contemporary issue—air pollution. 

Aza’s concern for her country and family’s health was what drove her to go to Times Square in the first place. “I kept hearing news of people getting sick with pneumonia, and of my family members being hospitalized,” says Aza. “And this was during the ‘We are Suffocating’ protests in Mongolia, so I decided that even though I wasn’t in Mongolia, I wasn’t going to watch and do nothing about it.” The initial picture of Aza in Times Square was originally supposed to be a larger protest that failed to manifest; however, it still managed to gain attention on social media. This led to the organization of a second protest in Columbus Circle that drew almost 20 people. Dressed in traditional Mongolian clothes with gas masks and signs, the protestors walked from Columbus Circle to Times Square in what was the first demonstration against Mongolia’s air pollution crisis outside of Mongolia. The protest was live-streamed on Facebook, earning half a million views and was featured on National Geographic’s Your Shot series

Creating a Non-Profit

Aza, founder of Breathe Mongolia, protesting in Times Square

The original Facebook event page for this protest was entitled “Breathe Mongolia.” Although this was a fundamental step in the creation of what is now the Breathe Mongolia-Clean Air Coalition, it was partially meant to protect the anonymity of the protesters, as some Mongolians felt that such a vocal and international showcasing of Mongolia’s issues was inappropriate. For years, Mongolia has been dealing with a public health crisis in which PM 2.5 pollution levels have been recorded at 1,985mg/m3, or in other words, 80 times higher than WHO air quality guidelines. This affects a majority of the population, leading to many people falling ill with respiratory illnesses. “At the time, Mongolia was less willing to openly discuss this problem on an international platform, and there was resistance to sharing it with foreigners or discussing it in English. We have a saying, ‘If your head cracks, keep it in a hat.’ But in situations like this, we shouldn’t be quiet, apathetic, or passive; we should be having open and honest conversations and working together toward a solution.”

The need to address Mongolia’s air pollution crisis with transparency and accuracy, as well as to provide citizens with resources and education on the topic, led to the development of Breathe Mongolia’s website. Prior to this, there was limited access to information on air pollution in Mongolia and the effects and sources of air pollution, especially for everyday citizens. Aza remarks, “We wanted to empower citizens and fill in the gaps in regards to education and transparency on the issue. We wanted to think about, ‘What do people need to understand? Why is this happening? What will happen if we don’t do anything? What should we do, and what can we do?’” 

With generous assistance from data scientists,environmental scientists, and software engineers, Breathe Mongolia was able to assemble a team, collect and analyze original data,and eventually work with People in Need (PIN) to create the website to fill the gap. Through small steps such as securing modest amounts of grant money, and even taking leadership and project management courses to be better organized and consistent with its actions, Breathe Mongolia became a registered non-profit organization in Delaware in 2019.  Breathe Mongolia is still made up almost exclusively of volunteers who dedicate their skills and time to maintaining the website and running all of Breathe Mongolia’s operations. 

Looking Forward

Breathe Mongolia’s primary mission is to provide viable solutions to air pollution all over the world, starting with Mongolia. Breathe Mongolia was built on three main principles: to act as a watchdog in maintaining transparency on the issue while ensuring resources are publicly available; to serve as a platform for collaboration in order to streamline information about other non-profit and private organization efforts and current research on air pollution; to raise awareness of air pollution while instilling a desire to solve these issues and educate oneself and others. “My main purpose is to establish this platform where experts and scientists have a voice and their knowledge is curated into digestible and actionable information,” Aza says. “Once people are enlightened and informed, they’ll know what to do.”

Mongolia faces a severe and unique case of air pollution, yet it holds immense potential in the battle to eradicate its own air pollution crisis and be a model country in the global fight against air pollution and climate change. “Because we’re a small county, we can tackle this issue in a shorter amount of time as opposed to countries like China and India. We can make this case of success to inspire others,” says Aza. “Climate change may be affecting Mongolia the most even if we don’t contribute to it the most; we’re a huge symptom of collective global apathy. If we can take action and show change is possible, even on a local level and in a small, poor country, it shows there’s no reason why other countries can’t do anything.” In this way, Breathe Mongolia is unique to other organizations that also seek to fight air pollution and climate change, as it was created and grown out of Mongolia whilst also continuing to advocate for all other countries and citizens affected by air pollution and climate change. 

Breathe Mongolia is composed of 30 volunteers that span three continents, nine countries, and five nationalities. Together, Breathe Mongolia’s team represents a variety of professional and personal backgrounds, enabling the Breathe Mongolia – Clean Air Coalition to fight climate change and air pollution from multiple angles. Volunteers range from undergraduate students to Ph.D. holders, young professionals to veterans in their respective fields. Additionally, Breathe Mongolia was founded and continues to be led by strong women. 

The successes of Breathe Mongolia are all due to the collective actions and efforts of everybody involved—volunteers, donors, concerned citizens, etc. While donations are, of course, extremely helpful in the growth and development of any non-profit’s mission and operation, the magic of Breathe Mongolia stems from its belief that people and their actions are the main contributors to change—not money. Although the scale and severity of air pollution and climate change may seem so daunting that it’s insurmountable,  positive, consistent, and collective actions of everybody will eventually pave the way for sustainable and positive change. “There is always something that can be done, and there is no problem too insignificant or small. Drops of water make up an ocean, and every drop counts and makes an ocean with big waves. Everybody in Breathe Mongolia is a building block for a better future, and this battle against air pollution is everybody’s work. Breathe Mongolia is consistent and agile, which is a model everybody can follow. Everyone is welcome to join or collaborate with us.” 

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