From left to right, Lance Bass, Frances Fisher, Odessa Adlon, Jaden Smith, Debbie Levin and Gideon Adlon. All photographs are courtesy of EMA.
For nearly two decades Debbie Levin has been a driving force in raising awareness for the environment through the organization, the Environmental Media Association (EMA). In her role as president she has created the EMA awards in L.A, engaging with the new generation in the entertainment industry to get involved and be more conscious towards planet earth.
Interview by Guru Ramanathan.
I’ve been following my life’s passion for nearly 20 years, having the privilege of leading EMA as the storytellers for the environment. What I really am when not being an “Eco-Warrior” is obsessively in love with my family, which includes my beautiful 4 grandchildren.
What you do, in your own terms?
Honestly… everything. Unless you’re functioning with authenticity and “in your own terms” no one will buy it. Because I’m in this stage of life, my passion is right up front and I don’t have time for anything less than honesty and integrity from who we surround ourselves with. It’s one of the perks of not being as young anymore. Ha!
How has your life influenced your activism? How environmentally conscious were you prior to being a part of EMA?
I was a young mom…Everything that I do and am, is informed by the love I have for my children and the earth that we are leaving to our next generations. Being lucky enough to have grandchildren, I’m reminded every day how precious our natural resources are and that if my generation doesn’t change the choices that they make regarding sustainability, our babies and their babies will be living on an Earth that none of us would recognize. That’s why I’m an activist.
I wasn’t an environmentalist growing up. Honestly, I had no idea what that really was. As a young mom in the 80’s, a recycling bin was delivered to my house. It was a rectangle yellow bin about the size that would fit a week of flat newspapers and maybe a can. I got very excited. I recycled everything I could get my hands on. I was rinsing glass containers, soup cans, I was even rinsing plastic straws knowing something must be off about using those things just once. I wasn’t sure what the real problem with landfills were, but I was into it.
There was no messaging in the media to tell us that all was not right on this planet. Most of us literally, had no clue that the hormones in our milk and the pesticides in our produce had chemicals that not only were we unable to pronounce, but side effects that we couldn’t even fathom. Just like most people in my generation, we were clueless…..
How did you get involved with EMA? How has it grown under your leadership?
Late in 1999, I was invited to a luncheon. I thought it sounded fun and sat down at the table and listened. The mission of this organization seemed to me, to be the most urgent and important thing in the world. The environment… our world… was becoming stripped and destroyed by human activity. Our homes were filled with toxins and dangerous chemicals. The cars we drove were spitting out fumes that we were ingesting and causing catastrophic illness throughout the globe. Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t most of us know? Because we needed a voice. We needed a lot of voices. Somehow, I asked too many questions to the EMA Board Chair that I happened to be seating next to. He asked me to lunch the next day…. After 2 hours, I was the new CEO of an organization that I had no experience running, no clue about the intricacies of the environmental world and no more organizational experience other than running committees at my kids’ schools.
What are some major strategies you have implemented in the past few years that have proven successful in bringing environmental awareness?
I think bringing the entertainment community into the mix with entrepreneurs, scientists, the academic world, innovators… all of that has created an alchemy of magic that is way more than the sum of its parts. The EMA IMPACT Summit, going into our third year speaks to the solutions that we urgently need to help our planet move into the green economy. I also believe very strongly that aligning with major corporations in every sector and promoting their sustainable mandates and achievements to the public will create an atmosphere of supporting those companies that are leaders in the sustainability world. Whether it’s automotive like Toyota or an entrepreneur like John Paul DeJoria, cleaning products like ECOS, or essential and affordable fashion like H&M, there are leaders that have environmental responsibility as part of their DNA for decades and decades. Telling their story is a way to encourage consumers to read labels, go to a website and be informed about the companies that we support.
Your website displays your financial information (where you are spending your money) — could you explain the importance of being transparent with your audience?
As a non profit, it’s our responsibility to be transparent with how we work. For EMA, it’s a bit hard to translate our allocations because we are an education and messaging organization, therefore we need “messengers” as the talent to properly do our job. But as I said earlier… authenticity and transparency are essential to be able to maintain the trust we’ve had for nearly 30 years.
Currently watching/reading/listening to:
I was very excited to begin to watch “The Romanoffs” because I was a monster “Mad Men” fan. And my guilty pleasure is “This Is Us.” Listening? Well, Jaden Smith of course!
Founder Debbie Levin with Jaden Smith.
When you’re not working to save the environment, we can find you:
With my kids and grandkids….. always. Happiness is a weekly sleepover with one at a time. (They take turns.)
What is a simple thing people can do in their lives to make a big difference in saving the environment?
NEVER go shopping without your own bags, NEVER drink from plastic water bottles (JUST Water is made with paper bottles and sugar cane caps!), NEVER buy cleaning products with chemicals, READ ALL FOOD LABELS and if you can’t read it, don’t buy it!
What are the EMA’s?
The EMA’s are several things. The organization is most simply, the voice for the environment. We use the entertainment industry and talent as the storytellers for our earth to educate and motivate the global public to be informed and take actions to help climate change and protect our natural resources. The EMA Awards are kind of like the Golden Globes but all about environmental content. Very fun, very sexy, but very inspiring.
Explain the mission of #GreenMySchool.
We plant organically grown edible gardens in “at risk” schools giving each school their own celebrity mentor. We also do a ton of press so that we can role model for kids all across the country that they too can have a garden in their school.
Levin, with Lance Bass at Eastside Elementary School, in Clinton, Mississippi.
Can you talk about the importance of being able to bring about social impact regardless of the field you are working in?
Being an advocate for social impact and personal responsibility is the most important thing any of us can do. With the ability to communicate on a global level instantly with the technology that we have now, positive, empowering impact can change millions (if not billions) instantly.
How has the depiction of environmental issues changed in the past decade?
Massively!!! When I took over EMA in 2000, it was not something that was discussed mainstream. Now… whether you understand that climate change is happening at record speed or not, you do know that clean energy, upcycling products, new “green” technology is our future. Although still (and even more) politicized, the globe is united in that new ways to create energy and reuse waste is the issue for our generations.
Do you think awareness of environmental issues has increased over the years? Why?
By about a million percent! And because of EMA of course!
What does the word “sustainable” mean to you?
It’s a word that’s being used too often. It’s a hugely important word. Sustainability means that something is keeping quality and usefulness beyond a simple use. Reuse whatever it is… Because it’s become a buzz word, I think it’s lost its true magic. Because sustainable practices are really what the creatures on our earth have been doing since “day one.”
What message do you have for people who want to become activists?
You can wake up tomorrow and be an activist by using your voice on your social platforms, making conscious and informed consumer decisions and feeling empowered that your choices matter for the future. They do. Think about what our world would be if everyone took the responsibility to be the role model they believe in.
Who is an eco warrior in your life (a person who inspires you, who you look up to)
My Board members are my eco warriors. They are passionate, tireless and the best people on our planet.
What are your long term and short term goals for the organization?
Is global domination too big? We are moving towards a serious global presence. Stay tuned….
How are you an Eco Warrior?
Being true to my beliefs and sharing graciously.
My mission is…a green economy and a safe, sustainable earth for my grandchildren’s grandchildren.