Queen of Green: Summer Rayne Oakes

Everything you want to know about Summer Rayne Oakes. Her childhood, accomplishments & goals.  An interview by Apple Levy for the Coco Eco Magazine Jan/Feb Issue.

A gorgeous day for a photo shoot brought us way up in the Hollywood Hills for an exclusive glimpse of a day in a life of the Coco Eco Mag team.  Besides the excitement from the out of this world, breathtaking views of the chosen location, this shoot was with the one and only Summer Rayne Oaks.  Summer gave us free range on our questions and was willing to share with us everything we wanted to know, from her roots to her current passions.  We kicked off our chat by finding out the story behind the name. 

Photo: Summer Rayne Oakes

Photography Courtney Dailey

Stylist: Robin Garvick 

Hair: Brian Bowman 

Make Up: Rebecca Liceaga

Jacket, Skirt (not shown), and Necklace : www.lindaloudermilk.com 

Make up products by Suki Naturals and Alima Pure, courtesy of Future Natural

Hair products courtesy of MOP 

Special thanks to Glenda Borden for our gorgeous Los Angeles sustainable location!

: My mother was aiming to have her kids on the first day of summer. She had an overwhelming feeling that I was going to be an artist when I grow up so she wanted to name me something artsy and it was pouring down when I was born so she named me Summer Rayne.

AL: With your given name, it almost seemed like you are destined to be in this movement. Do you feel that your roots & upbringing play a big role in your actions today?

SRO: I think where I grew up in North Easter Pennsylvania, it was a really grounding atmosphere and I had the benefit of growing up in a beautiful part of the country. I had the privilege of growing up in the countryside of farm, fields & forests, and that literally has been my source of inspiration. I don’t quite know where I got the passion for environment even though my mom was conscious.  We had an orchard & we had our own garden. She kept the most beautiful flower garden & she just loved putting her hands on the soil and growing our own food and we composted. We had that sense of responsibility & respect for resources. It was a totally blue collar worker area. My father was a truck driver and my mother was a ballerina.  She did jazz.  To this day I never forget where I grew up and what environment means to all sorts of people.  [more]

SRO: What inspire me is finding new communication routes that could build the movement. Fashion is one of those for me. It’s a very linguistic tool. Green jobs are another thing because they reach a whole new audience, and for us to really push this movement forward we need to empower more people. It can’t just be about the leaders at the top, or the select few. That’s not going to win or make the movement. It’s about empowering & finding leadership within unexpected places.

AL: Speaking of green jobs. CNN recently released an article that 1.2 million jobs were lost in 2008 and most of those without a job are now discouraged and have stopped looking for work.  Are green jobs available now, and if so, is it enough to raise spirits?

SRO: I don’t think there are enough “quote unquote” green jobs.  I think there needs to be certain levels of training programs and that’s really the call to action right now.  We can’t just do this on our own as individuals.  We need the collaboration with the government.  We need to pump money into certain areas where we can make green jobs possible.

I think when you’re in times of need you have to be more creative with your resources, both creatively, and monetary or financial resources, and that’s part of the entrepreneurial spirit of what makes an American, I do believe.

AL: Can you tell us about Power Shift 2007?

SRO: Yeah. It was actually fantastic with my friend Billy Parish, who is the founder of Energy Action, which is the largest group for youth against climate change.  It’s about solving the climate crisis and it’s about 46 organizations and coalition that’s just been really powerful. 

 Dress: Leila Hafzi

Our work has always been on a parallel trajectory, but I have never really been fully involved in the climate change movement, and it was back in February of 07 when he sent me this powerful email that said “What would you do if you had 5000 young people at your fingertips? We’re doing Powershift.”  It sent goose bumps up & down my arms.

The whole team just pulled off an amazing rally/workshop/ lobby day where 6000 young people from all 50 states, 300 congressional districts, and 43 nations just descended on the Capital and just got their voices heard.  What really excited me about Power Shift, as somebody involved in the green space, you’re always looking for more ways to get involved and sometimes you hit a slump. With this it was just so empowering because I had never lobbied before in my life and I would have never known how to get there if I didn’t have training and that’s what was so cool about that green conference and why it was so different from other green conferences.  It wasn’t just people talking at you.  It was training you to be a leader in your own right.  That has since inspired regional PowerShift, community oriented Powershift & this year we are planning one that’s going to be twice the size of what happened in November of 07 and that will be happening from February 27th to March 2nd of 2009.  Within the first 100 days of Barack Obama taking office.  It’s going to be spectacular.

AL: In the pattern of Awareness, Action, Achieve, what are some tools available to us now in order to take action?

SRO: That’s a great question. For different people I think action means different things and I’m a huge and firm believer that you don’t have to be aware of all the issues out there. I think the people that throw themselves in the mix of things and get involved & learn along the way is just as equally important step in the whole movement. I think action is whatever you want to make of it.  I think that we truly need to be changing people’s lives.  I think that’s the positive reinforcement that really propels this movement forward.

AL: Do you think you think you get more of a reaction from an older age group or more your peers?

SRO: I think there’s really been a broad appreciation for what I’m doing.  There are different aspects of my career that appeal to a different audience.  I never wanted to be a model just to model or to get into the sweet parties or to meet the sweet people. What it was was to get into an area and communicate sustainability more effectively. Fashion and media is just so linguistic and it captures so much attention from the audience that normally wouldn’t have it on their radar screen.

AL: I just saw your model diaries and they’re very edgy, especially the intro.  What kind of reaction are you getting from that?

SRO: I absolutely get mixed reactions. Some of my work is not for everybody. Even though my aesthetic is more edgier avante guard, the reality of the matter is I’m also running a company.  I also consult with many clients and some of them are not that edgy, so I have to be very careful when putting out an image because my image is very much wrapped up into who I am, not only as a person, but also what I offer.

AL: How do you balance being outspoken and edgy with the seriousness of the environmental crisis?

SRO: Well, it’s not as if I truly consider myself completely edgy. Even though I consider my work to have an edge, in my daily life I’m probably quite a boring person. (She laughs) I think the sense of sincerity & hard work, I hope, comes across.  I think it does. My education helps too.  Coming with a serious background in environmental science has really served me well.

I really do consider myself, first & foremost and advocate for all things environment. When people speak with me, my seriousness comes across.

AL: Can you tell us about your education and why you chose the field?

SRO: Now looking back, I was totally the biggest nature freak when I was growing up. Raising insects, I found out, is quite weird. To anybody, that’s bazaar. I brought insects home & I raised them.  I grew mold in my refrigerator and these were things that many young people were not necessarily doing. 

I remember in kindergarten we cleaned out a half gallon ice cream from the deli and we had to bring show and tell.  We had a really bad outbreak of caterpillars and I remember just scraping them off the wall into this half-gallon container of ice cream and taking them to kindergarten class for show and tell and I was like “These are all my friends.”  Opened them up, dumped them on the table.  All the kids where like “Oh, cool!!”  I never really lost that.  I was always very inquisitive and totally got lost in my mother’s National Geographics. 

I had the incredible opportunity (when I was young) to work on amazing programs. We set up a program in high school where we would do stream water quality analysis.  I worked with the local County Conservation District on a mine reclamation site because the acid mine drainage was pouring out of the coal and killing the trout fishery and here I was at 15 or 16 years old being able to manage this program. It was completely awesome!

I just had this sense of responsibility and positive reinforcement that I felt was really making a huge difference and applied early decision to Cornell.  I went there when I was 13 and I fell in love with the campus.  So when I applied early decision, I got in and started doing tons of work study programs from sewage sludge research and studying in the Dominican Republic rainforest areas, and doing insect studies for aquatic entomology and water quality.  I just had so many great opportunities and again it was something that really inspired me. 

Blouse and skirt: Elena Garcia
Shoes: Charmone
Necklace: M.E. Moore
Bracelet: M.E. Moore

The epiphany of what I had and where I got to where I am right now was pretty much two fold. One is I got awesome opportunities to get published in the Science Journals and in the science field, that’s where you want to be, but it didn’t really go anywhere.  You kind of expect something to happen and nothing did, and then the other thing was I lived with boys all my life. I lived with four great guys in college and they always made fun of me.  They always called me “Park Ranger.”  I was carrying a bug net with my backpack and they would pretend they didn’t know me. That was their view of an environmentalist or a person that studied the environment would be, and my epiphany came when I realized that my research wasn’t really getting anywhere.  It wasn’t going to change anything. Two, I started making the connection that sewage sludge, for how gross and grimy it is, completely affects us and is directly related to our health.  I said two folds but the third one I think is just my friends.  When they called me “Park Ranger” and totally didn’t get what I did. 

If I can’t get my friends to understand why I do what I do and why it should matter to them, then what good is that?  I always thought that my best asset was being able to communicate and bridge different groups of people together, so I literally decided almost overnight to research the people that I wanted to work with in the fashion industry, and literally got on a bus and headed to New York city met with a bunch of people and started my career from there.  I started doing a sustainability project with a photographer by the name of John F. Cooper back in 2001 called “The Organics Portraits Projects” which was way ahead of its time.  It tied in sustainable designs, avante guard photography, conservation, and environmental education and it’s an amazing project. The images came out beautifully and it really put my foot into this whole area of sustainable design and not just using fashion as a communication tool but also leveraging my knowledge and expertise in the environmental field to “quote unquote” green up the industry.

AL: I know that you’ve actually been an inspiration since you were young because you where on your own at the age of 15.  Where did you get the strength to be able to do that?

SRO: I think that it always sounds so much more traumatic than it actually is, but I think with any kid whose parents, split some of us may go off the deep end whilst others rise and come up to the top and say, “I had to have a certain sense of responsibility.” For me, that’s where it came from.  My mother, she was really traumatized after the separation and I chose to move with her.  I think there was always a sense that you had to have a certain set of responsibilities and be the strength where people don’t have it.  I think for sure that has definitely shaped who I am today.  There’s absolutely no denying.  I can’t remember if I was always a go getter.  I think right when my parents split was when I really started concentrating at school more and really coming out of my shell, surprisingly so.

Growing up in my area of North Eastern Pennsylvania, it was very hard for anybody to get any kind of job, which is one of the things why when Van Jones and Green For All came out with the idea of green jobs, it was something that I felt very akin to. My mother had to make this decision, “Should I stay in Pennsylvania and try to make ends meet or do I go to another state and try to get a better job where I could support you to go to college?”  As I said earlier, I knew that I wanted to go to Cornell since I was 13 so my mother was like “ I can’t let me little girl’s dream go down the crapper.” But the reality is even though my mother had left and I stayed in Pennsylvania, I didn’t really let anybody know that I was alone.  At that time, I was scared of people coming in and taking away my mother or whatever, but the reality is in tough times, things get really, really rough and that point was for me, I didn’t want to move.  I was so involved in my community.  I was so involved in school.  I had a great family within Pennsylvania. My aunt lived not too far down the road so I was really in good hands.  Barack Obama actually said it too.  He feels that his father’s absence shaped him more in who he is today than his being there did, and I think for me, that’s very much the same way.  I have the best relationship with my parents, but I also have a fierce sense of independence and self reliance which I think is really important. I always had the sense that I have nothing else to lose.  What do I have to lose? And I think many of us are scared of taking that risk even if it’s a sensible risk. 

I feel so much more comfortable talking about my situation more so now than when I was younger and even though my life might not be the same story as somebody else, I really hope that it can be a source of inspiration for other young people.  Especially for young people who feel that they don’t have a choice or that they have too many challenges against them. 

In America we have so many so many options.  I think even in the developing world there’s always a choice, but a lot of times when you have that many challenges facing you, you might have to work that much harder because it’s not given to you on a silver platter. When you have that lack of resources whether it’s financial resources or whatever, you do with what you have and you become more creative with it.  I’ve been very lucky      to have partnered with people, who really believe in this work, which I had been looking for, for quite some time. I feel that I have that team now which is totally great, and finding people who are really inspired by your story, who want to work with you and to want to support you, is priceless.

AL: What kind of projects are you into now?  We know that there’s a book in the works, and all sorts of other stuff.  Tell us about it.

SRO: Man, I feel like I wrote that book in 3 months and it takes forever to come out.  My book, Style Naturally is coming out in February and we’re planning book parties all over the place.  In Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, DC, Philadelphia and Toronto, and we’re totally going to cover the basics & do a little book tour.  So, I’m kind of ramping up for that.  I’m trying to get all my travel in before February hits because I just know that I’m going to be completely busy with that book and rightfully so.

Dress, Necklace, Headpiece and Belt: Melissa Kirgan and Johanna Hofring


I actually just got back from a program with a former colleague.  His name is Allen Schwartz. We work on community sustainability programs. I’m actually wearing some of the pieces. Sustainably harvested African Blackwood.  So I actually just got back from Africa & I’d love to spend more time over there working on the projects, but my bandwidth is so used up at this point.  So I’m actually looking for an intern in New York City. I’m at the point where I definitely need help with stuff that I used to love to do before, and I have a backlog of things to do. 

I have a number of cool partnerships.  Payless is the most recent which has been awesome. They’re great partners and they’re very receptive to this whole idea of sustainability.  They internally were looking at what is important to the Payless brand, and one was diversity because they have a very diverse consumer base.  That was really important to them and they also said sustainability, not just because it’s happening in the world, but also because we just need to start thinking about it.  We had been talking for months and months and got together the contract.  It’s a multi year agreement which is great. We’re really learning a tremendous amount. Doing a sustainable shoe is far different from doing a sustainable t-shirt or jewelry piece because it has so many different components. You see a shoe but you’re also seeing a lot of work in the background.  I’m a firm believer in working with companies who are progressing and learning as we go so that’s been great.  The shoe line is going to launch in April of 09 and it’s called Zoey and Zac.  We just wanted something really fun. Eventually it’s going to be a family brand.  We’re starting with women’s casual first and then we’re going to go to dressier shoes, we’re going to have kids and then we’ll also go into men’s. 

That’s been fun and I have other deals that have been put in place.  In June I have another launch for a line that I’ve been working with for the past year, which is more home textile and spas. All this stuff is going to be happening in 2009.  There’s a ton of cool projects.  I never feel like I’m in a job because I never have the same day twice.  I never have any kind of déjà vu unless I dream about it the day before which often happens.

AL: What did you do for your 24th Birthday?

SRO: I don’t even remember! I actually share the same birthday as my manager, June 3rd.  I have a feeling I worked this last birthday.  It’s so bad that I can’t remember.  I’ve never been a big holiday buff.  I don’t drink so I don’t go out to drink with my buddies.  I’m always the person getting the Shirley Temple or the Arnold Palmer.  Any person at the bar that serves me says “Oh, you’re the designated driver.” I’m like “Yeah. That would be right if I drove, but I don’t drive!”

AL: Are you a Myspace, Facebook, or a Linked in Type of person?

SRO: I think I’m on Linked in but I haven’t used that.  I feel like it’s weird to me.  I do have Myspace and I do have Facebook and I’m not always on both.  I mean, it’s not the best way to contact me.  I’m on both.  I was reluctant to Facebook but now I’m on it.  It’s been a great way for me to connect with college students.

AL: So what’s the best way to connect with you?

SRO: Well, if you want an immediate response, the best way is to connect is with Julia at my office and all the contact information is at SummerRayneOaks.com.  She’s a pleasure.  She tries to get back to everybody because if I’m traveling, you’re not going to hear from me for months and then you’re going to hate me.

Vest and Pencil skirt, www.lindaloudermilk.com
Shoes Charmone
Bracelet A.D Schwarz
Necklace Linda Loudermilk

Written letters are nice.  I’ve been getting some written letters that I think have been a lost communication tool. Actually I wrote my friend a handwritten letter and he was so taken a back by it.  He said,” I kept on reading it and thinking that you wanted something from me, but I realized it was just a nice letter.”

AL: There’s you’re tip, people.  To get her attention, write her a letter.

SRO: Is that what the world is coming to? (She laughs) Contact Julia at the office.  It’s always the best way. 

AL: Sounds good.  Well, you know we appreciate all you’re work.  Everything you’ve done.  Please don’t ever stop. 

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