By Rachel Stengel
Actress, singer, activist and keynote speaker for Rider’s National Campus Sustainability Day Rosario Dawson spoke about the energy crisis, fracking, the need to vote and the power to make change on Oct. 24 to a crowd of more than 250 students, faculty and community members in the Cavalla Room. She sat down with The Rider News for an exclusive interview after her speech to discuss the need to be green, the power of voting and how she brings her activism to the big screen.
The Rider News (TRN): Since you are an advocate for environmental issues and you’re here to help us celebrate National Campus Sustainability Day, can you tell me how you are being green in your everyday life?
Rosario Dawson: There’s the little things like owning a Prius; I use LED lights. I overuse water in the shower I’ll admit, but I don’t shower every day and I tend to take baths, which use less water than showers. I think ultimately it’s really about trying to communicate and share the values of sustainability and trying to do things that have a larger impact than just using reusable bags, which I do.
[I haven’t] drank bottled water in the past two years. I’ve drank from maybe three plastic bottles of water because I took on a challenge two Earth Days ago to not just say, ‘Hey, happy Earth Day,’ but to take on something. I was asked to take on a real challenge so I was like okay I’ll stop drinking water from plastic bottles, which ended up being really difficult, especially when you’re traveling, especially in Africa. I came back really dehydrated because I really didn’t drink any water from plastic bottles while I was there and it was not good. It just shows you that challenge.
Anything I can do to promote help or create awareness of those issues I do, but it’s also about trying to pass certain legislation and vote certain things in. I can do my part and carry a reusable bag and do all that kind of [eco-friendly] stuff, but that’s not going to stop the millions upon millions of bags that are being wasted and millions upon millions of gallons — and we’re talking about going into the billions now — of oil that’s being wasted. I try to do that and talk about it on Twitter and get petitions signed and try to ban using plastic bags. We’re going pretty good in California. We haven’t gotten the whole state, but we’re city by city and district, so hopefully we’ll get there.
TRN: Fracking is a big issue that you feel very passionately about. It is also an issue that both President Obama and Mitt Romney have discussed. What is your opinion about the candidates’ stances on fracking?
RD: I think it seemed pretty clear from Romney’s side that he would actually try to bring more coal into the conversation, which is interesting because a lot of natural gas fracking has actually challenged our use of coal. We’ve dropped and diminished our use of it so it’s interesting to hear him say so specifically that he’s a big coal guy, which is a big polluter. He’s totally behind natural gas fracking. It also seems to be the same case from Obama who talks about renewable energy and being sustainable, but he’s also a really big opponent of ethanol from corn and fracking.
I think we have an opportunity to talk to both because both of these candidates are pretty strong on that and I think it’s because that’s the reality. You at it and take out all the sort of on the ground effects and especially since we don’t have a lot of the data except for people’s personal stories and people who are motivating and advocacy around [fracking] — this is the only thing that’s really letting us know the detriments to this process of getting natural gas. What we’re really seeing is people like T. Boone Pickens who’s telling us the positives: We’re using less coal, we’ve kept our gas prices down, we’re emitting less CO2 and our carbon footprint is going down in these different ways, but we have nothing to compare it to. I think that’s the larger picture when we’re talking about going to war with different countries. The reason we’re able to put sanctions down is because we have a gas resource that makes us comfortable to put those sanctions on people. Before we were going to Iraq for oil, now it feels like we’re able to kind of able to pull out of places because we’re so sustained. That’s why it’s crazy to not have them speak about climate change at all during the policy debates because where we stand with our energy, where we stand with our foreign policy, even where we stand with our economics is so instrumental with our sustainability and the world isn’t having the conversations the way we could be.
I think there’s a major opportunity for young people to come up and go, ‘Listen, you say we’re inheriting trillions of dollars in debt. You’re telling us we’re not going to have jobs. And then you’re telling us we’re not going to be able to breathe and we’re going to have to import our water — enough.’ We need to implement those laws [to protect the environment] and stay strict to them and go forward and not backwards. I don’t want [politicians] to be trading in my future for economical. Hopefully whoever gets into the office will be able to hear the outcry that has become so large.
America is a pincushion because of how many wells were actually put down; there’s a lot of economics with [fracking]. Now that it’s really been showing up in people’s backyards. When you’re trying to put [fracking] around the Delaware River — that’s 17 million people’s drinking water — suddenly, all that information that’s been complied, all of that advocacy and all of those people that are making a noise big enough to maybe put a ban on this.
The noise we’re making about [fracking] is big and that’s why France has said, ‘No, we’re not going to do it.’ That’s why Bulgaria has said, ‘No, we’re not going to do it.’ South Africa’s put a moratorium on it. We’re letting them know: Don’t bring this to where you are. You’re going to regret it. We have to continue making the noise we’re making because it’s definitely louder than any of these special interests and they’re really surprised that we’ve been able to do what we’ve been able to do. If you want your case heard, I truly believe that we can have that access point with the President of the United States.
TRN: There’s always a portion of the population that feels that they should not vote because they’re maybe not informed about the candidates or about the issues at hand. What would you say to those people?
RD: They should be registering [to vote]. They should be asking themselves questions about what they’re passionate about, about what’s important to them in they’re community. Are the roads messed up? Do you feel like you don’t like the fact that we’re going off to war? Are you worried about the job and economic crisis? If you’re living in America and dealing with any of the issues, you’re pretty well informed about the issues around you.
Maybe you don’t have the perfect bureaucratic conversation points and the way a lot of the politicians speak could make your head spin, but they are in their weird, convoluted way talking about the issues we’re experiencing every single day. There’s an inherent challenge where I don’t know the perfect way to say it so I’m just going to keep quite and I’m just going to get crushed by the system. That doesn’t make any sense, especially in a day and age like now where you can literally type [what you’re searching for] into any server you use and have a plethora of information that will show up and guide you.
That’s what we did with Voto Latino this year, we joined with Rebuild a Dream and we started a campaign called Missing Voters to reach out to the 19 million people who have had foreclosed homes and let them know that you need to reregister because now that you’ve lost your home, you’re no longer at the same polling place so you may need to reregister with your temporary residence or with your notice that says you’re going to move back into your foreclosed home. It’s also to reach out to the banks to say, ‘Retroactively and in the future you need to give registration information to the people you’re foreclosing a home on. We bailed you out so you should be bailing out those people. On top of them losing their home, they shouldn’t lose the right to vote.’
Six million young people didn’t vote in the last election because they didn’t realize when the [voter registration] deadline was and they didn’t feel like they knew enough about all of [the issues at hand]. [Voto Latino is] really trying to answer every time to say, ‘I don’t know,’ with, ‘Here’s a website, here’s an app, here’s a Facebook thing.’ We’re coming directly to you. There’s no excuse at this point for people not having access points [to information] because it’s literally right there. We have the easiest time reaching out to people then we ever have and now it’s just the barrier of people feeling insecurity with themselves. The thing is to get out of your shame, get out of your fear and really recognize [that[ a lot of us feel the same way, but we can do something about it if we work together.
At the very least I sometimes just want people — a this is a terrible thing to say — but I’d rather people just go in and put in a blank vote than not vote at all. Even just putting in a blank vote would be so significant because at least you would still have voted. People could see that someone was there and go, ‘You know I don’t agree on any of those issues and I don’t want to vote for any of these candidates, but I’m a person and I’m here and I’m a voter and if I’m here and had something better to vote for I would have.’ [Fill out a blank vote] just so we can count you because the reality is those numbers [are] down where people aren’t voting or registering at all. What you’re really saying is not that, ‘I don’t know,’ but, ‘I don’t care.’ When you say, ‘I don’t care,’ someone else will go, ‘Great, because I do. Can we do it my way then?’ And then you suffer [the consequences].
TRN: In your speech, you said that you like to work on films that expose important issues to people. In that respect, what role have you played that means the most to you?
RD: I mean Seven Pounds was so provocative and interesting to talk about guilt and shame, and the desire to make amends, which is so powerful. The film was so beautiful about so many things. Then Rent obviously, which is talking about poverty, artistic integrity, HIV and AIDS, gay, lesbian and the transgender community — so powerful. Kids was able to talk about HIV and AIDS. A film I produced called Descent was about a girl getting date raped in college and then spinning out of control then normalizing the violence by becoming sexually promiscuous and doing lots of drugs and then exacting revenge on this person.
Even stuff like 25th Hour, which was interesting to me because the protagonists are interesting people. They’re not good people, but it’s so interesting to me that you can understand everybody and hear their story that you can sympathize with. I think that’s really powerful and important.
I don’t always like the characters that I play. I play a crack mom to Vanessa Hudgens in this movie that’s coming up [Gimme Shelter]. It was so intense playing her. It was rough. I didn’t agree with almost anything that she said. [The character is] part of the problem of welfare recipients who just want to milk the system and think that the whole world’s against them and every bad knock has really taken them down. It was so great to portray that character and put myself nonjudgmentally into her shoes and portray her with realism and give her a voice.
Every story is real and unique and deserves to be heard. There’s such an amazing quality that film, music, art and entertainment have to get people and arrest their attention for a little while to think and care about an issue that they wouldn’t have. It’s really hard for me to choose one [role] because I’ve had people tell me how [some of my roles] have affected them in all different walks of life. It’s a privilege to be able to tell all of these stories and sometimes tell it from the perspective of the person who’s wrong. Sometimes it’s good to challenge myself.
That’s been my greatest gift for my activism, to be able to challenge myself to be in someone else’s shoes because it makes me that much more understanding. In my activism I realize that the person on the other side isn’t just some [expletive] who doesn’t know any better and is an idiot and is trying to be mean. You’re really passionate from your stance. This really means a lot to your from your position and let’s figure out what that means and how we can both match our passions to talk about the same thing and recognize that we do have something in common.
TRN: In your speech you did mention that future generations do care about the things we vote for and what we’re remembered for as a generation. What do you want to be remembered for?
RD: Being famous or notorious is such an interesting idea and I may be experiencing that now, but there’s nothing to say that 100 years from now anyone will care. I feel like if there’s anything I can do to be remembered for it’s I seriously want a ban on plastic bags around America. I want to get more people voting and caring and that doesn’t matter if that translates down the line as something that I did. I’ll know it’s something that I’m caring about and doing with my time here on Earth. If I can do some bit part where yes, I still like to be entertained, I still like to travel and hang out with my friends. I have my off times too where I’m not sitting there contemplating the stars and everything that’s amazing and connected to the Earth. We have our moments where it’s not all about moving heaven and Earth, but at the end of the day if I’m on my deathbed and I’ve done something to make the planet a little bit better than when I got there then that’ll make me feel good even if no one remembers it.