(This is the second installment in Planet Experts’ series on trailblazing women in the environmental movement.)
Debbie Levin knows simply everybody. And no, that’s not hyperbole – that’s her job.
It almost wasn’t. When Ms. Levin was named the President of the Environmental Media Association (EMA) in February 2000, the organization was struggling. “I walked into an empty office,” she told Planet Experts. “They had not told me that they were closing the organization.”
Ms. Levin had unknowingly stumbled into one of Hollywood’s most enduring tropes: The ticking clock. “Theoretically, it was our 10th anniversary that year,” she explained, “and it was either going to close or not. All I wanted to do at that point was not have it close in my first year.”
She ended up succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest expectations and, 15 years later, EMA has become the biggest environmental organization in Tinsel Town. EMA has tirelessly worked with studios, producers, writers and directors to not only make their productions greener but to also seamlessly integrate environmentally-friendly messages into film and television, bringing mature eco-consciousness to the entire industry. EMA is now the gateway to green Hollywood, and Levin herself is credited by Toyota for “single-handedly…getting droves of celebrities into Toyota hybrids.”
Like any classic Hollywood deal, this super stardom can all be traced back to one very important lunch. Cue the flashback.
“I Was a Mom”
As Ms. Levin likes to say, she is “not your mother’s environmentalist.” Prior to EMA, she had never held a prominent role in any environmental organization. And while she’s always tried to eat healthy, she is not now nor has she ever been a vegan, a hiker or particularly outdoorsy.
“Basically, I was a mom,” said Levin. Born in New York but destined for Beverly Hills, Levin had her children young and was first and foremost a stay-at-home mom. As her children grew older, she got involved with TV development. By the time she was invited to the Ninth Annual EMA Awards, she was working with a team on a rewrite of the Rugrats in Paris movie (which her five-year-old granddaughter really likes, by the way).
Levin was a guest at the luncheon via invitation. Extremely active in her children’s school – Crossroads, a private high school in Santa Monica – Levin was at the center of a robust Los Angeles family network (“I was that mom,” she admits). While honored to be at the Awards, Levin was shocked by its minimal turnout.
“It was very small,” said Levin. “It was at the Beverly Hilton and it was ‘A Lunch,’ and I’m listening to the mission and it was like one of those lightning bolt things. I thought, this is the most amazing mission I have ever heard, this is so important. And then I heard Norman Lear was one of the Founders of the organization.”
The creator of such sitcoms as All in the Family, Good times, The Jeffersons and Maude, Norman Lear was a well-known and much beloved icon in Levin’s eyes, whom had grown up in the ‘70s watching those shows with her family.
“Norman is like the most brilliant person that ever lived in television,” said Levin. “This organization, with this mission, should be huge! Why are we sitting here with like 200 people and this is not amazing?”
It was incredible to Levin, who turned to the person sitting next to her and started asking approximately “a million questions, like, are you doing this? Are you doing this? And this could be this – just very innocently asking a lot of questions.”
That person ended up being the Board Chair of EMA, who subsequently asked Levin to lunch, whereupon she was asked to run the organization. Cue her walking into an empty office with exactly one assistant left to help her.
“I had never run a non-profit,” said Levin, “knew nothing about non-profits, knew nothing about the environment. I was just that stupid person who asked a lot of questions.”
She was resolved not to let the organization that Norman Lear and his wife Lyn (who had co-founded EMA with Cindy and Alan Horn in 1989) fail.
Going Big and “All That Stuff”
Levin decided that the best way to keep EMA alive was to pour the bulk of her energy into its 10th Anniversary.
“I got all this stuff to happen,” said Levin. “I got some sponsors – I don’t even remember how I got them – and I got some sponsor money.” Levin asked her friend Wendie Malick (starring in NBC’s Just Shoot Me at the time) if she could get David Spade to co-host the event with her. She did. Levin then asked Pierce Brosnan (who was 007 at the time) if he would agree to be honored at the event. He did. Suddenly, she had a real event.
What ended up generating the biggest buzz among both environmentalists and media was Levin’s decision to cater the event exclusively with organic food. Not only that, but organic food from multiple, celebrated chefs. “I just thought we had to do that,” said Levin. “We’re an environmental organization. How could you not role model such an essential part of the story? Then, I thought it would be really fun to have several chefs. Apparently, no one had done that either.”
Fortunately, Judy Levy (of Levy, Pazanti & Huff, which handles event coordination and fundraising throughout Hollywood) contacted Levin and asked if she could help out. They had worked with EMA on their first event in 1991, but not in the last many years. Levin and Levy became immediate friends and Levy introduced her to the rental companies, to the invitation makers, to “all that stuff” that makes Hollywood events possible. They are now working on their 16th event together.
With all this good will and star power behind Levin and EMA that year, the 10th Anniversary was an unequivocal success. From that point, Levin made it her mission to transform the organization into one that was fun, modern, impactful and, most importantly, young.
“Everybody Was Old”
In her first year leading EMA, Levin was invited to events hosted by all the major environmental groups in town. And with each event she attended, she noticed a troubling trend.
“Everybody was…” Levin smiled as she searched for the most diplomatic way to put it, “old.”
Levin laughed, not from embarrassment but with the same raw exuberance that has kept her organization thriving for the last two decades. She quickly followed that by saying, “I can say that because I’m old, but you’re not getting buzz with my contemporaries and all of those people who go to these things all the time. You aren’t getting Access and ET to get really excited about that.”
“At that time,” said Levin, “everybody was over 40 (which I can’t believe I’m saying is old now!) that went to those things, and I thought, this is really bad, this is very uncool. All the events were uncool. I thought, this is why [EMA] is closing and this is why all the organizations are dying. If we don’t get a lot cooler, the environmental movement is not going to survive.”
And with that, EMA made an aggressive shift towards a new demographic. “Because if we’re not speaking to your generation,” she said, “then this isn’t going to work. And we were actually the only ones doing that.” Levin leaned in conspiratorially. “And we’re still, honestly, the coolest organization there is.”
Becoming a Magnet for Young Hollywood
I asked Levin if the transition had proved challenging in any way. Levin answered in her inimitable way: “Um, honestly, there wasn’t a challenge. Sustainable lifestyle is something that the millennial generation wants and understands. We just opened our arms and made our programs and organization welcome to their ideas and their concerns.”
Four months into her presidency, Levin met Amy Smart and they bonded immediately. “I said, ‘I love you. I want to do a PSA with you, I need you to join our board, because you’re 23-years-old and you’re going to be the beginning of what’s happening.’”
Smart subsequently starred in an EMA PSA as a mermaid pushed to the brink of death by man-made pollution.
Levin and Smart went everywhere together, “and all of a sudden we were young.” The two have been collaborating ever since, doing exactly what Levin had originally envisioned: Raising awareness in a way that’s real and relevant.
Smart was soon joined on EMA’s board by other young and up-and-coming stars, many of whom would serve as presenters at EMA’s 10th Annual Awards. In 2009, EMA officially established its Young Hollywood board, which has created organically-grown edible gardens in low-income schools, with each school given their own celebrity mentor. There are 17 now in the LA area.
As the original board’s members have grown older, gotten married and had kids, they have transitioned onto EMA’s Parent Board, whose focus is educating sustainable lifestyles for families. A big focus is now partnering with the Just Label It campaign advocating for labeling of GMO’s in food products. The Young Hollywood and Parent Boards frequently work together, appearing in most of the organization’s PSAs.
Harnessing Social Media
In the early years of the organization, the publicity game was all about getting celebrities seen. In 2001, Toyota approached Levin with the aim of drumming up excitement for the Prius. “Here’s this car that’s really affordable,” said Levin, “that you don’t have to figure out how to use. It has better emissions and you only go half as much to the gas station – it’s a huge game changer. And they came to us to say, ‘Can you help us launch this car?’”
Levin became the point person between Toyota and Hollywood. “Honestly,” she said, “I was like a drug dealer. I was getting these calls, and it was like, can you get me on the list?” Toyota was (and is) very strict about not giving away free cars, but that wasn’t a problem. “I was able to have the talent get the cars first,” said Levin. “To buy them! Full-price. I was going with them to their houses and helping them figure out how to use them – because it was a push button, it was different – and we made it really fun. We also made sure that the paparazzi took pictures of them in town, seeing them in action. We sort of created that, watching them doing good things.”
After the paparazzi had taken those pictures, then Levin had to make sure they actually showed up in the tabloids and papers at the time. Remember, no social media.
The biggest victory came in 2005 when EMA put George Clooney in a Prius to go to the Academy Awards the year he won for Best Supporting Actor. He actually insisted on showing up in a Prius rather than the company’s Lexus hybrid model. “I remember him saying, ‘No, I want a Prius, because that way whatever angle they shoot me at they’re going to know that it’s a hybrid. If I’m in the Lexus, they may not see the little thing that says hybrid. If I’m in the Prius, they’ll know.’
“We made sure that happened,” said Levin, “and that was a huge business story for us and it was a huge environmental story for everyone.”
Toyota credits Levin and EMA with bringing the Prius into the mainstream, and she is now working with them to launch their new fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai.
The advent of social media, however, has made an extraordinary impact on how EMA oversees these kinds of PR campaigns. Now it’s not a matter of hoping the media spies a celebrity doing their good works, but of celebrities volunteering their causes directly to their followers.
“Social has changed everything,” said Levin, “because our members are so happy to push out everything. We send them at least once a week things to push out for us, and they love doing that.”
Making Due With Just One Layer
EMA is more agile and adaptable than other organizations in the environmental space, but Levin is quick to point out it’s because they don’t have to travel with as many layers as big national organizations do. “We can remain very entrepreneurial and therefore more nimble and ready to jump at opportunities,” said Levin. “We’re an educational organization. Our job is to use familiar faces to role model and motivate. That is our mission, to use celebrity and be the voice of the environmental community.”
Her Advice to Women: Don’t Overthink Things
I asked Ms. Levin what the advantages and disadvantages of being a woman, both in working in Hollywood and the environmental movement. She answered as only she can: “I don’t know that there’s an advantage or a disadvantage. Because part of me didn’t give a shit.”
Having come to non-profit work in her 40s, she said, has made a huge difference. “I wasn’t insecure about who I was. I wasn’t intimidated by anyone. I had been a mom with people in this industry, and I think honestly that was really, really helpful.”
But being a woman, and being a mother especially, is why she thinks she does what she does so well.
“Caring for the environment is caring about generations to come,” she said. “And it’s important for this particular organization because we were founded by mothers, we were founded by couples, and it was for the next generation. I think we needed that compassion and that drive and that strength to just keep it going, and mothers will do anything for their children.
“That was what this organization needed. It needed someone who was going to say, ‘I’m just going to take care of it,’ and do it. And I don’t know that a young guy would have done that at that time.”
For the next generation of women who might follow in her footsteps, Levin says the best thing to do is to not overthink things.
“I’m always having this conversation about climate change,” she explained. “It’s really hard not to think about climate change, but if you think about that, it’s almost too overwhelming. What I try to work on with what we do, program-wise, is sustainable lifestyle and trying to give individuals power to do what they can do within their own scope of life. Because individuals can do things and ultimately that is what will affect the future.”
Levin cited the fact that carbon saturation in the Northern Hemisphere has reached over 400 parts per million, a state unprecedented in human history. It’s an awful fact, she said, but also a problematic one. For those not in the know, 400 ppm is too abstract, basically gibberish. For those who do know, it’s hard not to fixate on it.
“I have friends who are really depressed about climate change,” said Levin, “but that’s not going to help them. What will help them is doing their own powerful, individual actions, and that’s a really positive way to be. But when I say don’t overthink things…when you’re taking on a business, you can’t think about the fact that it’s really hard, what you’re going to do. You just need to say, okay, I’m just going to do this. This is an amazing path, I’m going to do it, and here I go.
“Because if you start to think about all the things that could go wrong, everything is overwhelming. You have to just jump in and be open. Things do happen for a reason. So go for the path that you feel is instinctually there for you.”
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