When talking about Maya Penn, the question to ask isn’t “what does she do?” The better question is, “what doesn’t she do?”
At just 21-years-old, the Atlanta native is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, animator, artist, and CEO. She’s spoken at the TEDWomen event in San Francisco, which was subsequently broadcast live on TED’s official website — after which she did both a TEDx Talk and two official TEDTalks. She’s an animator and an artist, and was named to Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul 100 list of visionaries and influential leaders in 2016.
Maya Penn is, in a word, a force of nature. But though she’s known as the CEO of Maya’s Ideas — a sustainable fashion company that she established long before it became chic to up-cycle clothes and accessories — she makes it clear that she prefers to be known for her work outside the industry.
“The fashion, while enjoyable, is just one part of a bigger picture,” she told AfroTech. “I’m happy I’m able to do Maya’s Ideas. But what’s more important to me — especially in the long-term — is having the ability to educate people, both children and adults, and shift the conversation onto environmental justice and racism.”
While most people wouldn’t link “environmental justice” with “racism,” the reality is, the two are not only intertwined, but inter-dependent on one another. According to a study conducted by the Conservation Law Foundation, communities of color — Black and Brown communities — are often the first to be sacrificed so that other areas of the country (which are mostly white and Asian) reap the benefits that different industries bring.
Examples of this from the past include the Sierra Blanca incident, which — with the support of Sen. Bernie Sanders — dumped toxic nuclear waste from the mostly white and affluent communities in Maine and Vermont into an economically-depressed and minority-majority community named Sierra Blanca in Texas. In the 21st century, the most infamous example is the Flint Water Crisis, which predominantly affects poor Black communities, in which the University of Michigan called “the most egregious example of environmental injustice.”
While these issues would be considered “fringe” issues in the past, Maya Penn says that they’re top of mind for people today for good reason.
“Environmental issues are coming to people’s front doors,” she said. “And it’s not just ‘the kids’ — Generation Z isn’t the only generation to care about this. People are much more receptive to this sort of thing now than they ever were. Because they realize that we’re all part of a growing, global society.”
In addition to issues concerning environmental justice, Maya Penn is most proud of being able to play her part in United States history. In 2016, at 16-years-old, the Obama Administration made Penn a part of history when she was commissioned to produce and animate the opening of the first-ever digital report presented to Congress. The report was created to get an American Museum of Women’s History built in Washington.
I'm Maya! I’m a 20 y/o black animator and eco-fashion designer #drawingwhileblack. When I was 16, during the Obama administration, I was commissioned to animate the opening of the 1st ever digital report to congress, which was to get museum of Women’s History built in Washington! pic.twitter.com/iV7GR2c6kk
— Maya Penn (@mayasideas) September 11, 2020
Currently, she’s promoting her new book called “You Got This!,” which is also being used in school curriculums around the world. For Maya Penn, however, it’s all in a day’s work.
“I’m not going to stop effectuating change,” she said. “This is something that’s been a lifelong journey for me, and I’m going to continue to be the change I want to see in the world. I think it’s important that we all do that, really.”
Editorial note: Portions of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity.