Agents of change

Maya Lilly '98
Maya Lilly ’98 (Credit: Mark Kauzlarich)

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 her theatrical thesis in the College Hall Music Room in 2003. The piece was a profound call to action on the 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.

In 2020—as global warming led to unparalleled natural disasters, and the COVID-19 pandemic and civil rights protests erupted simultaneously—everything Lilly had been working toward seemed to come full circle. The interconnected causes she had devoted nearly two decades to amplifying became the focal points of the cultural conversation.

“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, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies and Theater at New College, and the Morris K. Udall Undergraduate Scholarship for turning theater into activism. “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. She worked for 12 years in California as a film, TV and digital media producer, specializing in activist documentary-style storytelling. She is currently a producer for The YEARS Project—an Emmy award-winning, 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).

Recently, Lilly 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.

While Lilly was producing conscious media for various outlets, she was compiling her own creative pieces. In 2005, Lilly (who has familial roots in Jamaica, Pakistan, Cuba, China, Ireland and Germany) wrote an original one-woman show called Mixed—a play based on interviews with people who identified as mixed-race. Lilly portrayed all of the nine characters and toured with the award-winning show for more than a decade.

The most recent Mixed performance was in 2019. Then 2020 came, the 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 had 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. The same is true about human rights and racial issues.

“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.”

So Lilly worked with Robert Greenwald’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. She 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 potentially turning The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk (an environmental cult classic) into a TV program. The concept, Lilly said, has never been more relevant.

“Starhawk offers a vision of dystopia and what happens when society breaks down because of the lack of regard for the environment,” Lilly said. “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.”

“The Audacity to Dream of a Different World” 

New College alumni like Lilly are no strangers to campaigning for what is just, whether that is racial equality or environmental responsibility, or both (or much more).

This commitment to activism was especially well-articulated at the New College commencement ceremony in May 2018, when three young graduates delivered an address that called the campus—and the country—to action.

Leen Al-Fatafta, Giulia Heyward and Miles Iton spoke in solidarity about being “agents of change” during their years as undergraduates—ride-sharing to human rights protests in the Sarasota streets, advocating for their underrepresented peers, and building social communities for students of color.

“Activism is not easy and—more often than not—activism is thankless. But we, class of 2018, did it anyway,” the speakers told the crowd. “It’s about refusing to surrender to a broken social order that continues to keep us from our dignified humanity. So really, it’s about faith. It’s about believing that the ills of this world are not without end, because a different world is not only possible, it’s already in the making.”

Those words have echoed through the New College extended community ever since, and they reached a crescendo in 2020.

The killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor further exposed the ongoing systemic racism and oppression in America, while black and brown populations suffered disproportionately from the effects of the pandemic. It was everything the students had rallied against, as the “broken social order” they described revealed itself more clearly than ever.

And, as it all unfolded, New College alumni—in every corner of America—audaciously rose.

Al-Fatafta, Iton and Heyward had never stopped being vocal; all three of them have engaged in their own forms of activism since they graduated.

Iton, a Fulbright scholar who studied in Taiwan, created and directed a film called Sincerely, The Black Kids in 2018 that chronicled the challenges young Black leaders face in academia. He is now developing a social enterprise through the Walton Institute that gives communities of color better access to the legal cannabis industry; and he will be relaunching his hip-hop-based English teaching startup, Lo-Fi Language Learning, in Taiwan next year.

Heyward is a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an award-winning journalist, who has already written articles for The New York Times, HuffPost, The Atlantic and The New Republic—chronicling unemployment, police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement in America. She is a fully-funded Roy H. Park Fellow and a Tom Wicker Award recipient.

Al-Fatafta is an Arab Studies graduate student at Georgetown University and organizer with Occupation Free DC—an abolitionist collective with an internationalist orientation “that aims to end D.C. Metropolitan Police Department participation in U.S.-Israeli ‘counter-terrorism’ police exchanges,” Al-Fatafta said. The organization also works in collaboration with Black Lives Matter D.C. to divest from deadly systems of the police state and global militarism.

The three Novo Collegians continue to practice what they advocated for at New College two years ago: “Use your voice, power, intellect, and body, if it comes to it, with intention to undermine the oppressive chokehold most of us know too well. Allow yourselves the audacity to dream of a different world, but don’t stop there, because we need you to build it.”

Dreaming, Building and Fighting

When protests were gaining steam in the streets of North Philadelphia in June following Floyd’s death—and as the economy plunged downward and the pandemic raged—alum Paul Loriston ’14 watched from his campus at Temple University.

A law student and longtime activist, Loriston had co-founded the Black Student Union and served as the first Black co-president of the New College Student Alliance with Iton before graduating from New College in 2018. Bearing witness to the movement outside his college doors in the summer of 2020, Loriston naturally joined the conversation.

“There is a massive, I want to say, awakening right now,” Loriston said. “I’m trying to see if I can use some of the momentum from these protests in Philly…to have conversations about what systemic racism really is.”

At the same time, Ariel Powell ’15 was in Miami, working toward a dissertation at Florida International Universityabout Florida’s flawed educational system. Powell was busy unearthing aspects of public policies that were disadvantaging Black students (a continuation of her New College thesis topic).

“As a career, I really want to produce policy and make changes to the current system, and my research feeds into everything that’s happening in the world right now,” Powell said. “If there’s inequality in the education system, it affects everything else; it’s all interconnected. I want to put forth policy recommendations that change how certain people are treated in our society, because there’s a lot that needs to be done.”

Snousha Glaude ’12 was in Orlando, writing about similar issues. She published her first book in December, entitled Sometimes It Rains: Poems on Liberation and Rebirth—a collection about identity, self-discovery and cultural dialogue.

“In today’s world, race, gender, status and ability are increasingly hot topics that fuel a #CancelCulture movement and polarization,” Glaude said. “Many would like to engage meaningfully with neighbors, relatives and colleagues. Instead, they navigate shallowly to avoid being offensive. This collection of poetry documents the emotional rollercoaster that arises when we ask, ‘Who am I?’”

Dajé Austrie ’15 was in Sarasota, being confronted daily with his own identity and the challenges that come with being a young Black man in the south. When Austrie read the news in February that Arbery was murdered while jogging through a Georgia neighborhood, the story hit him hard. He saw himself, and his friends, in Arbery, and feared for his safety. But it wasn’t the first time.

“Seeing a lot of people that look exactly like you get killed in cold blood kind of hurts,” said Austrie, who graduated from New College in May and is now teaching tenth-grade science at Southeast High School. “I’m 23 and so are my closest friends, and we all run, so I felt particularly hurt by what happened to Ahmaud Arbery. I used to have more of an emotional response to these things but I guess I’ve kind of become jaded now, almost by necessity.”

Austrie has been an anti-racism and pro-science advocate his entire adult life, and he feels deeply called to be an educator and role model now.

So does Donovan Brown ’13, who served in the Peace Corps on the coast of Sierra Leone in West Africa last year before returning to Jacksonville. The community organizer recently wrote a poem called American Greatness, which encapsulates his feelings about being a Black man in the United States—and the long fight that lies ahead.

American Greatness
By Donovan Brown ’13

To be Black in America is to live
with the uncertainty of death. It is an inviolable
truth that is known to every Black child before
they are born.
You may die
before your birth.
You may die within
your house. You may die outside your house.
You may die drinking water.
You may die
from the food you eat.
You may die walking, jogging, or running.
You may die playing.
You may die at worship.
You may die at work, because of work,
due to work.
You may die in a cage.
You may die voiceless,
unseen and alone.
And your death, my death, and the death of those whom come before and after us will be another
ritualistic killing placed at the altar of American Greatness.
This uncertainty of death is as real to a Black Person in America as the very air that gives us life to
continue on.
And it is that, continuing that makes us so despised, so
hated but We persist, we create art and song and story.
Our culture is one of life and joy, an indomitable spirit that will never succumb.
So we are hated more because those who wish to make us chattel and have failed incessantly can do
nothing more than look upon us with awe. What rage you must feel as the only thing you cannot tame,
beguile, or destroy, is the very thing that continues to influence your very actions. As your children fawn
to become the very thing you wish to rid the world of.
How your culture becomes less reminiscent of what you so painstakingly killed and deceived for, how
your God
shrinks with every passing generation.
I would pity you but I may die doing so.

To read all of the Nimbus Fall 2020 issue, visit issuu.com/newcol/docs/nimbus87-fall-web

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


Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is the state's only legislatively designated Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in liberal arts and sciences, a master’s degree program in data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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