Summer Dean is a content creator, writer and model who is passionate about communicating the climate crisis, sustainable fashion, and low-waste beauty. She is the founder of @climatediva, her personal platform where she discusses topics ranging from climate justice and politics to sustainable fashion and low-waste beauty. As a climate communicator, she works to turn complex climate information into fun, relatable content that’s easy to understand and share with others. Summer received her B.S. in Environmental Studies from Portland State University in 2019, and has a background in climate science and renewable energy policy. In college, she organized for the Green New Deal with Sunrise Movement and worked as a fellow with Our Climate. Before pursuing her freelance career in Los Angeles, she was a renewable energy + climate science researcher in Portland, Oregon.
IH: How did you get involved in climate activism?
Summer Dean (SD): I grew up in Portland, Oregon, but my family moved to the panhandle of Florida for a few years when I was in middle school. I happened to live in Florida when the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened, and I lived right along the coast that was impacted the most. Ever since then, I’ve been involved in climate activism. I received my B.S. in Environmental Studies from Portland State University in 2019, where I worked with researchers on climate science and renewable energy policy. In college, I organized for the Green New Deal with Sunrise Movement and worked as a fellow with Our Climate to push for climate policy in Oregon and Washington.
IH: When did you decide to start using social media as a tool for your advocacy and what led you to that decision?
SD: I’m on the cusp of being a Gen Z’er, so I’ve been using social media since I was in middle school. It’s always felt natural for me to share the things I care about on social media, because really, if you’re not sharing the things that you care about… what’s the use? When I was in college, I started a social media campaign on my campus to ditch single-use coffee cups. That was really the first time I used Instagram to start an environmental campaign, and it was really successful. Since then, I’ve always used social media as an extension of my activism. Once we entered quarantine, I really tapped into my creative side and spent a lot of my free time making fun, educational videos about the climate crisis. I figured that while we were all sitting at home, we might as well make use of the time and spread awareness and actionable tools to fight for systemic change.
IH: Was it difficult when you first started to grow your social media accounts and what did you learn from the initial growing process?
SD: At first I wasn’t really trying to grow my account, and I didn’t really care if anyone was seeing my posts or not. I was just happy talking about the issues that mattered to me with my small amount of followers. Once I started making more creative videos and TikToks, my following got a lot larger. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is to just stay true to myself, keep things fun and lighthearted, and not to let social media have too much control over my life. I’ve started setting strict boundaries about the time that I spend on Instagram and TikTok. I think we’ve all seen the power of social media to educate and spread awareness, especially during the height of the racial justice protests over the summer.
IH: You’ve spoken out about the issue of gatekeeping activism. What does this mean to you and how can we combat activism gatekeeping?
SD: “Gatekeeping activism” to me means trying to tell people that whatever they’re doing to spark change or raise awareness isn’t the ‘right’ way to do it. A lot of well-meaning activists spread this whitewashed narrative of sustainability that in order to be an activist, you have to do things right all the time. You have to be 100% vegan, buy absolutely no plastic, and never purchase fast fashion. Perfectionism is rooted in white supremacy, and it is detrimental to our movement to keep people away from demanding climate justice because they’re not vegan or don’t have the money to buy ethical products. At its root, the climate crisis is an issue caused by systems of oppression, and it is an issue of power dynamics. So what good does it do to fight each other about our personal environmental footprint when the larger policies and systems in place prevent us from living sustainably in the first place? I really don’t care if someone composts or lives zero-waste or drives an electric car. I want them fighting with us for a livable planet, because it is the one thing that we all share in common.
Another issue I see with gatekeeping is that people try to tell young people that spreading awareness about issues on social media isn’t real activism. It gets annoying when people act as if spreading awareness online and in-person organizing can’t happen at the same time. We can do both, and we must. Some people are more talented at organizing and speaking, and some people are better at writing online and raising awareness. Some people are better at content creation, and some people are better at music and art. It takes everyone coming at this from all angles, so it is imperative that we stop with the gatekeeping so that we can allow as many people as possible into this movement. We all have a unique role to play in the fight for a better world.
Perfectionism is rooted in white supremacy, and it is detrimental to our movement to keep people away from demanding climate justice because they’re not vegan or don’t have the money to buy ethical products.
IH: Some people, especially older generations, are skeptical about the efficacy of social media activism. What would your response be to those people?
SD: I would say just take a look at the power of social media in current social justice movements. I think we’ve all seen the power of it to educate and spread awareness, especially during the height of the racial justice protests over the summer. Without social media, the BLM protests would have never gotten the attention they did. Or take a look at the Intersectional Environmentalist platform, which started from one post by Leah Thomas and grew into a movement with hundreds of thousands of followers. Social media can be a powerful medium for change.
IH: Have you found community through online activism? How would you suggest other young people find community through online activism?
SD: Definitely! There is such a beautiful community of online creators/activists in the climate space. They make me enjoy social media so much more than I normally would. I feel like there are so many badass women of color just dominating in our field right now, and seeing them grow and become successful online is so much fun. I have met several climate activists through Instagram that have become my friends, and I’ve started many partnerships and collaborations with fellow online creators and brands. If you want to find more friends online, I would just start following people whose content resonates with you, and even follow people whose content may challenge your thoughts a bit! Also I would love to be your friend online, so don’t be afraid to DM me 🙂
IH: What have you found is the most effective way to use social media as an educational tool?
I think using a range of different formats is the most effective. For me, sometimes I can get my point across easier through a TikTok, sometimes that may be a longer educational post with more writing, or sometimes it may just be sharing and boosting another group’s work on my story. Sharing resources to help out your community and participate in mutual aid is also incredibly effective, especially during COVID when nobody can meet in-person.
I love to create educational information that is fun and different, which is why I’ve been having so much fun with Reels and TikTok. Music is powerful, and I love that it’s possible to make a funny video with an amazing song AND climate information all at the same time. That’s a dream.
IH: : Do you think that it is important that social media be a starting point for activism or do you think it can be effective in and of itself?
SD: Social media isn’t the only tool to fight for justice, but it is a part of our toolkit that we can and should use. We all have a special role to play in this movement, and educating/spreading awareness to the masses is crucial. We always need more communicators and educators in the climate movement. During COVID, social media has been many people’s main form of activism, and obviously that isn’t ideal. But I think there’s something to be said about how quickly ideas and thoughts can burst and start entire movements online. Digital activism is also easier for some people with disabilities who may not be able to always organize in-person or demand change in the streets.
IH: A lot of climate creators focus on the changes people can make in their individual lives as consumers. What are your thoughts on this focus? Should the focus be on corporations instead?
SD: I could write an entire essay on this, but I think it’s possible to focus on both at the same time. It’s really cool that we have a bunch of creators sharing the newest innovations in sustainable fashion and design, and offering sustainable alternatives to everyday products. But that can’t be where our activism ends. We should never forget that only 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions.
IH: What would your advice be to other young people who want to use their platforms to advocate for the causes they care about?
SD: Just start writing, creating, or sharing what you’re passionate about! Don’t be afraid to let your thoughts out,share them with the world, and have fun with it! And if you’re in a position of privilege, it is absolutely crucial to uplift marginalized people who have been doing this work for a long time already. BIPOC creators often don’t get the same engagement as white creators, and I see colorism play out a lot on social media as well. So remember to always keep that in mind when you’re starting to do any type of advocacy work.
IH: Let us know anything else you’d like to share!
SD: Thanks for the interview!
All photos courtesy of Summer Dean
Answers may have been edited for length.
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