Q+A with Rhiannon Tomtishen, Environmental Advocate and Global Citizen

Our fourth and final GOTR Alum, Rhiannon Tomtishen is truly an inspiration. She’s already won a UN award for her work, spoken on countless major news networks and events, and provided leadership and guidance to many leading organizations – and she’s only 19! This advocate for environmental issues and global female, particularly youth, empowerment is exactly the kind of woman who makes us want to be the best version of ourselves. We are so excited and honored to feature Rhiannon. Here’s to finding your joy, pursuing your purpose, and truly making the world a better place.

The Basics

  • Age: 19
  • Location: Ann Arbor, MI (currently a student at Stanford, CA)
  • Field of Interest: Academically, international relations. Advocacy-wise, girl/youth empowerment and helping every individual understand the impact their daily decisions have on communities and environments across the globe. In my personal life, ice hockey, traveling, experiencing new cultures, reading.
  • What Inspired You Today? I am so incredibly lucky to have been exposed to a wide range of role models from a young age. Learning about powerful leaders, such as Dr. Jane Goodall, and having daily contact with incredible women, such as my mother, motivated me to pursue my passions with determination and courage.
  • What’s Your Favorite Thing About Yourself? I am proud of my ability to push myself outside of my comfort zone. Whether it was signing up as an assistant coach for Girls on the Run despite the fact I’ve never considered myself a runner, or agreeing to speaking engagements about my environmental advocacy work in front of hundreds despite a fear of public speaking, I constantly challenge myself to attempt new things and to push myself past my current limits.

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Questions + Answers

You’ve achieved some pretty incredible things at a very young age, most notably, successfully campaigning to have the Girl Scouts work with deforestation-free sources. You’ve been featured by major media outlets for your work. Could you share the biggest lesson you learned on your journey to achieving that win?

[The Girl Scouts] adopted a sustainability policy in 2012 that was a step in the right direction, but although one of their two bakers has committed to deforestation-free sourcing, the Girl Scout organization itself has not yet adopted such a policy.

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There are so many lessons that I’ve learned along the way, but perhaps the most important is that everyone has the ability to change the world. Regardless of age, gender, or background, we all have a voice. If you see a problem in your community, local or global, stand up and make your voice heard! With enough passion, dedication and perseverance, anything is possible.

Was the Girl Scouts organization supportive of your initiative to remove palm oil from the cookies?

We were fortunate enough to have an extremely supportive local Girl Scout Council, but unfortunately Girl Scouts USA (the national organization) was not quite as receptive to our message. It took five years of campaigning, tens of thousands of emails from supporters, and appearances in several large national media outlets to finally secure a meeting with GSUSA executives.

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Though the sustainability policy they adopted was a great first step, GSUSA did not do enough to ensure that Girl Scout cookies do not contribute to rainforest destruction and human rights abuses.

They had an incredible opportunity to be a leader in the industry but instead chose to purchase GreenPalm certificates to offset their use of unsustainable palm oil, placing a very misleading sustainability logo on every single cookie box, as opposed to ensuring that the ingredients in their products are environmentally-safe and socially-responsible.

While there are a lot of troubling things in this world, not many actually take action. What inspires you to take a stand, even when the odds seem stacked against you?

When I first began researching the palm oil issue with Project ORANGS co-founder, Madison Vorva, we heard chilling stories and saw photos of the horrific destruction in Southeast Asia. We knew that we couldn’t sit by and do nothing and, thus, our campaign began with a single home-made poster board.

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I think the most important thing to remember is to start small and grow big. It can be overwhelming to look at all of the causes in today’s world and not have any idea where to start; when global problems seem so large and complex, it’s easy to question the impact you, as a single individual, can have. Though Madi and I dreamed of changing the Girl Scout organization, we began making presentations in our local community and from there grew to have the national platform we do today.

Pick a cause that speaks to you and “think global, act local”. Start with small manageable steps and with passion and dedication, a project can grow to have immeasurable national and global impacts.

When you’re pursuing something, be it a big international change or a good grade on a test, what do you think is most important to helping you succeed?

I think the key to my success, whether academic, environmental, or personal, has been confidence. I am so fortunate to have grown up in a household where my parents instilled me with a belief that I could be anyone and do anything.

When I came home from sixth grade one day and told my parents that I was going to change Girl Scout cookies, they never once questioned my ability to do so. My family even stopped purchasing products with palm oil – despite my two younger brothers’ initial disappointment as their favorite foods disappeared from our pantry shelves! I’m not sure that they ever imagined us ending up where we are today, but if they did, they never verbalized it.

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My later activities, such as Girls on the Run and joining Jane Goodall’s National Roots & Shoots Youth Leadership Council, further maintained and built my self-confidence. I go into tasks with the knowledge that with enough hard work and determination, I can accomplish anything. And though I’ve suffered my fair share of disappointments, in all aspects of my life, I know to learn from my mistakes and keep moving forward towards my goal.

Do you see yourself continuing to be involved in advocacy in the future? If so, what initiatives are you involved in?

Absolutely, I can’t imagine the day that I stop being involved in advocacy work! One of my favorite quotes is “Activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet” by Alice Walker.

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I remain very passionate about the palm oil issue and empowering young people (especially girls) to follow their passions to create change. During a gap year last year, I spent several months in Ghana and there became very interested in sustainable community development. I am currently coordinating an Advisory Board for a primary school I volunteered at there, as well as working with a friend to start a project that will support women’s economic advancement.

Fill in the Blank: Without Girls on the Run, I wouldn’t_____.

Without Girls on the Run, I wouldn’t have the incredible memories I do of running, laughing, and learning beside other incredible girls. I learned just as much during fifth grade as a participant in Girls on the Run as I did throughout middle school and high school serving as an assistant coach. Girls on the Run isn’t just about training to complete a 5k race, it’s also about learning how to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

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Who inspires you?

I am inspired by female leaders like Dr. Jane Goodall, my fellow Roots & Shoots Youth Leadership Council members, including Molly Paul, and other youths, like Avalon Thieson, advocating for causes they’re passionate about.

+ Know any other amazing advocates who inspire you to be your best self? Tell us all about them!
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