How an immigrant mentality built my path to environmentalism.
I am a first-generation Iranian American and I am also an environmentalist. I was born in Iran just before the 1979 revolution – an event that ripped our country and my family apart. My parents, sister and I were fortunate to escape to the United States, where for many years simple survival was our primary focus. The Iranian government forbade anyone to take money out of the country, so we started with virtually nothing. We lived in a small house in New Jersey, and my sister and I spent most of our time in the creek that ran by our home. My parents couldn’t buy us many toys and the ones we did have we treasured, but most of the time we ended up playing outside, mainly in our little creek.
My parents worked very hard and eventually we moved to Los Angeles, Beverly Hills to be exact. It was the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and financial excess was very much in vogue. This was particularly true for Iranian immigrants like my parents, whose resilience and work ethic had taken them from post-revolutionary scarcity to a place that, thanks to Beverly Hills 90210 and other shows like it, seemed like the pinnacle of the American Dream. Iranian immigrants were proud of their success, and the same proudly competitive natures that had facilitated their success also made for a lot of conspicuous consumption. I remember attending several weddings with over 1000 guests and enough food for 3000; I remember a dinner party where each guest received the equivalent of a full cake for dessert. Leftovers from such lavish feasts were simply thrown away at the end of the night, because being wasteful was perceived as being generous in and of itself – as yet another sign of success. We all wanted to fit in and succeed in our new environment, and conspicuous consumption seemed like the surest way to do so.
My perspective began to shift when I, along with many of my Persian friends, attended UCLA (because our parents all wanted to keep us close by). I was fascinated by Sociology, largely because of all the trials and tribulations I had experienced as an immigrant. After I got married and moved to a Malibu community that was dominated by ocean and mountains, my awareness of the natural world was rekindled with that little creek that I spent so much of my childhood in; combined with my sociological background, this quickly led to a bourgeoning environmental consciousness.
I started my first charity, Crayon Collection, after seeing many still-good crayons thrown away by restaurants after a single use while dining out with my daughter. I started to do some research and realized that restaurants were throwing away over 150 million crayons per year – never to decompose. I knew first hand that so many children would dream of having those crayons that were instead, headed for the the trash. Plus, this foreign norm of tossing still-good crayons was subliminally teaching our children to be wasteful and that it was acceptable behavior. I launched Crayon Collection by connecting vulnerable schools with restaurants located within 5 miles of one another whereby the school would pick up an average of 3,000 crayons per month from each restaurant partner. This helped teachers supply their classrooms with the necessary supplies and alleviate their personal spending.
My work deepened after I realized that only children in affluent areas were lucky enough to have access to art education. So thanks to my amazing community, I was able to challenge professional artists to create project ideas using just crayons and paper as the main tool. Volunteer teachers turned these projects into lesson plans that complied with the mandatory standards that educators were obligated to teach. After all, I believed that ALL children had a right to use their left and right brain no matter their socio-economic background, religion or race. The Crayon Collection further evolved so that children in well-served schools could take part by collecting and donating their gently used crayons. They do this by way of our Color Kindness Project whereby kids donate their crayons with a note of kindness for each recipient child. It’s a beautiful thing to see kids giving back to other kids recognizing their deep capacity to give and show kindness. Each day, we continue to learn from the children who work with us.
Habits of Waste came next. It was in those very same restaurants that I realized single-use plastic straws were being imposed on diners without anyone requesting them. Usually, the first round of plastic straws came with the complimentary glass of water that most people didn’t request either. Then the second round of straws came with sodas and iced teas and then lastly the small stirrers that came with the coffee and tea post meal. I decided that this wastefulness once again had to stop so I went to a city council meeting in the City of Malibu and requested that the iconic beach community set the standard and lead the way by banning single use plastic straws, stirrers and cutlery. This was a success and many have credited the domino effect of similar plastic bans to the historical steps that Malibu took.
While Crayon Collection was my initial foray into environmental work, I was grateful to start a second organization where I could expand my efforts further. My deep rooted logic about reducing waste produced many new ideas, such as a campaign called #CutOutCutlery where I convinced Uber Eats and Postmates to change their default setting so that users receive plastic cutlery only upon request. This reduced the 40 billion pieces of plastic cutlery that are discarded per year simply by switching the setting on a food delivery application.
The Sociology degree I earned at UCLA was essential for me to understand so much of my own personal experience growing up as an immigrant here in the United States. What I didn’t expect was the many tools I gained to create grassroots movements and to slowly make change. I would not change anything about my story because it has given me so many gifts that while difficult at the time, ended up building the activist I am today and with that I will continue my journey to protect the planet to the best of my ability via crayoncollection.org and habitsofwaste.org .