This is Season 3 Episode 3 of Grist’s Temperature Check podcast, featuring first person stories of crucial pivot points on the path to climate action. Listen to the full series: Apple Podcasts | Stitcher | Spotify

“I had worked on all these projects with activists, but I still hadn’t worked on climate or the environment. And at that point I had done all my training in that. I did my undergraduate degree in that, I did my graduate degree in that. It was my passion. It was the reason I’d left Juilliard. It was everything to me. And Hollywood just was not interested.”

– Maya Lilly

Episode transcript

Maya Lilly has been in the arts pretty much her entire life. She started out in theater and eventually landed at the Juilliard School, and that’s where she had an epiphany. It was a realization that changed the course of her life. She’s now a producer for the YEARS Project, a multimedia storytelling platform focused on climate change. This is her story.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

I’m Maya. I am 42, and I am a producer of film, TV, and lately social media videos for the climate movement. 

As a kid, I loved the book “The Missing Piece” by Shel Silverstein, and it’s kind of an underrated classic. Most people know “The Giving Tree.” “The Missing Piece” is basically about this circle that’s missing a piece out of it, like a little triangle, and it’s going around everywhere and just trying to make pieces fit into it. And then eventually, at the end of the book, it realizes that, after it finds the perfect fit to its circle, that it actually can’t do all the things that it loved to do. It can’t sing like it used to out of the missing piece hole. It can’t dance around. It can’t roll in the same way. It changes everything about it. And so it lets the piece go and continues on its journey happily. I loved that story, because I’ve always felt like we aren’t missing anything. And I think the great question of my life has been why are humans so at odds with the world around us if we are complete unto ourselves? 

My mom was a drama teacher, and so I was always the kid that was in theaters watching her direct. And very early on, I started at performing arts schools. So I was accepted into a performing arts school in fourth grade in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was at the time the premier art school in the entire country. And everybody is singing and dancing and in choir. And it was competitive. We had to audition all the time. And it was also highly, highly imaginative and creative. I loved my upbringing in art schools, because they fostered an ability to think outside the box in every facet.

When I was 15, I discovered what we were doing to animals in factory farms. And it was a really bewildering moment for me, because when I learned about how we treat them and how we’re not just killing them peacefully and it was more like a internment camp where we’re torturing them, I just thought, “Oh, well, people just don’t know about this. That’s why they’re allowing it.” And so from like the age of 15 to 18, I was an animal rights activist that would tell people a lot about, “Oh, do you know what happened to that steak?” And people didn’t care. I was surprised how people didn’t care, because I cared so deeply about it. So I kind of put it on the back burner. It was the first time I’d kind of spoken out about something societally and then didn’t get anywhere. 

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

I had always been performing. I’d always been a theater kid. Auditioning for Juilliard was an extension of that, but I didn’t think I was going to get in. Nobody thinks they’re going to get in, and that actually frees you up quite a bit. You know, they take like two percent of applicants, or they did at the time in the ‘90s. So I was particularly free when I auditioned for them. And it’s a grueling audition. You had to do like three rounds of auditions. The first round was in front of like 12 different judges, and you have to do two monologues and a song. And then the second callback was the same amount of people. And then the third callback was with the director of the program in his office for a one-on-one conversation. It was super intimidating, but when you think you’re not going to get in somewhere, you’re kind of like, whatever, you know, let’s just have fun with it. And I think I was as shocked as everybody is when I did get in. And I was one of six women. I was the seventh accepted into my class of 20. 

My first year at Juilliard, the head of the environmental group there came up to me in the hallway in a tizzy, and he was completely overwhelmed by the amount of shows that he was doing. And he asked me if I would take over as president of the Juilliard Greens, the environmental group that was trying to help Juilliard recycle and put on the Earth Day celebration and get the lights more efficient all throughout the building. And so I said yes. And I kind of said yes without really having done a lot of work in the environmental movement or in the environment at all. And so I had to kind of like learn a lot about what was going on. 

And I learned about deforestation of the Amazon to make room for cattle. And I was astonished. And that was a really big moment for me because I, up until that point, had thought that humans know what we’re doing. And when I had the thought, “Oh no, we don’t know what we’re doing,” I started tugging on that thread and I found it connected to everything else. I tugged on it and deforestation was connected to everything. It was connected to a hole in the ozone. It was connected to this climate crisis. Everything was connected to humans changing the earth for our own means, only to gratify us. 

I was 18 years old and it felt like somebody had taken the net out from under me when I was jumping off a high wire. It was like all security, I felt, evaporated. But at the same time, the reason I say it was an epiphany was because it also was very clear that I had to do something. I had to help. And keep in mind, this is the late ‘90s. So society wasn’t really talking about the climate crisis yet. And so I right away was like, well, I’m not a scientist, how can I help? Oh, it’s in the stories that we tell. So how can I take the work I’m doing at Juilliard and use that to tell a story of a world that is seriously f—ed. 

So every year, right at the beginning of the year, we had these showcases where all of the faculty would be present. Every single year of actors would be present. And we’re all supposed to choose a monologue and present a monologue. Keep in mind, the students I’m talking about are like Jessica Chastain, Glenn Howerton from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” Sam Witwer, Oscar Isaac, the top people in their craft. And a lot of people do these, like, really obtuse Russian monologues that nobody’s ever heard. I had been knee deep in what was going on with the destruction of ecosystems, so I decided to write a monologue, that I performed, about how can we write and perform monologues about anything but this, because this is so important. Like, we’re making a world uninhabitable for us to be able to perform monologues in the future or even plays. We’re making a world uninhabitable for us to have Broadway. That’s a farcical idea. That we are so arrogant that we’re like, oh, let’s do monologues about just ourselves amidst this dystopian crisis.

So I performed this monologue and the next day the teachers put me on probation. They said, “You’re not improving in the way that we’d like. We need to watch how you do this year, and then either we’ll take you off probation or we’ll kick you out.” And it was directly, directly related to that monologue. 

I felt a little betrayed, because I had just been, like, showing my soul in every class for hours. But I also realized, like, they’re not going to understand, and that’s okay. I need to figure out how to make them understand with my work. And maybe that monologue was not quite it yet. 

So I had this really great comeuppance moment at the end of my second year. The faculty that had put me on probation called me into their office and they said, “Congratulations, you’re not on probation anymore. You did really well this year, made amazing strides. We’re going to keep you on, not kicking you out.” And then pretty much that same week I said, “I’m leaving. I’m going to go to another college. I don’t want to be here anymore”. Which was really surprising for them, because I think they were like, “Oh, we did you a favor.” And I was like, “Sorry.” In this time of being on probation, I have completely changed who I am and I’ve had this epiphany and I want to go figure it out. 

So what I did was I went to the now famous New College of Florida. It was started by professors in the ‘60s who wanted an alternative education system. And you make your own curriculum, so you learn and study what you want to study. But it’s an honors college, very rigorous. So I got there and I was like, I need to first figure out everything about what’s going on in the environment. So I started taking oceanography classes, I started taking environmental science, environmental philosophy. And quickly I realized I want to be doing this with the arts. I want to be figuring out storytelling, and how I can effectively use storytelling as a means of societal change. 

For me, every other academic field of study, it had the thought processes, but it didn’t have the heart. It didn’t combine the feeling with the thinking. And I knew that if we were going to have like a sea change in society, we had to get people at the feeling level. 

As part of my undergraduate thesis for environmental studies B.A., I performed and wrote a play called “Still Time,” and I did it basically for the entire school on several different performance nights. And I got standing ovations every night. And I also had people coming up to me for months afterwards to tell me how much it impacted them. And I had talked about various different topics of the environmental crisis in the play. Everything from, you know, factory farming of animals to rainforest depletion to corporate malfeasance. And I performed it well, because I’d been performing since I was a kid, and I was also super impassioned about it. And people really responded. 

I mean, my parents saw it. My parents have been vigorous meat eaters, and still are. And they gave up eating meat for like six months, which was a feat to no end. I had people come up to me and ask, like, how they could help with some of the topics that I was talking about. Because that performance had such a visible effect on the audience members, I knew I was on to something. And I knew I hadn’t done it perfectly. I did the best I could at, you know, in my early twenties. And I knew I just wanted to get better at it and I wanted to figure out a bigger megaphone than the one that I was using, if I could. 

And then I just kept coming back to the idea of, well, but isn’t the bigger megaphone film? It’s reaching more people around the globe than a play ever will. And even though the energy of a play is immeasurably important, it’s just that one night for that one audience, and it’s a much smaller audience than anybody watching a Hulu show. So I was really trying to figure out what is the leverage point to make people care. Because even though we still weren’t talking about climate as a society, I had a sense that this was happening fast. 

When I got to LA, circa 2003-2004, I was going to try to infiltrate the Hollywood system to figure out if I can influence environmental ethics through that system. I did it very purposefully and looking back, very naively. 

I was very idealistic and I was an outlier. And so I kind of felt like a bull in a china shop for the first couple of years, because everything in LA is networking, and that’s how you often get jobs. But finally, I kind of got that under my belt, and my first producing experience was for a film festival called Elevate, and it was all these different short films that were raising consciousness. It wasn’t really environmental, but I wrote a film that I submitted to the festival, as I was producing it, that was about a little girl who knows how to survive in an apocalyptic type scenario. And the play won. It won a spot to be one of the films that was produced for the festival. 

And I remember the two heads of the festival called me into their office and they said, “We love this and we know that it got the audience vote, you know, and we know that we should produce it, but we don’t love the ending.” And the ending was this little girl who had just been helping all these adults figure out how to find water, how to find food in the forest, and we don’t know what’s happened outside the forest and civilization. They finally come out of the forest and everything’s been destroyed. But the little girl once again saves the day and she’s like, “Oh, look, I see the path.” And the adults follow her as they try to figure out the next thing to do. And they said, “We don’t like that civilization has been destroyed. Can you change the ending?” And again, it was like, here I am being kind of prescient in what I’m talking about and people just not getting it. Even a consciousness-raising film festival. 

So what I just kept doing was, when one thing wasn’t working, I’d be like, okay, what can I do instead? And oftentimes what I would do is I started hopping on projects that were running parallel to what I wanted to do, and maybe were in the room with the people that I wanted to be working with, and yet weren’t exactly the thing I wanted to be doing. So I just kind of kept it moving. I didn’t get too dismayed at people not understanding, because people had not understood at that point for like ten years in my life. 

I decided to go back to grad school in 2010, because something I was running up against a lot in LA when I was talking about environment and climate is people didn’t believe me. It’s like, who are you to say? And I didn’t need a master’s for my career as a producer. Like, it wouldn’t get me a higher salary at all. But what it did do was give me more clout and it enabled me to get in the room in spaces I normally wouldn’t be in the room. So I’ve actually had people when I’ve done pitch meetings at different networks like Hulu or Netflix, it’s actually come up, “Oh, Maya here, she has a master’s in environmental security. So Maya, please take it away. Why is this story important?” 

Working on “The Big Fix,” the BP Gulf oil spill documentary had originally started as a part of my graduate work. I chose to do my final project as working on a film of meaning, and so I had applied to this company first as an intern, but I was doing work so beyond an intern level that they hired me to work on this film. And it was like an investigative look on how BP was covering up the effects of the oil spill in the Gulf. 

“I think that we’ve all been poisoned, and this is the biggest toxic waste cover up in America’s history. 

When we hear from the media, from the government, that the oil is gone, we’re being lied to.” – Clip from “The Big Fix”

And one of the things I had to do was, like, get all the interview subjects to agree to be a part of our film. And so I kind of developed a skill at getting the impossible interview. Like a whistleblower from within BP ranks who wanted to talk about the Corexit they were pouring into the Gulf that was killing off all the dolphins and whales in the area. 

So then I got hired on as Lauren Greenfield’s producer, and Lauren Greenfield at the time and is one of the best photographers working today, as well as a Sundance, Clio, and, Emmy-winning director of documentaries – and verité documentaries. So “Queen of Versailles,” “Thin,” and we did “Generation Wealth” together. 

So I set up photography and film shoots for her around the world. And one of the things that she specializes in is getting the ungettable interview. Like, how do you get in the room with a Russian oligarch who doesn’t want to interview with you? That was me. So I was the producer that was figuring out how to get her into a bank under the Bahnhofstrasse when all the bankers in the world are laughing at me and saying, “We can’t put you in a gold vault to film. Sorry.” And I was like, “But can’t we get in a gold vault? Like, what can I do to get into a gold vault? Because that’s my assignment for today.” So again, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing, but it was running parallel, because, yes, wealth has shifted our moral compass. And what is our moral compass? Can I get us over to the moral compass of focus on climate ethics? 

From my work with Lauren, and because she’s such an acclaimed director, I was able to start working with Brave New Films on undocumented immigrant storytelling. From there, I was able to work with Pulse Films about different injustices that Black communities face around the country.

We have to join together as a community and fight for our rights. I want to know why California spent seven times more from prison in a year than per student. We’re here and we’re going to keep fighting. I can’t give up because I’ve been there.” – Clip from “Resist”

And then I was able to work with The Rock and his production company Seven Bucks on pretty much the same thing, and figuring out how to storytell the deep divide that actually exists pre-George Floyd with Black communities and what we’ve always known, which is that racism wasn’t solved with Martin Luther King. 

So I continued working in TV in LA. Now I had found a niche as an activist producer, because I was also an activist. 

I first heard about the YEARS Project in 2015, when I heard about this TV show called “Years of Living Dangerously,” which won the Emmy and was produced by James Cameron. It was on Showtime, and I was actually flabbergasted and pissed when I heard about it. I was flabbergasted because I was like, “Oh my God, there’s a TV show about climate.” I was pissed because I hadn’t heard about it ahead of time. And the reason I hadn’t heard about it ahead of time was because it was an entirely New York-based crew and New York-based studio. And I was in LA. And so I immediately started looking for connections to the main producers on the show. I emailed probably about ten different producers on the show based on my connections, and I was like: How do I work on this show? I want to work on this show. Please, can I work on the show? I’m a producer. I do this, here’s my resume. What do I do? And all roads lead to no response back. I couldn’t get anyone to respond back to me. And then the show was over. They did two seasons, and then that was it. I was like, oh, man. I was so bummed. 

I had worked on all these projects with activists, but I still hadn’t worked on climate or the environment. And at that point I had done all my training in that. I did my undergraduate degree in that, I did my graduate degree in that. It was my passion. It was the reason I’d left Juilliard. It was everything to me. And Hollywood just was not interested. So I just was like scouring around looking like, is anybody working on this? Like, who else can I have in my corner? I’ve been, like, flailing away at this for years and doing high level stuff, but not quite the stuff I want to do. And then I saw that the YEARS Project was hiring for a producer and I applied and I, I don’t know, I somehow forgot that they were in New York. They flew me in. We had an amazing conversation, and they were particularly interested in my work with activists, because at the time, guess what was happening? Kids were striking class on Fridays and taking to the streets. 

And there was a little activist named Greta Thunberg that had completely lit up the climate movement.

The first major shoot that I had in 2019 was the giant climate protests where students flooded the streets of New York and other cities across the country. We had a three camera team with three different producers all handling the different cameras. We were running in the streets of New York trying to figure out how to get the best shot of the front of the line with Greta and all of these different amazing activists, youth activists, who were basically saying: Enough is enough. The IPCC report is clear. We cannot go above 1.5 degrees for a livable planet and we have to cut our emissions by 2030. Let’s go. Like, what are you doing? And, you know, Greta was always harping on “listen to the scientists.” So I got to lead this camera team and capture this, like, momentous moment. It was insanity. It was the biggest protest I’ve ever seen in New York. 

It’s gonna take all of us united. It’s gonna take all of us taking to the streets and demanding change for it to happen.” – Clip from “Why Millions of Kids Followed Greta Thunberg Out the Door”

I saw myself in those kids and I also had this bittersweet moment of seeing the community that I didn’t have, that I wished I had had. And I kept saying that all day long. I was like, these are the kids I’ve been looking for my whole life. These are the kids I wanted to find. They’re completely lit up like I was. And they know the facts. Unlike me, they had read all of the IPCC reports. I didn’t have the internet for half of college. They have the internet. They have the world at their disposal and they know the information. And they are so mad that we’ve taken away their futures. Yes, I finally felt like I had the community I’d always been looking for. 

To work on that story. It just felt like everything in the right place at the right time. Just that feeling of pure satisfaction that I could be a facilitator of this kind of huge world shift. And it really did shift everything. It ramped up the climate movement. It paved the way for Biden to become a climate president, because he wasn’t before. The kids pushed him to be that. So it changed everything. And so it was that satisfaction of, oh, yes, okay, now I can be a conduit for what’s happening. But also, it’s not solved yet. We have not solved it. 

With the YEARS Project, we got a grant that enabled us to work with frontline BIPOC communities, for free, and give them high level documentary media storytelling that they could use for getting new members, building their audience on their website, on their socials. And how I work with them as I try to figure out what is the story you really want to tell, what do you need an audience’s help with, and then how can I best tell your story with you. Not for you, not at you, but with you. And a lot of what goes into unscripted storytelling are a lot of the same elements of fiction. So stories about solving problems, period. They’re not about people talking to each other. And that’s one thing that activist movements have gotten wrong. There are lots of videos on YouTube that are like diary diatribes. This is what people think about things. That’s not a story. 

So there were all these activists in Appalachia that were protesting the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which is a pipeline made famous by Manchin wanting to include it in our first climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act. And it’s the pipeline that would cut through pristine Appalachian wilderness right along the Appalachian Trail. 

And all of these homeowners were up in arms about it because many of them were getting their land taken away by eminent domain to make way for this pipeline, that if it ruptured, it could destroy ecosystems all along the Appalachian Trail. So I went to this community with all the knowledge that I had as a storyteller, which is like, what is the problem? Okay, the problem is this pipeline coming through. So what is the urgency? Well, the urgency is that they want to finish this pipeline and Manchin wants to put it into this bill. And then I’m looking at, okay, what’s the emotional vulnerability? 

I found this recent grandmother and mother who was a cleaning lady who was an accidental activist, who sat up in a tree to block this grove from being cut down to make way for this pipeline. She sat up in this tree for like two weeks and they did the whole tree sit for a year to stop this pipeline. So we had a great character. We had people trying to solve a problem, and it was a really good problem. It was a big conflict and it was the land that they loved. 

It actually impacts the Appalachian Trail for over 100 miles. No other project has ever done that or even attempted to do that. 

The Mountain Valley Pipeline is disastrous for our entire planet, especially in an accelerating climate crisis.” – Clip from “People Over Pipelines”

And they were working with Indigenous groups and Black folk and like all these unlikely bedfellows coming together. And also, it could take and turn a stereotype of Appalachians on its head. That it was, you know, not just stupid people who are complacent and who are beholden to oil and gas and coal. But it was people who actually do have a relationship to land and to place and to home and communities and that they want to tell that story in a different way. 

Oh, that piece was widely shared. We think that it helped create more outrage at Manchin, because it was the only story that was actually telling the story of the people on the ground protesting it, and not just from Manchin’s perspective that I saw. 

The thing that’s most surprising to me as I’ve been working on this frontline climate series is even though people aren’t seeing action at the political level that we need to solve the climate crisis, that doesn’t mean that people on the ground aren’t acting. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t communities that are doing the good work, and that are super aware of the things that they need to do. And they’re building the community structures to be able to adapt and mitigate to the climate crisis. 

So I have been super inspired by the communities that I’ve worked with that many researchers would say, like, don’t know anything about climate, you know, if they look at them on the surface. But then when you actually talk to them, they know about pollution. They know about what it’s like to get a factory in their backyard. They know about what it’s like to have asthma. They know about what it’s like to have a polluted river that they used to fish in as a kid. They know all these things, and when they put that together with all of their community structure and their community knowhow, they’re the people that best respond in a hurricane that takes out the power, like we saw in Hurricane Katrina. FEMA could fly in all they want, but FEMA didn’t know where to go. The local churches knew where to go, because they knew the community in Hurricane Katrina. So they were the ones that did the good work. So that’s been the most inspiring thing with working with these communities. And it’s the thing that gives me a lot of hope that we actually can move a little bit faster, because communities on the ground know and want to do something about climate. 

More reading on this topic:

Grist editors: Jess Stahl, Claire Thompson, Josh Kimelman | Design: Mia Torres | Production: Reasonable Volume | Producer: Christine Fennessy | Associate producer: Summer Thomad | Editors: Elise Hu, Rachel Swaby | Sound engineer: Mark Bush

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.