In conversation : Maya Penn on Sustainability and Systemic Change

Stories of transformation from Laos and beyond in the words of leaders taking on contemporary issues through business, creativity, and advocacy.

On the definition of success : is not only when you meet your goals, but also when you help other people achieve theirs...

That's always been such a huge core of not only my work, but just how I move through the world. Being a young entrepreneur, activist artist and building this career but also being a young woman of color.
All of these things have made me very, aware of how important it is to reach back into support and to lift up others as much as possible. Everyone has knowledge, experience, more stories that can impact or help educate or help lift up others.
This time that we're in, every single person is being asked to do their part to help in this fight. Whether that is by staying home, or by trying to support your local communities, support health care workers, to support people who are in lower income communities. Being more aware of what can they do to help or, reaching out to others to receive help. All of those, those elements are really being brought to the forefront.
- Maya Penn, Animator and CEO


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.

Elizabeth Suda discusses Sustainability and Systemic Change with Maya Penn, Animator and CEO


Liz 0:01

Yay, cool. I love the way you were your ARTICLE22.


Maya 0:07

Thank you. And then of course I have my Iittle design, ya know to represent.


Liz 0:18

That's right. That's right. I, I can't believe it. I'm at my parents place on Long Island, and it's where I grew up. Normally I have a stash of jewelry here and in Brooklyn where I live, but I consolidated just before.


Maya 0:37

Oh wow.


Liz 0:39

Before COVID-19 crisis. And so now pretty much everything is in Brooklyn. And so I've been wearing


Oh wow.


the same pair, so it feels really weird not to be mixing it up every day. But yeah, it's just for me, right? Tha


Maya 0:54

Right. But I mean, it's still like super gorgeous compliments any outfit. So.


Liz 1:01

That's how I feel you can't go wrong with the hoop.


Maya 1:05



Liz 1:06

Um, so how are you doing? And where are you right now?


Maya 1:09

Yeah, so I'm in, well actually Canton Georgia, but I usually just say Atlanta, Georgia, since everyone knows where Atlanta is, we're doing good. And, you know, me and my family, we're just taking time to, you know, work on projects that we haven't been able to while we've been traveling and, you know, it's just, you know, really crazy time. While, also you can kind of go inside and reflect and kind of work on other elements and areas, you know, that you have that you might have been neglecting before, so, but we've been leaving well, you know, thankfully.


Liz 1:46

Yeah. And and where are you in your house right now? It looks like a studio or work room?


Maya 1:52

Yeah. So this is my studio, where my Mad Science Lab, whatever you want to call it. You know, I'm doing all of my designing writing animating work just kind of a little bit of everything. But yeah, I'm just in my studio and this windows really nice because it has a lot of light. It's good for zoom calls.


Liz 2:14

It does it's so bright and I think it's sunny is the word that is it yellow in there?


Maya 2:21

Yeah, it's not it's not yellow, but it's definitely a lot of natural like light coming in right now, which is good because this past week, we had a lot of tornadoes in this area. So you know, I had to go to the basement for like couple of nights and like it was kind of, so I'm thankful that the weather changed and now we're getting sun.


Liz 2:42



Wow, is is having tornadoes a typical thing near Atlanta, Georgia, or is that something that's new?


Yeah, no, tornadoes are pretty common for the South. Specifically in the summertime more often like severe weather is more common in the summer but of course, it's more crazy now because of climate change and like, the weather is very confused. I will just say that like, because it will go from, like hot like summer to freezing the next day. It's a lot but yeah, I think it's I think severe weather is pretty common, but it's more common in summer in the south.


Well, Mother Nature is definitely has been screaming, but maybe she's been having some fresh breath of air recently. And we can get to that in a minute. But I'd love to know a little bit about kind of how your your work has changed. I mean, normally you're off giving TED Talks. You've had three TED talks so far. Is that about right?


Maya 3:51

Yes. Yeah. Then three TED Talks. Yeah. Yeah, it's so I mean, this also unprecedented, and you know, work has definitely changed. And now there's a big focus and conversation around activism from home. And it's, you know, it's really been interesting for me to not only kind of recalibrate how I do things, as activists as an artist, as an entrepreneur, but also kind of, you know, everyone's learning together, which is really cool, in a sense, even though this is a really tough time that we can kind of be there for each other and, you know, encourage and teach each other because I actually have my own IGTV series. And I did an episode recently, on one of my shows where I'm talking about how small businesses, creatives and nonprofit owners can recover from COVID-19. And, you know, this kind of tips that I have, and I'm spoke alongside of a business coach and consultant who's really amazing. And so, it's definitely been interesting, but it's been good to kind of feel that sense of community and having to do things from long distance, being on sustainability boards and having changed how we do our meetings and all of those different things is just been really a learning experience. But it's kind of good that we have this experience to know how to do this in the future, too.


Liz 4:36

Absolutely. I mean, I think one, one of the things that we're all learning from this is that no matter where we are, we live in a world where technology does facilitate togetherness, and that is absolutely one of the positives of you know, social media, the interconnection, and you know, when when we are creating content, we have the opportunity to create content that is positive and that can inspire people right from our own couches and you know, it change does really start at the local level and forget about that it starts within you. I mean, a lot of the people that we collaborate with at ARTICLE22 are are practitioners of meditation or are really, you know, looking at how their personal transformation can can influence family and their community. And I mean, I know you've also been very active recently in your own community from home. What, what have you been doing?


Maya 6:35

Yeah, so that's something that's been really big for me. I've been really focusing on trying to support my community as much as possible. I've been creating a face masks from remnant fabric from my sustainable fashion line creating face masks for healthcare workers, and then also donating to the local food banks here in Atlanta. Supporting those local food banks because, of course, there are a lot of vulnerable communities who are food insecure during this crisis and even kids because they're out of school a lot of kids who are food insecure rely on school lunches for their food and so, you know, really trying to strengthen and support those programs that are reaching out and helping those communities, provide them with the resources that they need. So those are those are the things that I've been doing as as well as just trying to spread awareness or educate others or share any other tips that I have for anyone to kind of help them get through this. And just kind of taking that action because it's, it's really important for all of us to do our part. You know, whatever we have the ability to do and whatever we can do, it's really important to do that.


Liz 7:55

Absolutely. And, and so just kind of circling back to the notion of self care. What are some things that you, you do while you're thinking of other people? You know, how do you take care of yourself? Do you have any particular rituals?


Maya 8:10

Yeah, so a lot of meditating a lot of writing and, you know, also kind of learn, I'm starting to learn certain patterns that I have. I've learned that when I need to take my mind off of everything that's happening, I start baking. I don't know why, but I've made like so many batches of vegan muffins and Anthony biscuits and stuff like this and like it's very cathartic. I always love cooking and baking and meditation, reading, painting. And I'm thankful that I have a backyard I actually have an organic garden in my backyard and I can just kind of disappear in there for a while if I just need to commune with nature. And just you know, there's so many tools that I have that I can, you know, just take care of myself and breathe and relax and it's good to be able to not have to kind of be on the go so much and I hate that it's under the circumstance, but it does give me time to kind of catch up with myself. Like I think a lot of us have not been able to do that. And to check in like, how are we doing, you know, so, you know, it's definitely trying to you know, take make use of this time while I can.


Liz 9:32

Yeah, one one phrase that I picked up in my art history classes way back when was the idea of negative space and the if something not being present, you know, a choice to not have a motif or have a sculpture that is missing apart is as as intentional, unnecessary as what is there and I feel like this moment in time is very much like that it's giving us negative space in the most positive way it's negative to, to think and to, to reflect and to envision a different picture and to heal. And that is so necessary and thinking about how we move forward from all of this. You don't just figure it out in a day it takes it takes time. And


Maya 10:32



Liz 10:33

One thing, one thing that is so present in the way you work is collaboration because people are collaborating right now even digitally and people will again, there's no doubt, I'm totally optimistic that we will all be able to share the same physical space and we won't have to remain six feet apart. So collaboration is is very much key to ARTICLE22 spirit. It's how we started working with you and other leaders. And I'd love to hear a little bit about your perspective on collaboration and what it's meant to you. Throughout the your very young career, you said something that I really love and I think it, it really is worth me just reading the quote, your definition of success is not only when you meet your goals, but also when you help other people achieve theirs. So maybe talk a little bit about that.


Maya 11:42

Yeah, that's always been such a huge core of not only my work, but just how I move through the world. And you know, being a young entrepreneur, activist artist and you know, kind of building this career but also being a young woman of color. You know, all of these things have made me very, you know, aware of how important it is to reach back into support and to lift up others as much as possible. And everyone has knowledge, experience, more story that can impact or help educate or help lift up others. And so, collaboration, as we see now is so critical and so important. You know, this time that we're in, every single person is being asked to do their part to help in this fight. And whether that is by staying home, or by trying to support your local communities, support health care workers, to support people who are in lower income communities. All of those things have made people more aware to you know, what can they do to help or you know, reaching out to others to even receive help a lot of people don't even do that people that are in need. And so, all of those, those elements are really being brought to the forefront. And in my own career, you know, I've now been at an at a point where I have mentees. And then I started this when I was eight years old. I'm 20 now and I've technically been the sustainable fashion world and sustainability space for for 12 years now. But now I'm at a point where I have other young women who are like eight, 9, 10 years old, and I like I have this idea for a business and I want to start this or I want to do something to give back in my community, and what advice do you have, and now I'm able to help, you know, teach them and kind of show them and give them advice on what they can do. And so that's like, kind of one of my, you know, examples that I've used over the years. And I think that that reaching back to others, is now being amplified on a on a scale that really shows how crucial and critical it is for us all to really keep moving forward and thriving.


Liz 13:59

Yeah well, I couldn't I couldn't agree more. And I think another one of the main threads of your work in addition to collaboration is also sustainability. And when when we started thinking about what your message was going to be on the bracelet, you you came up with something that just stopped us all in our tracks, and it kind of sums everything up love mother Earth. And in this moment, we're seeing that change can happen that that mother nature can heal herself. We've seen you know, carbon emissions fall so sharply, of course that comes with a serious economic consequence, which is absolutely problematic, but there's proof that change is possible. And that when we come together, and we all agree, we can make a change. What what sort of, you know, inspiration did you have from your message love Mother Earth? And what sort of learnings environmentally Do you think there may be from COVID crisis?


Maya 15:20

Yeah, so COVID-19 has really had an unforeseen kind of impact, or unprecedented rather impact on the environment and the community like kind of eco consciousness and environmental activism. Well, first of all, it does show us you know, well, what can we learn from this crisis and of course, this can be applied to so many different areas of our life ours, of our society and of our of our governments. But as far as sustainability, it really there are a lot of questions of you know, once we come on the other side of this crisis, and you know, we have everything in place to prevent things like this from happening again, then is looking towards we still have climate change, we still have this issue that's, you know, again, a huge global threat to all of us and will affect so many different industries and so many different communities of people. And how can we, you know, you know, look at and address climate change with the same urgency because it will affect and destroy so many communities it already is. There are so many examples now of climate refugees, in a lot of countries and from people in in Bangladesh to Guatemala to even you know, past symbols like Puerto Rico, and so on and so forth. How the climate is impacting, especially a lot of black and brown communities adversely, and so it's already happening right now. And so because of that, we really need to know how to address this with a similar urgency, because of how quickly this is shifting and becoming more and more of a dangerous situation. And also to there has been a lot of, you know, talk around because of the the lack of human activity and travel and all these other things, how the, you know, wildlife and how the climate and carbon emissions, how all that's being positively impacted and but the thing that you have to also confront is that there is this idea of that, well, you know, humans are the the virus and humans are the reason you know, why everything is the way it is and why the environment has been so negatively impacted. And that really is not the case because there are many communities of people, you can look to indigenous cultures who know how to live in harmony with the earth, humans didn't just come out, you know, doing all of these things and impact in the planet, it really all comes down to the infrastructures that have been set in place and our society and kind of changing that and dismantling that making sustainability more accessible to more communities. And just really recognizing that, you know, where we have to change these areas, because it can be possible because it's already done. It's already happening. There are already people who know how to do this, how to live in harmony with nature. And so that's something to be recognized and something that we just all collectively have to come back to, and change on, you know, individual levels and higher levels as well.


Liz 18:37

Yeah, I mean, one thing that we've always been so inspired by is when we're working with our artists and partners in Laos, you know, what you described, living with the environment in harmony with animals and nature. They're already doing this and they have been doing this and there's so much ancient wisdom that we need to reintegrate into our modern society and the answers are actually present and perhaps it's that we need to look to certain communities that have been living in the more traditional way to, to find those answers and and respect their knowledge and elevate it and learn from what they can. They can teach us so I definitely feel you on that. And, you know, transformation is not easy. It requires sacrifice it requires, planning requires discipline. What advice do you have for people that are reflecting right now in this moment about how they can change their, you know, habits and practice a more sustainable way of living? What what kind of top three or five things even would you say?


Maya 20:13

Yeah, so I think what's important for people that are wanting to live more sustainably is that I feel like people feel this intense pressure to do everything and do it all like at the max when you really it's it is a transition. You do have to assess what you can do right now what you're able to do what you have access to, and you know what's easiest to do right now and just kind of start from there. And so whether that's instead of maybe you want to go vegan or do more plant based, living, you know, if you just do meatless Mondays, that makes a huge difference. If everyone could just do that. That makes a huge impact within itself. You know? You know, when it comes to clothing, supporting sustainable brands, or even learning, like how to mend your own clothes, if you get a stain in a shirt, don't just throw it in the washing machine, if you can spot wash it by hand, so that consumes less water and energy. I mean, they're just little things that make such a huge difference if they were done on such a larger scale. And so, it is really a matter of picking what it is that's easiest for you to do and just doing that step. And then next week, adding this next thing, adding this next thing and then it starts to kind of build up and then it becomes natural for you. You've created a lifestyle that's better for the planet and is organic to how you live and move throughout the world. And I think if everyone did that everyone thought about it in that way, then it wouldn't be so daunting and you would see sustainable practices become even more common because it's almost casual, it's just Well, I'm going to try this I'm going to learn to do this, I'm going to bike today, you know, you might set a there's like a 30 minute rule like if it's if the distance is under 30 minutes or is 30 minutes or less to walk and you know, all walk or all bike so on and so forth. So I think that it's little things like that that are important for people to keep in mind as they're transitioning is to kind of be gentle with yourself and just take those steps and add on an add on because it builds up to really make a big impact.


Liz 22:40

I agree and, and you were also talking before a little bit about like dismantling the current system and that's, that's another layer right? That's about public private partnership. That's about taking our individual actions and and bringing them into the political arena. And I'd like to maybe just hear if you have any recommendations of books that kind of talk about some of these subjects that have really resonated with you. And if there's one particular idea or example that you can give about kind of wider systemic change that is going to require the participation of citizens of businesses and of government.


Maya 23:27

Yeah, so it's really like, I think what's important is, first of all, to remember that it's something that I've personally seen, especially with a lot of young people is they kind of feel like this, the whole political system is just kind of too daunting to even begin to understand. And so then they just don't, they don't they don't really take the time to to learn more about how everything works, why their vote is important. And you know, What happens after you go and beyond presidential elections? Also in your state and local elections, you know why, why it's so important to be engaged with all of that. And so the thing that's incredible is that there are so many resources online now. And unlike what we were kind of talking about earlier about this long distance, and this collaboration and learning how to use technology in this way, is that I think people are just now realizing the true power of the Internet, and realizing the true power of the technology that we have in how much information that we have at our fingertips. And so there are if you really just start, you know, again, looking into state and local elections and kind of following that that's actually a really good step. My first election was the end of the local gubernatorial election here in Georgia. And I was able to learn so much just through going through that process and figuring out, you know, what I was looking for and who was focusing on sustainability, and who was focusing in on really making a difference in those areas. I think that it's important to look at all of those different areas and know that your voice and your vote does matter. Because a lot of people feel like it doesn't a lot of times and that is definitely not true. It is so important to show up. It's so important to go that take that extra step to do the census to do all of these things that are just so crucial. Because that one less you know, Bo, that's one less voice not being heard. And that resonates, that really resonates in a way that a lot of people don't, you know, even expect I think people don't really fully know their true power. You know that they have no I think that now people are looking to kind of take that back. And it's important that we kind of keep that trend, especially of young people taking that power back and really making what is the right choice and the smart choice to see the results that they want to see in the world. And now these resources becoming more accessible to young people, and I'm doing a lot of campaigns now to to encourage youth voting. So all of those things are so important. And the reason why I also mentioned dismantling the system is because we do put a lot of responsibility on individual action, and that makes a huge difference. But you still need to have government recognition and implementation of these different plans to reduce carbon emissions, to conserve different species of wildlife and plants and you know, things that are so important to our survival. They both have to work hand in hand needs to be a societal and a cultural shift and a shift in in leadership in government and how that's implemented as well. So those kind of two things need to go hand in hand.


Liz 27:13

Absolutely. And it's it's about looking at what the agenda is have given leaders, but also about looking at how they think fundamentally, you know, are they the type of leader that's about, you know, going to approach a problem by putting a bandaid on it? Or are they really trying to understand first principles and understand the root of the problem? Because for me, what I've felt has become more clear as a priority. When looking to elect leaders is that point of looking for people who are trying to understand what is wrong with the system and how can that actually It's core be addressed, because maybe we wouldn't need so much help and charity from billionaires, if, for example, they did pay more taxes, entrepreneurship, critical to this country. Of course, you know, you're an entrepreneur, I'm an entrepreneur. But when businesses get so big, and they're able to avoid paying taxes because they have different businesses offshore, that does become a problem that does create a deficit in the federal government's budget, and we shouldn't have to rely on generosity to handle a crisis. So yeah, everything you're saying is, is is spot on and, and, and it comes down to then us as individuals realizing that who we elect is as much about the specificity of their policy as it is about their approach to problem solving in general.


Maya 29:01

Exactly. And it's also to it really important to recognize what surrounds the voting system and what issues actually do surround it. Because it's not like everything is perfect. And it's important to speak out on that and to let people know that you're educated on these issues. Because the more public awareness, there are of some of these issues, the more that we could see, you know, a rally for change, for example. Something that's really prevalent, especially in a lot of states, like where I live is voter suppression. And so that's the more you have a public outcry and awareness of that, you know, that really can hold a lot of political leaders and systems accountable in that way and Stacey Abrams, she has a really great campaign on you know, voter suppression and have a great organization and a project Around fighting that, and it's kind of things like that, that you also need to look into. And be aware of. So you can know, you know what's going on. And not just like, Oh, well, everything is, you know, kind of rigged, everything sucks, like find out why and like why things kind of happen the way that they do, educate yourself and see what you can do to prevent them and to also, you know, fight for that and fight against that, in your own community. There are a lot of organizations that are fighting against that those exact things like fair fight, or and more. So all of those things are, are really incredible. to kind of get engaged with and to educate yourself on to


Liz 30:46

Yeah. Oh, my Thank you so much. I feel like we all have a few bits of homework to do after this Stacey Abrams website. What is that?


Maya 30:57

It's fair fight, I believe I believe it's I'm not 100% sure if that is the URL. Okay. But, you know, that's, that's something that's really important and prevalent for, to focus on. So definitely want to make sure that I shared that to.


Liz 31:15

Go check it out. Thank you.


Maya 31:18

Yay.Thank you so much for having me to. This has just been really awesome to have this discussion.


Liz 31:24









I'm just going to keep recording, but just so we can catch up for a minute, just in case there is something interesting that we want to throw in there, but we'll edit it most likely out. Okay. But how are you like, you're good. Your family? Yeah.


Maya 31:42

Yeah, families, good families. Okay, you know, thank goodness. Yeah. And I also do have family in Charlotte, North Carolina as well. And so they've been good to just checking in with them. And, yeah, I mean, I'm just grateful that you know, we're all just doing, you know, doing good during this time. I know and being well, like, it's still extremely stressful and certain, you know, it's, it doesn't it's not like everything is just kind of magical and whatever, you know, it's still really hard and you can really just feel everyone's collective stress and fear. And then there are so many people who, you know, lives can be been completely turned upside down by what's happening and, you know, so it's all of that, you know, really, I always want to see what can I can do to help and what I can do to help and so, you know, I've been just trying to give back as much as possible while also trying to take care of myself and, you know, support my family members and do all this and my friends you know, it's been a really interesting time a lot my friends, you know, how are doing their online classes and you know, it's weird for them and There's just a lot going on.


Liz 33:02

Yeah, no, it is such a weird thing. Because the way that the majority of people are experiencing this is to stay at home. And yes, being isolated is hard. Yes. Not being able to go out and exercise your free will to go fly a kite or go to the beach is hard. But it's a lot harder to be on the front line of,


Maya 33:28

yes, a


Liz 33:30

hospital or an emergency room. And so, you know, there are people who are battling this professionally, in that respect, and there are people who are battling the disease itself. And so in a way, the experience of it is so polarizing.


Maya 33:49

Yeah, really is yeah, and the thing is, too, is that you know, these people that you know, want to go out just For no reason, and, you know, it's not essential and well, they're just like, well, I just, I just want to, you know, use my free will, I'm not afraid, and I'm not this. And it's not a thing you have to live in fear, but you have to, you know, be respectful of how you're affecting other people. You know, that's, that's the thing about it. It's not, no one's telling you to live in fear. It's just help us to, you know, to flatten the curve. Because the longer that, you know, that this goes on, and the more that we don't get this, this curve flattened, you know, we can be dealing with this for over a year up to 18 months. Nobody wants to do that. And that's going to cost even more lives. So it's kind of not a matter of, Oh, well, I'm mad because I have to stay home and you know, it's a thing of you have to really know how much power you have in staying home, how many lives that saving and how much of a positive impact that that is having. No, I think people, some people aren't really thinking about it in the right light. So to speak.


Liz 35:07

No, totally. We have a mantra protecting yourself is protecting others. And yeah. for so long actually,


Maya 35:15

Wow, that's so poignant for this time.


Liz 35:18

It, it really is. And it's such a unexpected example. And I wish it wasn't the case. But, you know, so often we think of protecting other people is protecting yourself, but it's really a circle. And yeah, it goes back to that notion of self care. And if you're taking care of yourself, then you're taking care of other people along the way. And that's, that's what, you know, each of the leaders that we're working with, including yourself is is really teasing out through the work that they do. You know, there's a lot of gray and it's it's a complicated world that we live in, and we're constantly living between the tension of good and evil, but actually most things are grey. So we've got to figure out that space. But


Maya 36:02

yeah, definitely. And my whole, like one of my big things that I push for because it's really big in environmental activism is interconnectivity. You know, how we are connected to everything, whether I speak to speaking to how much impact we all have as individuals, for speaking to the interconnectivity of ecosystems, so on and so forth. And I think that's been a big theme, so to speak, I don't know if theme is the right word, but of what's happening with COVID-19. We can see just how interconnected we are, how our one action can impact someone else, and impact the world, whether that's good or bad impact or so I think that that's something that's really been brought to the forefront of people's minds more, which I hope people can really, you know, learn from this that do need to and yeah, it's just really interesting. thing to see.


Liz 37:01

Yeah, no, I, I agree. And I feel like one of the silver linings of this could be that it allows everyone to see what happens when the entire world is vulnerable. And that yes, Ace if climate change isn't addressed, and so, you know, perhaps perhaps this is a moment of foreshadowing that can motivate us to transform our behavior individually and collectively.


Maya 37:32

I think so. Yeah.

Well, Mother Nature definitely has been screaming, but maybe she's been having some fresh breath of air recently.