Recently I had the once-in-a-lifetime moment to listen as Dr. Jane Goodall, returning to the United States in what may be one of her final tours, regaled a capacity crowd with her life story. The environmental icon of our time, Dr. Jane Goodall, talked about her childhood curiosity and the support of her mother, who allowed earthworms into the house and followed her to Tanzania, where at age 26 Jane made the groundbreaking discovery that chimpanzees have similar social behaviors to humans. Her life’s work has forever transformed human understanding of our relationship with the rest of the animal kingdom.
Listening to her in the twilight of a chapel at the University of Maryland, I am awed. Jane remains the trailblazer that inspired many of us to do our elementary school biography presentations on her life's work. A UN Messenger of Peace and the Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), Dr. Goodall is a world-renowned ethologist and conservation activist whose transformative research began 62 years ago in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, and continues today as the longest-running wild chimpanzee study in the world. Her unique gift is her ability to draw us in-never have so many sat on hard wooden pews, riveted. She took us back to her childhood, where at age four, on a summer holiday in rural England, her determination to learn where the egg came out of the hen flamed her insatiable curiosity to ask how and why. Though she dreamed of studying animals in faraway Africa, without funds, she took a job after high school as a secretary, relegated to pushing back an old typewriter carriage instead of swinging through the forest with Tarzan. But when an opportunity to travel to Kenya to visit a friend arose, she jumped. And the rest is history. After sailing for weeks, Jane arrived in Mombasa, where she met famed archeologist Louis Leakey, who coincidentally needed a secretary! Jane beamed and quickly talked her way in. From there, she pushed to join him in his field research on chimpanzees in Tanzania, traveled back to England to seek funding for the trip, and returned in 1960 with her mother in tow after talking the British authorities into allowing a single girl on such an expedition, something that was unheard of at the time. Going beyond her assistant duties, Jane escaped into her beloved forest, spending days crouched on a peak with her binoculars, patiently watching young chimps learn from their mothers and slowly earning their trust as she studied their culture.
Dr. Jane’s discoveries “forced science to emerge from its reductionist way of thinking.” While no other animal has our capacity to manipulate our environment through the development and use of technology, her findings insist we acknowledge that “we are not the only thinking beings on the planet.” Jane purposely avoids scientific jargon that loses the public, and though her claim that animals have feelings and her plain-jane authoring of her research was initially mocked, her work slowly took hold and took off. Jane is the consummate storyteller - frank, funny, and undeniably authentic - she paints a picture of a beautiful world more than sixty years ago, where wild animals roam abundantly through the Tanzanian brush, the night sky is smog-free and filled with nothing but stars, and hope abounds. Among even the most dispassionate, her story ignites a desperate longing to want to turn back time. And for one moment, she gives us a gift - leading us back into the astonishing forests of Gombe, where one girl with a dream and a discovery changes the world.
But in 1977, inhumane animal research and animal trafficking compelled Dr. Goodall to transition from research to activism. She founded the Jane Goodall Institute, advocating 300 days a year across the globe for animal rights, environmental education, community conservation, and reforestation. In 1991, Tanzania youth gathered under the night sky on her camp’s wooden porch in Gombe, expressing how powerless they felt against the problems in the world around them. Jane taught them the message she still inspires today: “The solution is right in front of us. It is within our power and our will to create change.” And from that, the Roots & Shoots program was born, empowering youth to take action in our communities to better the world around us. Her program, now 97 countries and more than 63,000 youth strong, has created a path for her ideals to live on. Since then, millions of youth worldwide have taken on her challenge of making the world a better place. Her life’s work stands as a testament that “the youth are not only the future - they are the present - and they are changing the world.”
At 88, she still asks questions. “How do we alleviate poverty so people can make the right choices and stop destroying the environment?” “How do we get consumers to realize they don’t need all the stuff they accumulate?” And she lays bare the essential question: “Our brain is more evolved than chimps; we have language, we have electronic communications, we have put people on the moon. How is it then that the creature with the most extraordinary intellect ever is destroying its own home?” Her quiet voice, her strong words, boom through the chapel in Maryland. “Unending economic growth will collapse society.” Six words, none truer, none more unappealable to growth-oriented society. Jane acknowledges the outlook now for us is grim. A disquieting fear blankets the audience, reminding us that continued population explosion, industrialization, and materialism has brought us a long way from the natural world she cherished in her youth.
But Jane ends with what she does best: she gives us hope. As the evening closes down on the chapel in Maryland, Jane does what she calls “a Jane sandwich,” inviting Dr. Lilian Pintea to the stage to share a forest restoration story of Kigalye Village in Tanzania. As Dr. Pintea talks, Jane drags a chair, hoping to sit inconspicuously off to the side, but the cameras continue to flash, tracking her every move. Determined to have her audience pay attention to the message that “through care and time, nature can come back,” she quickly rises from her seat, squeezes herself sideways between two pillars, and escapes the cameras by climbing spryly over wires and down from the stage. Sliding next to me into the front row pew, she succeeds in her mission to get all eyes off her and onto the stage, where Dr. Pintea continues. I loved that moment. Eyes forward, with her next to me, I smiled to myself. I could see her clearly as a young girl in the Gombe forest, climbing stealthily through the brush to observe her beloved chimps.
Afterward, she invites a small group of youth to sit with her, reminiscent of the days on her front porch in Gombe. Cross-legged on the floor and strewn across stuffed sofas, we share our fears and hopes for the planet with her. Recalling the incredible beauty of the Tanzanian night sky, she turns off the lights, calls us by name, and listens. In that hour, we don’t solve the climate crisis or reverse the ecological collapse happening around us. But as we talk, we realize she is right: “We each have the power to make a difference. It is up to us to choose what difference we want to make in this world.”
Jane Goodall graces us with her story and her life. She remains a global icon, spreading hope and turning it into meaningful positive impact to create a better world for people, other animals, and the planet we share. Her story will always represent the promise of change for the better that exists in perseverance and in science. Racing to catch my plane out of DC to head back to Miami, ground zero facing sea-level rise in America, Jane’s words ring in my ears: “if you really want something, you’re going to have to work awfully hard and take advantage of every opportunity.”
Live in her footprint.
Ask hard questions.
Push for answers.
Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) and UN Messenger of Peace, is a world-renowned ethologist, conservation activist, mentor, and peacemaker. Beginning with her transformative chimpanzee research 62 years ago in Gombe, Tanzania, Dr. Goodall has built an international community of action fueled by hope, inspiring, collaborating, and educating us all to achieve a harmonious world. A firm believer that “we have the choice to use the gift of our life to make the world a better place,” Jane’s own life story stands as a call to action.
Will Charouhis is a 16-year-old environmental changemaker from Miami, Florida, founding the nonprofit We Are Forces of Nature to halt climate change the year he became a teenager after Hurricane Irma flooded his city. He serves on the USA Roots & Shoots National Youth Leadership Council for The Goodall Institute, leading the project “A Million Mangroves: Halting Climate Change One Root at a Time.” Catching up with Will back in Miami, he tells us: Dr. Goodall is a muse to my generation. Her life’s work stands as a call to action. Ours is the last generation who can save the planet. We can-and we will.”