Activist alumna tackles climate change

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- by Abby Weingarten

Maya Lilly’s one-woman show about climate change, Still Time, was—in many aspects—ahead of its time 17 years ago. So was its creator.

A visionary artist and activist who transferred to New College from The Juilliard School, Lilly ’98 performed this theatrical thesis in the College Hall Music Room in 2003. The piece was a profound call to action on the global environmental crisis—which, alongside racial and social justice in America—has become the foundation of Lilly’s work as a producer, director and actress in TV, film and theater for nearly two decades.

“From the time I learned about climate change, I wasn’t like a lot of people who wouldn’t do anything about it; for whatever reason, my spirit is not like that. My spirit is like, ‘This is the reason I’m here—to do something,’” said Lilly, whose biography and filmography can be found on her IMDb page. “For me, it felt almost prescient that this issue was going to hit a crisis point in my lifetime. It felt like I had the onus of responsibility to make people act on it.”
Lilly has spent her life inspiring people to act.

The journey began decades before New College. Raised in New York City, Lilly attended the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Ohio in fourth grade, where she first honed her singing, acting and dancing skills. After high school at the New World School of the Arts in Miami, she was one of only seven women accepted into a class of 20 in the classical acting program at The Juilliard School, alongside actresses such as Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Carpenter.

At New College, Lilly earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and theater, as well as the lauded Morris K. Udall Undergraduate Scholarship for turning theater into activism. She used the $5,000 scholarship stipend to build a post-graduation life in Los Angeles, California, and told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune upon leaving Florida:

“My goal is to incorporate dance and theater, singing and all sorts of artforms with my passion for raising environmental awareness. Theater is a powerful tool for communicating issues to the public. It is an artistic form that can influence people’s views of the universe. Currently, there is little existing mainstream theater that addresses the preservation of our planet.”

To fill that void, Lilly addressed it herself.

She worked for 12 years in California as a film, TV and digital media producer, specializing in activist documentary-style storytelling. She is currently living in the Hudson Valley area of New York and is a producer for The YEARS Project—a multimedia effort that boasts the largest digital following for topics related to the climate crisis, with a reach of 395 million and 1 billion content views. The team from The YEARS Project won the 2014 Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary for the Years of Living Dangerously TV series (Showtime/NatGeo). Lilly was a story producer for The Big Fix, a 2012 documentary about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill directed by New College alum Joshua Tickell.
Lilly recently produced Amazon’s first theatrically-distributed documentary and Sundance 2018 opening documentary, Generation Wealth, with director Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles and the Always Like a Girl commercial); as well as RESIST (Pulse Films/VICE) and Finding Justice (BET/Seven Bucks Productions). The latter two series both examined how communities of color are fighting systemic injustices.

Exposing the faults in society has always been important work for Lilly, but it was her time at New College that—on multiple levels—fostered the pursuit.

“I had this epiphany when I was at Juilliard, that the work I was talking about was just so anthropocentric; it was Shakespeare and Chekov and it just felt like humans talking about humans,” Lilly said. “But I was becoming aware of the destruction of the Amazon and the hole in the ozone in the late ‘90s (a little bit before the climate crisis caught on), so I was like, ‘This is something the arts need to be talking about,’ and they just weren’t.”

So Lilly transferred to New College—where she could combine her love of theater with her passion for environmental studies—and she initiated the conversation.

“New College enabled me to experiment. I created my own class called Theater As Activism, where we all were writing scripts and performing in front of an audience,” said Lilly, who went on to earn a master’s degree in Environmental Security and Peace from the United Nations. “I realized that theater is an amazing artform; it’s a more immediate artform for change.”
Still Time was her first attempt at using the artform in that way. Ultimately, the message in her thesis needed a much broader audience.

“I wanted to get involved in the TV and film industry so I could inspire an audience to take action, and that’s what prompted me to move to Hollywood,” she said.

Receiving the Udall award helped Lilly plant her feet there. She flew to Arizona for the award ceremony, where she met several “movers and shakers in the environmental field,” she said. She also worked with the San Francisco Mime Troupe (a radical political theater group).
“When I got to L.A., I had a little bit of money and a lot of heart. I started getting to know the cinema makers in Hollywood, and they weren’t very savvy on environmentalism or climate change,” Lilly said. “They were fully lagging behind and still are. But every now and then, there’d be an environmental conversation. And a lot of my early forays into Hollywood were in trying to produce conscious media.”
While she was producing conscious media for various outlets, she was compiling her own creative pieces. In 2005, she wrote an original one-woman show called Mixed—a play based on interviews with people who identified as mixed-race, in which Lilly portrayed all of the nine characters—and she began touring with it throughout the country.

“All through my experience as a mixed-race woman—who is both black and white but always seen as black or other—I knew that was a story in itself. And the literature was lagging so far behind in that story and it still is,” said Lilly, who has familial roots in Jamaica, Pakistan, Cuba, China, Ireland and Germany. “I wrote the play pre-Obama and then he got elected and he was a mixed-race president. So, all of a sudden, the play took off because everybody wanted to hear about what it was like to be mixed because this president was mixed and the news was staggeringly behind in having a conversation about it.”

Mixed won the “Best of Actor’s Rep” Award in L.A. in 2007. The show premiered to sold-out audiences in New York in 2009 and toured for more than a decade. Lilly performed at numerous venues, such as Stanford University, Brown University and the United Nations, and did monthlong runs in both L.A. and in New York.

The most recent Mixed show was in 2019. Then 2020 came, the COVID-19 pandemic began impacting America, and Lilly—who had already been working with The YEARS Project—saw an opportunity to discuss her take on it (something she touched on in Still Time at New College).
“When the pandemic hit, we released a video that I wrote for The YEARS Project about deforestation being the root cause of this pandemic. When you deforest an area, it clears land that was never clear, so it allows more sunlight to hit the floor of that land. That heats up the land and it creates the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos (who already had an intrinsic, symbiotic relationship with the animals in that forest),” Lilly said. “So then you have people living closer to those cleared areas, and that can transfer those diseases more readily because the mosquitos have the perfect habitat to breed. So, literally, deforestation is the root cause of this pandemic. People are saying it’s the wet market but, under the wet market and the meat system is this deforesting of these huge swaths of land that we need as a carbon sync for the planet.”
Lilly has been trying to get the public to wake up to this irrefutable link for what feels like forever; it has never not been at the forefront of her mind. The same is true about the civil rights movement, which is erupting in concert with the pandemic. The connection makes perfect sense to Lilly.

“You can’t talk about the climate crisis without talking about race. And I intrinsically knew that years ago because people of color were facing the biggest burdens of pollution (neighborhoods were specifically being targeted as sacrifice zones by the fossil fuel industry),” Lilly said. “I knew people of color were being totally sidelined. I felt like it was always running alongside whatever else I was doing.”
What Lilly was doing on that front—in addition to Mixed—was producing scores of race-related media. She worked with Robert Greenwall’s company, Brave New Films, to shine a light on the rights of undocumented immigrants, indigenous people and communities of color. She traveled to Florida to talk about “Stand Your Ground” laws, the killing of Trayvon Martin and the work of The Dream Defenders. Lilly went to Minneapolis to talk about police brutality and the murders of unarmed black men, and interviewed the families of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile.

“I felt like we’d never get the climate crisis straight if we didn’t get race straight in this country, because all of it was built on an extraction of economic inequality,” Lilly said. “All of this is built on how people are disposable.”
In hopes of continuing to open eyes and minds to these realities, Lilly has been working on a side project for the past six years about The Fifth Sacred Thing (an environmental cult classic that was published in 1994—and a book for which Lilly actually thanked the author, Starhawk, in her New College thesis). Lilly connected with Starhawk in 2012 after the author launched a Kickstarter campaign to make the book into a film. Lilly suggested changing the idea to a TV format and has since been pitching the project to network executives. The concept, Lilly said, has never been more relevant.

“I read the book in high school and it was part of the reason I went to New College. Starhawk offers a vision of dystopia and what happens when society breaks down because of the lack of regard for the environment,” Lilly said. “There are two main characters: one is half Latina/half black and the other is African-American, so I saw myself in it. It was also set during a pandemic. But it offers a vision of hope amid the darkness.”
That aligns with Lilly’s own vision and always has. It was the message behind Still Time. It has been her message her whole life. It is her.

“Every day, I’m steeped in nine hours of the latest climate science. I’m fully aware, every day, of how seas are rising, how fast the arctic is melting and how much deforestation is happening,” Lilly said. “So I have to take space for myself and be in nature, because nature is the king gangster, the queen of all things. Being in nature is the salve that reminds me of why this fight is so important. This is the fight of our lives.”

Follow Lilly on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @GunghoEco

Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.