Many of us have fond memories of Scouting, and I recall the year my father chaired the local cookie drive and stuffed our freezer with twelve dozen boxes. But I’ll bet every one of you said “Yum!” And you have your favorite. I love to curl up with a box of shortbreads, a cup of tea, and a good book.
But who knew these delicious morsels carried within them an unexpected ingredient: death to one of the most adorable animals on Earth, orangutans? Until these two courageous young women, Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, took the issue of unsustainably harvested palm oil head on. Read their inspiring story:
Gloria Feldt: When did you know you had the power to_____? Describe the moment or series of events that let you know you had the power to_____. What did it feel like?
Madison: I knew that I had the power to change Girl Scouts USA’s palm oil policy as soon as I made the connection that unsustainable palm oil which results in deforestation, the endangerment of thousands of species and human rights abuses was an ingredient in the Girl Scout cookies I had sold since childhood. At eleven years old, I didn’t know how I would accomplish this goal, but my passion and conviction led to unrelenting action.
Rhiannon: I knew that I had the power to make my voice heard after attending a lecture by Dr. Jane Goodall in which she described the power youth have to make a difference and the amazing work that young people have already accomplished. Hearing incredible advocate rave about the accomplishments of young people made me realize the power I have to stand up for what I believe in.
GF: Tell a little about your background, your family and how you grew up, and what led you to your current work.
Madison: I’m senior in high school at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I grew up in Plymouth, Michigan with my twin brother, older brother and our three dogs. My parents have set examples throughout my life when it comes to standing up for what they believe to be right. I’ve been fortunate to grow up in a supportive environment, with parents who’ve told me I can accomplish any goal if I never give up. My love for animals led me to start my current activism work. It began when Rhiannon and I earned our Girl Scout Bronze award by raising awareness about the reasons orangutans are endangered, including the destruction of their forest habitat for palm oil plantations.
Rhiannon: I was born and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I am the oldest of three, with two younger brothers. For as long as I can remember, my parents have always told me that I can do anything I want if I set my mind to it and work hard enough. When Madi and I discovered that palm oil was in Girl Scout cookies, I never doubted that if we worked hard enough we could convince our organization to change to deforestation-free palm oil that does not contribute to human rights abuses.
GF: Who are your role models? Why? What lessons did you learn from them?
Madison and Rhiannon: We look up to Dr. Jane Goodall as our hero and role model. Her groundbreaking work with the chimpanzees was what inspired us to research other endangered great apes, which was how we discovered the plight of the orangutan. Dr. Jane is a selfless, determined and passionate advocate who has spent the past fifty years of her life promoting conservation and spreading the message of peace to people around the world. Every time we have had the opportunity to hear her speak, Dr. Jane reminds us that every single day people impact on our planet, and that young people really can change the world.
Madison and Rhiannon: Our goal is to educate consumers about the destructive impacts of irresponsible palm oil production and to show them how their daily purchasing decisions have global impacts. Furthermore, we are hoping to work with consumers and companies to ensure that the palm oil in their products is produced in an environmentally-friendly and socially-responsible manner. We should not have to choose between purchasing our favorite products and contributing to grave social and environmental issues as a result of an unsustainable palm oil supply chain.
GF: What is the message you’d like to give to the world today?
Madison and Rhiannon: We would like to urge everyone to take a minute the next time you go to the grocery store to check your favorite products for palm oil. You might be shocked at how many cosmetics, candy bars and baked goods are contributing to rainforest destruction and human rights abuses because they contain unsustainable palm oil! Write a letter to the companies that produce your favorite products to let them know that you want them to adopt a deforestation-free policy! Once companies realize their consumers care, their policies will follow suit.
GF: What is the best leadership lesson you have learned?
Madison: One of the best leadership lessons I’ve learned is patience. Changing the policy of a huge organization like Girl Scouts USA took five years, and we have now spent a year convincing Girl Scouts USA to adopt a stronger deforestation-free policy. Activism can be draining, but my passion has fueled this cause for the past six years.
Rhiannon: I think that one of the most important leadership lessons I have learned is to accept failure as part of the process. Too often we allow our fear of failure to stand in the way of trying something new. A leader knows that it’s okay to fail. You can learn from your mistakes, pick yourself up and try again.
GF: What challenges and obstacles did you encounter and how did you deal with them?
Madison and Rhiannon: The largest challenge we have faced is that as young people we have had to fight to make our voices heard. But because we are youth, we have the luxury of imagining a vision that appears irrational and we can dream in a way that is not limited by an adult’s perspective. We have been able to turn our biggest weakness, our age, into a strength. Age, gender or background should not be limiting factors achieving your goals; if you have passion, you can change this world.
Madison: Everyone is passionate about something. The key to activism is identifying what it is exactly that moves you to action. For me, it was seeing the pictures of orangutans that had been burned to death after entering the palm oil plantations in search of food. I just couldn’t believe that this is happening, and that my favorite products were contributing to this kind of abuse, let alone the destruction of millions of acres of rainforest and human rights abuses. I would tell other girls to start small and grow big. Rhiannon and I began with a handmade poster board, and eventually grew our campaign to a national and international platform.
I would also like to share my favorite quote from Dr. Jane Goodall: “If you really want something, and really work hard, and take advantage of opportunities and never give up, you will find a way.”
For more information, people can check out Rhianon and Madison’s website: www.projectorangs.org, or follow them on Twitter: @Girlscout Honor or Facebook: Project ORANGS.
To learn more about their project, people can check out their Brower Youth Award Video.