Summer Dean on Being a Climate Diva

Summer Dean on Being a Climate Diva

Photograph by Sydney Yatco

 

The Frontline is kicking off Black History Month by celebrating today’s Black climate leaders. Meet Summer Dean—or, as you might know her on Instagram, Climate Diva.

There’s no such thing as extra when Summer Dean considers her wardrobe. Faux fur? Why not! Checkered pants? Yes, darling! “Sustainable fashion is anything but boring,” the 24-year-old eco-influencer writes in an Instagram post. In another, she exclaims alongside photos of dazzling butterflies and glittering jellyfish, “I’m just trying to be a diva like earth is.”

 

Meet Climate Diva, as her social media handles state. Dean loves fashion, but she equally loves sustainability. In fact, her whole vibe is about incorporating climate justice into fashion. And climate justice isn’t only about the materials of the clothes she wears—it’s about the people who sew them, too. As a Black woman, Dean understands the importance of equity. As a descendant of enslaved people, she knows the urgency of addressing the human rights crisis the fashion industry faces.

 

Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re in conversation with Dean. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Once you get sucked into Dean’s feed, it’s hard to pull away. She’s hilarious, but more importantly, she’s able to simplify the climate news of the day into bite-size videos that help keep her followers educated. And she does it all while staying cute as hell.

YESSENIA FUNES

Tell us: Who is Summer Dean? We all know you as Climate Diva on Instagram, but who are you outside of that?

SUMMER DEAN

I would say I’m a sister, I’m a friend, I’m a lover of Mother Nature. I enjoy so many things outside of environmentalism, but I just love spending time in nature. I think that’s my absolute favorite thing in the world. I grew up with four sisters, so I spent a lot of time around feminine energy as a kid. I love spending time with my family.

YESSENIA

I hear that. Family is major. Where did the handle Climate Diva come from?

SUMMER

When I was in college studying environmental studies, I was often the only woman of color in my classes. I would walk into a class, and there would be a bunch of white men. I felt alone. A lot of these people in my classes weren’t interested in the same things as me. I was interested in fashion, beauty, and all of these girly things that weren’t directly related to environmentalism. So, I started to lean into that more. I knew there were people out there like me who were interested in these things, too.

 

I think Climate Diva came from a place of realizing that you don’t have to pick environmentalism, fashion, or beauty. All of those things are so much part of my identity that I just decided, Why separate those things when I’m a whole human? And Climate Diva just popped into my mind one day, and I was like, Yep, that’s me.

Photographs by Zach Striar

YESSENIA

I know that feeling of being the super-fly, well-dressed chick in your environmental class, and then everyone’s in their Birkenstocks and little camo caps just looking at you like, What are you doing here?

SUMMER

I remember that feeling well.

YESSENIA

It’s an isolating experience, and I think that Climate Diva is a really beautiful response to that.

SUMMER

Thank you. In college, I felt so lonely. But then as time went on, I’ve realized there is this massive community that has felt the same exact way I have. It’s beautiful to see all of these environmentalists from all around the world who know there’s not just one way to be an environmentalist. That is beautiful because it brings so many more people into this movement, and it lets people know that you don’t have to fit a certain mold in order to care about the planet. There are so many different ways to engage in environmentalism.

YESSENIA

What made you decide that you wanted to go to school to study environmental issues?

SUMMER

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest where I would spend a lot of my summers outdoors—whether it was playing in the field with my sisters, growing gardens with my mom, or going on hikes in the Columbia River Gorge. But then when I was 12, my family had to move to Florida.

 

We happened to live close to the beach right along the Gulf of Mexico. Moving across the country as a pre-teen is a pretty jarring experience, so I would end up spending a lot of my days after school walking up and down the beach, observing all the intricate life and biodiversity around me. I had never really seen an ecosystem like that before. Over time, I just fell in love with it. And then the BP oil spill happened. Seeing the ocean before the spill and then seeing the firsthand effects of an environmental justice disaster was really painful.

 

After that, I went through a weird period of grief. Looking back on it after all this time, I really think it was a period of environmental grief. I saw every inch of the water speckled with oil, and I saw oil all over the sand and in the nearby brush. That was the first time I began to understand how the environment is all interconnected.

 

Before that, I had a love for the environment, but after that, I developed a connection.

YESSENIA

How long had you already been in Florida when the spill happened?

SUMMER

I had only been there about a year, so I was 13.

YESSENIA

Wow, you were still really young.

SUMMER

I was really young. And when I moved there, I didn’t have any friends. So I would spend every single day at the beach. I can’t even explain the difference between pre-oil spill and after. I was in awe of this huge city of wildlife covering the sand, and then I saw it all just get destroyed. That was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

YESSENIA

You have all this lived experience alongside your technical background and degree in environmental studies, so how did you end up in the influencer and modeling space?

SUMMER

The influencer thing was an accident. With modeling, my sister got signed by a major modeling agency when I was in middle school. When she was signed, I would actually take a lot of her photos. She and I would always do photoshoots with each other for fun, so I grew up with that background. In college, I did modeling on the side, and it’s always been a hobby of mine. I’ve always used my social media to discuss environmental issues, but I never really knew what a content creator or an influencer was.

 

 

YESSENIA

I imagine that the eco-influencer space, at that time, was also fairly white. You touched on this a little bit earlier, but how has being a Black woman affected your relationship with the climate and environmental space?

SUMMER

Before the summer of 2020, it really felt like my Blackness was tokenized. There would be times in college that I would be organizing with climate groups, and I would be the only Black person in the room. Whenever topics concerning marginalized communities and environmental justice were brought up, I would have to be the spokesperson for all people of color because there weren’t any other people of color in the room. That always felt really wrong, and there’s no way that one person, especially me as a light-skinned Black girl, could speak for all marginalized communities. For so long, it was tiring and lonely being in green spaces that never made any real effort to be more inclusive.

 

A lot of people of color are interested in environmentalism, and a lot of these groups were acting like Black people weren’t interested when I knew that wasn’t the case. There’s never been a shortage of Black people in sustainability. Green spaces have just always been exclusive. Now, I see that Black environmentalists and advocates are everywhere, and we all come with a diversity of experiences, cultures, and backgrounds that are helping to build a better world every single day.

We’re here, and our resiliency—and existence itself—is proof that no matter how bad things get, we can still choose to persist.

Summer Dean

SUMMER

This past summer, I went to visit my grandfather, and he was telling me stories his grandfather passed down to him. I learned that my great-grandfather would have to pick cotton for white people to survive. Seeing that two generations later, I’m able to do the things I love and fight for our dream world is just really crazy. Knowing that my family has come from being enslaved in Virginia to now having the space for me to fight for a world beyond their wildest dreams is enough hope to fuel me for an entire lifetime.

 

Sometimes, I wish that more white people in environmentalism realize that the climate crisis isn’t the first crisis marginalized people have experienced. When I learn these stories from my grandfather, it reminds me that we have experienced so many existential crises. That really lights the fire inside of me. It tells me to just keep persisting because Black people, all that we’ve been doing is persisting all throughout time. We’ve done this knowing that we will see a better day.

YESSENIA

Given that it’s Black History Month, I was going to ask how you honor your people’s history through your work, but I think you might have just answered that.

SUMMER

Yeah, definitely.

YESSENIA

You also mentioned how different the space felt before the summer of 2020. Do you feel that much has changed since then? Have there been great shifts since the racial reckoning that Black Lives Matter created in 2020?

SUMMER

I can’t speak for other Black environmentalists, but it felt like there was a lot of white guilt going on. I think that’s what fueled my following to grow. That was the first time I felt heard in a long time by the mainstream environmental community. Some things have changed. More Black environmentalists can take up space and have their voices heard. A lot of the mainstream environmental organizations are saying the right things. They’re saying that we need intersectional environmentalism. They’re saying that we need climate justice. But when it comes down to it, I don’t know if people’s money is going where their mouth is. A lot of environmental justice organizations aren’t getting the funding that they need.

 

I really do think that the racial reckoning was just a white reckoning because Black environmentalists have always been here, as I said before.

YESSENIA

Right, it sounds like we have a long way to go. What more do you want to see change? I’m especially curious to hear your take on the fashion industry because it’s a big focus of the content you create.

SUMMER

Something I would love to see is the fashion space and climate space stop being so separate. I have one foot in the climate space and one foot in the fashion space. When you go into the fashion space, you see that it’s almost a different world, and there’s not many people working in both spaces. I would love to see more people in the fashion space try to learn more about how the fashion industry has a huge justice issue. I would love to see that conversation grow.

 

A lot of people in the environmental space know about the injustices that go on with fast fashion.

 

With climate justice, I think about fashion a lot because fashion has so many injustices. Whether it’s garment workers being paid next to nothing for making clothing or whether it’s our unused clothing from the Global North being sent to countries in the Global South where they pile up in landfills. It’s a huge environmental justice issue.

 

I would love to see more people in the fashion space speak up about that. One thing that really excites me is how many young brands are popping up that are actually changing their business models and getting creative with how they make clothing and source their materials. Some are even exploring models of circularity.

YESSENIA

A final question before I let you go: What does sustainable fashion mean to you?

SUMMER

Sustainable fashion looks like creativity and using whatever materials you have to make something beautiful. Sustainable fashion also looks like justice. I think it’s resourceful, and when it comes down to it, I think it’s a labor of love. It depends from person to person. Everyone can engage with sustainable fashion in their own special way—whether that’s making your own clothes, thrifting, or just making whatever clothes you have last as long as you can.

 

 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.

60SecondsOnEarth,AnthropoceneNow,ArtWorld,BeyondBorders,BlackFuturity,ClimateChampions,DemocracyEarth,EarthEquity,Earthscapes,EchoSphere,EarthTones,HolisticNature,Indigeneity,QueerEcology,ReFashion,RisingTides,TEKToTech,TheFrontline,TheOverview,WildLife,