GeoInspirations: Madison Vorva — A Voice for Change

By Joseph J. Kerski

Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this month's edition of GeoInspirations. Today Dr. Joseph Kerski introduces us to a young woman who is still in the early stages of her career, yet is already one of our industry's most inspiring voices — Madison Vorva.

I learned about Madison Vorva many years ago, given that her global efforts to prevent deforestation through food sustainability began at a surprisingly young age — age 11. When my colleague David DiBiase met her she was studying environmental analysis at Pomona College, and graciously accepted his invitation to speak at that year’s Esri GIS Education conference. At the conference, I (and I think everyone in the room) was amazed by her vision and energy. We had great respect for the practical steps she made in realizing that vision — even when the going got difficult — with the result of making a positive difference in this world. She has accomplished much in her 21 years.

Madison worked with the Girl Scouts and many other organizations to end harmful palm oil farming practices that destroy forests and crucial orangutan habitats. She was honored among the United Nations’ first group of Forest Heroes in 2012. I had the privilege of interviewing Madison on her last day as our education intern at Esri in 2016. It is my hope that, after reading some of her story, you agree that she merits inclusion as a GeoInspiration. 

Madison's career aspirations began while playing with her brothers in the woods behind their house in southeastern Michigan. "There, we had little adult supervision and few rules — we had to use our imagination. We played in the creek and I learned to not fear crawfish, frogs, toads and bugs. Soon I could identify many species of animals, insects, trees and flowers. A photograph of me at the Fort Wayne Children’s zoo at age six shows my face pressed up against the glass of the orangutan exhibit, fascinated,” she said.

As Madison spoke about her experiences along the creek as a young person, I was reminded of Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods. In that book, he advocates precisely the lifestyle Madison lived, as a way to help the current generation value and protect the environment — by experiencing it, repeatedly, and in its natural form -- as a young person.

“Jane Goodall is the person that most convinced me to pursue a career in environmental policy and science," Madison continued. "I met her in grade seven at a Roots & Shoots conference in Chicago and presented my poster about orangutans to her. There, Dr. Jane signed my petition to source sustainable palm oil in Girl Scout cookies. Later, I served on the Roots & Shoots National Youth Leadership Council and was selected as the Youth Speaker at Jane Goodall’s 80th Birthday. That was an incredible honor. Since October 2015 I have served on the board of the Jane Goodall Institute.” 

Madison credits a high school physics class with being the most influential part of her journey so far.

“My teacher found a way to integrate physics into daily life. I don’t get into a vehicle to this day without thinking about forces and velocity. I learned from that class that when you are teaching, if you can connect your content to what your students are experiencing in their everyday world, then they will relate to it and remember the content. When I’m teaching kids now, I make my instruction as personalized as possible so that it actually matters to them.” 

That physics was her most influential class was surprising to me, but I loved what she said about making your instruction meaningful to others’ by tying it to their everyday experience. There is no geography department at Pomona College where she is currently studying, but I believe that she is living and breathing many of the core tenets that geographers hold dear: that scale matters, that the Earth is changing, that economics, politics, and cultural and physical geography are intertwined in complex ways, and that geographic thinking is critical to help us understand the Earth and to make wiser decisions.

“My environmental courses further reinforced what I believe in, in terms of how environmental issues are so intertwined with social issues and institutions. My politics, history and economics classes helped me understand the social rules that shape our communities and values, and the impact those communities and values have on the environment,” Madison continued.

“In terms of tools, GIS has influenced me because it has greatly supplemented my environmental research and communication. If you can visualize an environmental issue or theme clearly, that makes you a better advocate, and that’s what GIS allows me to do. I have come so far with GIS since 2014. My first project was to geocode those who had signed my petition on I remember how amazing it was to finally see the global impact of what I was involved in on a map. Now I am particularly interested in geodesign — the connection it offers between GIS, planning, geography and the environmental sciences. I intend to attend the GeoDesign Summit at Esri in January 2017, and the Esri Oceans Summit this October as well.”

Among her many accomplishments, it is that very first of which she is still most proud — Project ORANGS, her Girl Scout cookie campaign. "It took up eight years – I’m 21 years old now so it was almost half of my life. What began as a poster board presentation grew into an international platform. Its impact changed the entire palm oil industry. After years of campaigning, in 2014, Kellogg, the world's leading cereal company, agreed to use 'fully traceable palm oil, produced in a manner that's environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable.' That same year, Wilmar, trader of 45% of the world’s palm oil supply, adopted a deforestation-free policy too. This was a team effort involving students of all ages, nonprofit organizations, companies, climate scientists and consumers. The advocacy began not with deforestation but a product contributing to it – palm oil. That focus allowed me to understand the development issues associated with industrial scale agriculture, from a human rights perspective, as well as the political complexities across regions and across communities. It helped me to understand the importance of community-centered conservation too.” Since then, Madison has become involved in community-driven learning. She traveled to Singapore and Malaysia as a student at Pomona to understand the environmental issues facing the region.

“There is an assumption that environmental activism is only for a certain kind of person but it shouldn’t be that way: Everyone wants clean water and healthy communities. Nobody wants extinction of species. Let’s begin these conversations without blaming others and move forward by working towards consensus,” she said. “We also need to keep moving toward ways that will help more people understand what GIS is so that they will want to use it in their own work. This means helping people understand the theory and practice of it, to lower the learning curve, and to get around vocabulary that might cause barriers.”

What is her advice to younger members of the geospatial community?

“When I was eleven, I naively thought I would solve deforestation. When you are new to things, the problems can be either simplified or overwhelming. Start small and grow big. By 2015, 90 per cent of palm oil traded internationally is bound under some sort of deforestation commitment. Isn’t that amazing?”

“When Jane Goodall signed my petition to the Girl Scouts, she crossed out what I had written, and changed it from no palm oil in cookies to 'palm oil grown in a sustainable manner.' That made a big impression on me. It showed me the value of being practical and forward thinking, to work with stakeholders, to be diplomatic, and to understand all sides of an issue.”

“Don’t neglect the importance of cultural knowledge in your physical geography or environmental work. For example, even though I quoted the 90% figure above in terms of palm oil, unless implementation takes place on the ground, that figure is just that — a figure on paper. Truly partnering with communities is essential. “

“Find those mentors who can help you — don’t be afraid to ask questions. Seek out conversations with a variety of people, especially those who have different positions than you. In my meetings with palm oil stakeholders — and there were far more stakeholders than I initially realized — I learned from those all along the supply chain, and how each perspective fit into the industry,” Madison concluded.

Madison also mentioned as we spoke that she read When the Killing's Done, a 2011 novel by T. C. Boyle about conservation in the Channel Islands of California. It made her think about the question, “Is conservation leaving something alone or intervening to restore nature?” It shows that she is practicing what she is preaching — asking questions, being thoughtful and taking action — and all the while, she is pursuing her academic and professional pathway.

Published Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

Written by Joseph J. Kerski

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