Ever since she can remember, Maya Penn has always been passionate about sustainability and environmental issues.
With the fashion industry producing 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, Maya tapped into her love for art and fashion and grew passionate about finding sustainable alternatives. At only 8 years old, the Atlanta native started her own eco-fashion business – Maya’s Ideas. By the time she was 13, she gave three Ted Talks about environmental sustainability, and in all the years since she’s educated schools, businesses, nonprofits, and communities about how to build a more sustainable world, she says she’s learned an important lesson: “I’ve really learned about the power every individual has to make a difference.”
“When I started this project at 8 years old, I didn’t expect that it would lead to so many people being inspired to create their own type of change and make their own difference in the environment,” she said.
Now, at the age of 21, Maya has an impressive number of accolades under her belt. She was the youngest of the leaders in Oprah’s Supersoul’s 100 Entrepreneur, the 2016 recipient of Coretta Scott King A.N.G.E.L. Award, and she even animated a digital report to get an American Museum of Women’s History built in Washington, which was presented to Congress. She’s also taken her advocacy a step further by speaking out about environmental justice, diversity in sustainability, and the importance of including marginalized perspectives in climate solutions.
But the journey hasn’t always been easy.
“A lot of people perceive me as an anomaly of sorts. Black people aren’t genuinely represented in environmental activism – it’s something I’ve definitely felt, and I’ve been gatekept out of spaces.”
Maya combats these obstacles head-on with grace, persistence, and the knowledge that representation is everything. So when Maya receives a message from a young Black teen who says she finally sees herself represented in the field, “that’s what keeps me going more than anything,” she says. “I take that responsibility seriously, and that’s why I’m so passionate about uplifting marginalized voices.”
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Maya points out that sustainability cannot exist without diversity, stating that race and environmental issues actually overlap more than one might think.
“Environmental racism – something that’s been going on around the world for centuries and that’s a branch of systemic racism – shows up in the communities that people live in, and some of those neighborhoods are strategically placed near toxic places near a lot of air, noise, and water pollution. All of that being said, it’s really crucial to have that representation within that sustainability space, because these communities are most vulnerable and climate change is increasing.”
This increase in climate change is one of the most popular issues young people said they were concerned about during the last election. This concern has yielded a new phrase – eco-anxiety. As many youth express worries over what the future of this planet looks like, Maya suggests looking at the positive actions that are simultaneously happening to help ease one’s anxiety.
“We’re at a stage where environmental issues have increased in priority in recent years; we have new technologies and innovations that are tackling climate change. More people are learning that sustainability is necessary, activists are being heard, and we’re leaving an impact. While there’s a long way to go, there’s a lot to keep fighting for.”
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Maya also suggests taking time to prioritize your mental health and joy, to create spaces for yourself to just be, and to fight the urge to feel bad for doing so.
“We can almost guilt trip ourselves by just taking care of ourselves, and that’s really important not to do because joy actually fuels activism,” she said. “By taking time to take care of yourself, it increases the power you have to do work. One of the biggest goals of oppressive systems is to make us weary, to take our hope and joy from us, and make us feel jaded to a point where we can’t make a difference anymore, it makes it even more powerful to invest in yourself. It’s an act of rebellion.”
Some of Maya’s acts of rebellion consist of painting, drawing, baking, cooking vegan meals (Cooking a cashew cream tomato sauce and putting it on pasta is one of her favorite meals!), and spending time outside. She also her own animation production company and actively works with Black, Brown, and Indigenous artists to create environmentally-focused short films.
“I want to continue to utilize creative areas to not only speak to these topics but to also create communities and opportunities for marginalized creatives who have stories to tell but don’t have the platform to do so.”
This year, Maya additionally plans to continue to hone in on her nonprofit Maya’s Ideas 4 The Planet, in which she works on environmental and humanitarian projects such as donating eco-friendly sanitary pads to girls in local healthcare facilities and abroad in Haiti, Senegal, Cameroon, and Somalia. She’s also honed in on helping families impacted by food insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a solutions-based activist, Maya’s main focus is about getting the conversation started and having those deeply nuanced discussions about how to make things better in the world. With more people learning about sustainability and doing the small things to make a difference, she’s hopeful about the future and the generation she leads with.
“Having that hope and optimism is so important,” Maya said, “because if we didn’t have those, why would we be activists to begin with? We’re activists because even though there are so many exhausting and disheartening things happening in the world, we still have that hope that because we’re taking this action, we can truly make a difference.”