June 29, 2016

Annabelle Pendlebury

It can be tough having your voice heard and taking part in meaningful action as a young person. Yet, despite this challenging reality, it is still very much possible.

This is exactly the message that the inspiring guest speaker Thomas King, just 19-years-old, shared with everyone at the 2016 Banyule Youth Summit last month. He said that if you ever notice something concerning going on within society, or perhaps even within your own local community, one way you can try to motivate yourself to do something about that injustice is by asking “Is this right?”

“A number of years ago I learned about something that was happening in the world and asked myself the question, is this right?”


In 2010, at just 13-years-of-age, Thomas became motivated to make the world a better place after witnessing on television the terrible destruction to wildlife that the palm oil industry was causing. He decided to do something about it by creating the website, Say No To Palm Oil. This initiative has received global recognition and popularity.

The palm oil industry is contributing to mass environmental degradation and the deforestation that is occurring is forcing many species into extinction. The World Wildlife Fund predicts that wild orangutans will be extinct within five to ten years, if we keep going at our current rate.

“Palm oil lies hidden in half of all supermarket products we purchase each week,” Thomas says.

It is found in some very surprising household products, including “paint” and is also found in pretty much “all of your body washes!”

Thomas says he had been touched by the story of Kesi, a baby orangutan who no longer had a home after her native forest was wiped out due to the palm oil industry and this triggered his drive for change.

“Soon after launching the site, it was already reaching thousands of people and not just from Australia. There were people from Argentina, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, Canada, Japan and Fiji. Say No to Palm Oil had gone worldwide. By 2013 it was receiving half a million visitors each year from about 200 counties all over the world.

As Thomas’ story highlights, anything really is possible with a little determination, no matter your age. According to Thomas, the key is to be inspired and guided by your individual values and work towards something that you are passionate about.

“You might always play sport by the rules and so therefore value fairness… Or, you might believe that others, whether they be human or animal, deserve to be treated with respect and so you therefore value justice. This was a particular value that led me to get involved with this issue.”

Thomas also says that no matter your background, simply having determination and commitment can be enough to propel you into the field of your choice.

Thomas’ website was a success but he recounts, “I wanted to get involved further. So, I decided to reach out to people who were already working in the field. With some well-refined cyber stalking skills I started networking like crazy. I started as a volunteer for different organisations. I was made an ambassador for a few groups.”

“Then, I was fortunate enough to receive funding to actually go to the Island of Borneo where this is happening and live with indigenous communities that are fighting these logging and palm oil corporations. I was also fortunate enough to be the keynote speaker at the Australian Youth Summit for Jane Goodall, the woman who lived with and studies chimpanzees in Tanzania and is a UN Messenger of Peace.”

“These opportunities to make an even greater impact only came about because I put myself out there and proved to people that this was an issue I cared about.”

“This all stemmed from me asking, and answering, that simple question, is this right? I think that these three words are profoundly important because they can mean the difference between letting an injustice occur and pushing for change that needs to happen in alignment with your values.”

Thomas’ efforts have meant that he has gone from being “just a regular young person from Melbourne” to landing a prime job with Animals Australia as a youth engagement and campaign officer and is headed down a rewarding career path in animal rights.

However, Thomas says he often feels disheartened that as a young person who is interested in creating change, many people consider him to be an outlier.

“Over time, there was one thing that I got really, really tired of being told: ‘You’re so amazing’. That’s a lovely thing to be told – but, it made me wonder why is it that a young person, simply standing up for something that they believe in, is so unexpected that they are often considered to be ‘wonderful’?”

“In our society, the bar can often be set quite low, in particular for young people. We are sent the message that, as one person, we can only do so much.”

“I will admit to feeling like, as a young person, I could not possibly do anything towards helping solve what seemed like such enormous issues in our world. It’s a really disheartening and disempowering frame of mind to be in.”

But, the moral of the story? Challenge the standards that society sets us.

“The idea that we as individuals can’t make a difference is crap.”

“I still get asked, do you actually think that you can make a difference? My answer is no. I know we can make a difference. We severely underestimate our power as individuals.”

It is important to remember that even though we may be young, we still have the power to make a difference. It’s up to all of us to seize that power and, ultimately, seize the future.

– Annabelle Pendlebury

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