Teach your children that they have a voice and the power to create systemic change in their communities and countries. My daughter, Emma, spent her late toddler and early elementary-school days playing under the table of the Boston National Organization for Womxn (NOW) boardroom. She repeatedly listened to a room full of womxn make plans and carry out things that were having a real effect on gender justice in our town.
As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing LaKay Cornell.
LaKay is a queer, feminist, southern, progressive poet, writer, culture curator, and sustainable product obsessor. She crafts and curates words, events, brands, and spaces that are beautiful, bold, and ready to burn it all down and rise from the wreckage. She is on a mission to show the world that everything is connected and working together is the only way through.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in the southern part of the Midwest, the daughter of two parents who absolutely adored me — and for much of my life — adored each other. We were also part of a cult-church — in fact, we were cult-church royalty, as my grandpa was the head of the whole shebang. I was raised to believe that I was perfect, special, and beautiful at the same time I was raised to understand that everything I desired was a sin and I was headed for a life of submission to a husband. This dichotomy has become the vein that created who I am and reconciling it has been my life’s work.
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
I came to sustainability through the world of green beauty and fashion. I have always loved fashion and makeup and products. One of my first “career” jobs was repping a line of clothes out of the Dallas Apparel Market over a five-state territory…at 19! In 2015, I launched The Perpetual You, a lifestyle magazine dedicated to telling womxn that we have always had everything we need to find joy, ease, fun, and wealth. We started featuring beauty, fashion, and home goods, made by small batch female makers.
Almost instantly I started to understand that it was great to have cleaning products and makeup with no chemicals, except that they were shipped in so much plastic. I couldn’t understand how makers and brands that were thinking so intently on how to change everything we know about chemicals, and transition our lives to plant-based everything, weren’t also thinking about the planet and how to do less harm there. And this brought me to the world of sustainability.
It also brought me to the world of it’s all connected — people working in racial justice, gender justice, economic justice, and climate justice, have to realize that it all matters and figure out ways to work together. The systems we have, in our society, work hard to keep us feeling like we are all fighting different fights, which isn’t true. If we can find common ground and work together to change these systems, we can finally see progress — in all of these arenas.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
I truly believe that many young people are leaders already. I am constantly amazed by the people I meet and work with who are doing more to create change at 19, 20, 21, than many people ever do. My biggest piece of advice, that I share frequently with the Gen Z people I’m connected to, is to question everything and judge less. We tend to accept a lot of things at face value, especially if they are coming from people working for change, but the truth is that we are all operating under the same systems of Patriarchy and are all influenced by it.
Sustainability and Climate Justice has a bad rap of being very elite. Most of this is well-deserved and a lot of it goes back to the origins of the movement, which are steeped in racism, a trend which continues today. But one of the big areas that we can change quickly, is the criticism we have for people who don’t do sustainability the way we do and the seeming need to compete for the most zero-waste lifestyle.
Coming from the cult-church, which was all judgment and criticism, I know deep in my soul how important it is to question the systems in charge and stop judging the people who are participating the best way they know how.
A great example of this is the sentiment that goes around social media, especially during Plastic-Free July, which says, “We don’t need one person doing everything to stop climate change, we need lots of people doing one thing.” (or some version of that). But we actually DO need one person — if that one person is Amazon, Google, Facebook, UPS, or Bank of America. Just about every humxn on earth could give up plastic straws and plastic grocery bags for the rest of eternity and it wouldn’t have near the effect that Amazon or UPS going carbon negative would.
American individualism has taught us to blame individuals and to put the onus for change on individuals. And while change doesn’t happen without people, we’ve created a society where the people have less control than the corporations — and we need them to be leading change.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
- Stop spending your money with companies that refuse to acknowledge the climate disaster we are in.
- Research companies that claim to be working to address climate change and make sure they are doing what they say they are doing and not using it solely as PR.
- Give yourself and others a break. Take the energy that you might normally use feeling guilty for a sustainability oops or that you might direct towards judging someone who does things differently than you and put it towards making sure that your city or county is actually recycling, for example.
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
- Teach your children that they have a voice and the power to create systemic change in their communities and countries. My daughter, Emma, spent her late toddler and early elementary-school days playing under the table of the Boston National Organization for Womxn (NOW) boardroom. She repeatedly listened to a room full of womxn make plans and carry out things that were having a real effect on gender justice in our town.
- Choose books and TV shows that have diverse characters, who are living the kinds of lives we hope to. When Emma was very young, she was watching a show called Brother Bear. I was in the other room and heard Brother Bear say that he would be the professor and his friend, a girl, would be the teacher. I stopped the show and explained to tiny Emma that she could be a professor as well as a teacher — and we didn’t watch that show anymore. This is one example of many, where I controlled what she read, watched, and listened to, based on the messages I thought she might be receiving from them — but always only after we discussed it. Although there were many years she wasn’t old enough to really get it, having those conversations laid the foundation for her learning to analyze things and make decisions, based on the kind of world she wants, as opposed to just following trends.
- Support brands that are doing the work. There are amazing brands working to raise the best possible next generation we can. Give them your money. Share their brand on social media and with friends. And explain why you are supporting them. For example, For Purpose Kids, has books and toolkits designed to teach kids about being a Global Citizen and the responsibility we have to take care of each other and our planet. Or Mango and Marigold Press, which was started to show positive narratives of South Asian people in children’s books.
- Teach empathy and kindness with boundaries above everything else. Raising a generation that knows how to listen, understand, and show compassion for all people is a necessary step to raising a generation that takes care of our planet. And we also need to teach them boundaries. How can we show compassion for people who think differently without compromising our values? How can we understand someone’s perspective without giving up our own voice? How can we be kind without falsely indicating approval? How can we place someone’s actions in the context of the systems we live within and not excuse their hurtful and harmful behaviors?
- Do the best you can, share the struggles and joys, and love them with everything you have. I’ve always been as open and honest as I could be with Emma — when things were awesome and when things were hard. She’s watched me try, over and over, to build a career out of making the world better. And I’ve made sure that she knew — at every possible turn — that I love her and believe in her. I surrounded her with people who shared that view — for her and for all kids in her generation. As a result, she is in college now, thinking about her own future and changing the world isn’t a career choice, it’s a way of life. She fully understands that you can be (and should be) an activist for change regardless of what you are doing or what job you have. And she has the confidence, rooted in that deep love I also grew up with — but without the conflicting judgment — to do just that.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
Being conscious and profitable requires being committed to the long haul. You might spend more today, but over time, you will come out ahead. As more and more Gen Z humxn enter the workforce, they are going to demand more and more conscious and compassionate practices, such as clear climate justice participation, paying a living wage and with transparency, acknowledging a variety of gender identities and pronouns, and on and on. Incorporating those policies today means you’ll be more attractive to the next generation(s) of workers.
On the more immediate, practical side, carbon neutralizing is a great way. It’s relatively inexpensive and there are a ton of options. Many e-commerce companies are providing an option for carbon-neutral shipping that the consumer opts in to and shares the cost of.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I could never explain all of the people who have helped me get where I am today — some of whom have been a blip on the journey and some of whom have been here for many aspects. I am eternally grateful to my daughter, Emma, who has taught me so much about being a citizen of the world and who challenges and encourages me constantly.
And it’s hard to imagine I could continue doing what I’m trying to do — with the optimism of a toddler — were it not for my best friend, Lisa, and my mom, PK — both of whom seem to have a never ending well of support for me and a truly undying understanding that I was born to do great things.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It would look like a more feminist way of living and doing business — a movement that teaches all humxns that collaboration, empathy, compassion, and self-care will create the best world possible. It would replace “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” stoicism with, as Jason Isbell says, “there can’t be more of them than us” community.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
“Why are the keys to our future in the hands of those with the longest commute from their heads to their hands?” — Andrea Gibson
It’s relevant every day. Sometimes because I am literally sitting in my car screaming, “Why?!” as I am frustrated with how things work and how little control I feel I have. Sometimes because I am marching down the street making my presence known and my voice heard, and I believe we have the power to change that truth. And sometimes because I am meditating with the understanding that if this is a thing that was created as opposed to a thing that has always been, then we can un-create it.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
I am on Instagram at @lakaycornell and on Substack at lakaycornell.substack.com
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!