“Every single individual matters, every single individual makes some impact on the planet every single day, and we have a choice as to what kind of difference we’re going to make.” – Dr. Jane Goodall
On Earth Day 2018, millions of people around the world heard Jane’s message on Google’s Doodle video, but that evening I had the privilege of also hearing it from the renowned primatologist herself. At an event hosted by the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada (JGI Canada), I joined a sold-out audience to hear Jane talk about her life, her work, and her hopes for the future.
As a JGI Canada volunteer, I had the chance to greet some of the guests waiting outside before her lecture. They ranged from toddlers to senior citizens, and had travelled from all over eastern Canada and the US, but they all had one thing in common—they were excited to see Jane. Some arrived over two hours early to wait in line so they could snag the best seats once the doors opened.
Many guests, like myself, were long-time admirers of Jane. Chatting about our favorite articles and videos, I couldn’t help but wonder how her lecture would differ. But Jane in person was inspiring in a way that no amount of reading or screen-watching could ever achieve.
From the moment Jane walked onstage and carefully placed several stuffed animals on the lectern, she radiated comfort. There was no façade or stage persona, just Jane, unapologetically and wholeheartedly herself. She joked and improvised her way through technical glitches, and spoke openly and informally, as if in conversation with the audience.
Whether or not you were an admirer of Jane before her lecture, you were certainly one by the time you left. Her 84-year journey on Planet Earth has been incredible. At the age of 26, with no academic training, Jane set off to study chimpanzees in Tanzania. Over the following 25 years, she conducted pioneering research that fundamentally revolutionized how we define humans and our relationships with nature. In 1986, after attending a conference where global primatologists voiced their concerns about threats to chimpanzees and their habitats, Jane immediately left fieldwork to become an activist. Since then, she hasn’t spent more than 3 weeks in any one place. Instead, she travels over 300 days each year, spreading awareness and inspiring action for animals, people, and the environment.
While Jane mentioned these milestones, she also spoke candidly about the challenges she faced and her moments of doubt along the way. For instance, she became increasingly distraught as the chimpanzees continued to run away from her after weeks in Tanzania and her funding deadline loomed. She eventually gained their trust and achieved groundbreaking findings, only to be later told by Cambridge professors that she had done everything wrong by giving the chimpanzees names and talking about their emotions. But she overcame her initial dismay to dispute their claims thanks to a great teacher—her dog, Rusty. Especially in the age of rose-tinted social media, Jane’s candidness was inspiring. It empowers others to persist through their own difficulties and doubts.
Even more moving was Jane’s opening tribute to the person who helped her through these challenges and influenced who she is today—her mother. Jane says she was born loving nature, but she credits her mother with nurturing that love and helping to set her along her path. She gave numerous examples of her mother’s support. For example, when the British embassy told Jane that she couldn’t travel to Tanzania without a companion, her mother overcame her own fears to join Jane. But it was one story from Jane’s childhood that really stuck with me:
When Jane was 4 ½ years old, her family left their London city home for a holiday at a farm. Jane was tasked with collecting eggs from hen houses. As a curious child, she wondered where the eggs came from, since she couldn’t see a hole big enough in the hen, but no one would give her a straight answer when asked. So Jane decided to find out for herself. Initially, she tried following a hen into its house, but after the hen quickly flew back out, Jane crawled into an empty hen house and waited for over 4 hours. Her family, unaware of her whereabouts, was so worried that they called the police. When Jane finally came running back, excited and covered in straw, her mother sat her down and instead of scolding her, asked Jane what she’d learnt.
Reflecting on the hen story, Jane sees all the makings of a little scientist—“curiosity, asking questions, not getting the right answer, deciding to find out for yourself, making a mistake, not giving up, and learning patience.” She insists that without a supportive mother, her curiosity may have never flourished and her entire life journey would have been very different.
Today, she and other passionate mentors help to empower and nurture the curiosity of other young scientists through the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots program. Jane started the program in an effort to spread hope. As she travelled around the world, most young people she met were depressed, angry, or apathetic about the state of the planet. They believed that older generations had compromised their future and they felt hopeless to change it.
Adopting Jane’s holistic approach to conservation, Roots & Shoots encourages youth to view themselves as part of nature and empowers them to lead change for people, animals, and the environment. Each group decides what kind of difference they’re going to make by reconnecting with nature, exploring their interests, choosing a topic they’re passionate about, and developing a plan to take action.
Having witnessed what young people’s energy and passion have achieved to date, Jane calls Roots & Shoots her ‘greatest reason for hope’. When youth ask her for advice on how to accomplish their dreams, she tells them the same thing her mother told her when she was 10 years old and everyone laughed at her own dream of going to Africa to live with wild animals—“if you really want something, you’ll have to work very hard, take advantage of opportunity, and never give up”.
What kind of difference do you want to make?