Growing up, Sarah Toumi, a French-born Tunisian woman, would spend time with her extended family in Tunisia. During one visit, she remembers sharing with her cousins her dream of becoming an astronaut when she finished school. She then asked them about their dreams.
Her three cousins, all girls, said that they were dropping out of school because there was no bus to take them. The high school was 12 km away and it was too dangerous to go by foot. Sarah remembers thinking, “How is that possible? I can become what I want because the school is close by and everything is open in front of me.” There had to be a way to get a bus for them. So Sarah enlisted her father’s support and set up her first organization to help children in her family’s village and beyond have access to learning opportunities in and outside of school. She was 11 years old.
Now at 29, Sarah is leading Acacias for All, a movement to curb desertification in rural communities across Tunisia. She introduces alternative crops, like Acacia trees, which help farmers increase their income while restoring the quality of their soils. Sarah’s initial program in Bir Salah with 300 farmers and rural craftswomen demonstrated an average 60% increase in income. She is now expanding the work to half of Tunisia’s provinces with 100,000 trees planted. Sarah’s aim is to change the way farmers and policy leaders alike approach climate change mitigation from a low-priority, costly endeavor to the core strategy for improving rural livelihoods.
What made it possible for Sarah to do this? Sarah’s early changemaking experience was critical to where she is today. “When you start early, you learn how to work with others and solve problems. . . I didn’t know I was a ‘changemaker’, but I was sure I was going to be an actor of change.” From an early age, Sarah’s parents involved her in their own purpose-driven work. “It was normal for us to take time for others,” Sarah remembers. “We didn’t always understand everything but we had exposure.” Her teachers also gave her the space to be creative and curious, encouraging her to do extra-curricular research projects on topics she was interested in and present them back to the class.
Within 4 years of starting her organization, Bir Salah had a bus to take kids to school and seven years after that, they had their own high school. Today, all of Sarah’s younger cousins are in school including several who attend universities. Sarah has taken one cousin in particular under her wing, involving him in meeting with rural communities and accompanying her when she speaks at youth forums. According to Sarah, it is critical to give young people today the kind of exposure and support that her parents and teachers gave to her. “For those who think that their children will become successful if they simply become a doctor or lawyer, they are wrong. Their children will be completely out of the game.”
Sarah sees the world her young cousins are growing up in as unstable and frightening at times with extremism, terrorism and climate change. “But young people have the ability to dream without constraints. They are connected, have access to information, can travel and talk to people who are different, and talk across continents. What they need is support from my generation and older to gain the skills and motivation to believe in themselves, do things and try.”