Summer Rayne Oakes & Kippee
Unlike many models, Summer had a mission from the beginning of her modeling career. She wanted to only be the face of causes that she felt good about. In 2004, this was pretty unheard of, sustainable brands were few and far between, and it even meant that Summer had to turn down a six figure job for her principles, principles, that we at Jejune Magazine, highly respect! This passion of her's quickly got her named the first eco model, which has paved the way for other models to stand for what they believe in, and more brands to think about what they are putting out there.
Nowadays, in addition to modeling, Summer spends her time writing books and for her very popular blog/ YouTube channel Homestead Brooklyn. Homestead Brooklyn helps people learn to bring a bit of green into their lives, even if they live in a big city, like New York City. She does this, with the help of her lovable chicken, Kippee.
Jejune had the pleasure to interview Summer and photograph her at one of Harlem's Community Gardens, Pleasant Village Community Garden, Inc., which is running into some conflicts over it's land. For more information on the garden and how you can help, please check out that article here.
Please read further as Jejune talks with the amazingly fascinating Summer Rayne Oakes.
Tell us about Homestead Brooklyn. How long has it been around and why did you start it?
I launched HomesteadBrooklyn.com and the corresponding Instagram and YouTube channel in February 2017 after an overwhelming response to an article on my indoor gardens in Brooklyn. More people in the city seem to be seeking a connection with nature, so that’s part of what I’m exploring through Homestead Brooklyn—via informative content, garden tours, and workshops.
What came first the YouTube channel or the blog?
The blog came a few days before I decided to launch the channel. I kept on getting a lot of similar questions on plant care from people all over the world. It didn’t make sense to answer them individually, so I decided to start recording my answers to people’s questions on a weekly basis. That way, if someone has a future query, I may be able to point her (or him) to the corresponding episode.
I see that you have a vertical garden indoors. What made you decide to build a green wall?
I had always wanted a vertical garden after being inspired by the work of French designer, Patrick Blanc. I had plans to do one, but through a string of events, had to bring the start-up I was doing at the time into my home, so that curtailed my plans for a vertical garden space. When that company finally got a new office space, I was able to “clear the air” so to speak and finally build a vertical garden in what was then the office, but now the bedroom. It came at a really important milestone in my life and so it really sticks out in my mind.
We know you are an environmental scientist, can you please tell us what made you decide to move away from modeling and focus on environmental sciences?
It was actually quite the opposite: I’m actually an environmental scientist by training and I was seeking to go outside my comfort zone and make my work matter. I wasn’t as interested in “speaking to the choir”, so I sought out an industry that I had no business being in. Or so I thought.
A few things were going on in my mind at the time. Firstly, I was looking for industries that I thought were the furthest away from environmental thinking, as that’s where I thought I’d make the most impact. Secondly, I sought an industry that people could relate too; what we put on our bodies is not only incredibly compelling and mediagenic—it’s something that we can all understand; every morning we get up and put on clothes before we start the day. I’m so grateful that I had the courage to step outside my environmental science box to explore new ways of thinking. It’s added a lot to my life.
I know you have done a lot of fieldwork. Can you please tell us about one of your favorite projects?
I’ve been doing work in the field since I was a teenager. Not all of the work is published (in a peer reviewed journal), but one of the first projects that I embarked on that comes to mind is the mine reclamation that I was doing in my home state of Pennsylvania. It was during that moment when I had determined that it made far more sense to adopt new ways of thinking vs. retrofitting an old, broken economy.
Please tell us about your philosophy on nature/environment?
It’s takes far less time to perpetrate the environment than it does to rehabilitate it. Better to conserve than to repair.
Are there any helpful charities or organizations that you would like to let the Jejune audience be informed about, in regards to preserving nature/environment?
I admire organizations that think big and do big, but are often considered the underdogs because they don’t have the large discretionary funding that a lot of the more popular NGOs have. I admire organizations like Gaia Amazonas and Rainforest Action Network in particular; they both have track records in working on forest issues and indigenous rights in particular; they are two that I devote some time, effort, and resources to. But I encourage people to find causes that matter to them—even ones close to home. Over the last year, I’ve become highly active with my local community gardens. It’s action that is tangible and that you and the community can enjoy the benefits of.
You have been known as the first eco-model. How did this happen? What got you started on this path?
When I started modeling I made a personal decision to model with and for companies, projects and organizations that aligned with my values—or that were genuinely seeking to align with my values of environmental and social wellbeing. It just made sense to me. Why put your name or face to a product or service that you don’t even use or believe in? Given my background, my professional pursuits, and I suppose the timing—the press began calling me “the eco-model”. I didn’t take too kindly to the term at first, as I found it quite trite. But with any moniker that “sticks”, I figured I would just own it. Within time, I was actually grateful because I think it helped create a new language around modeling with your values.
Did your agency embrace this?
My first agency that I was with took a chance with me, but honestly it was too soon. I’m talking 2004-2005. The infrastructure wasn’t quite there; people weren’t using the words “sustainability” and “fashion” in the same sentence. And there were only a handful of small designers that were even doing it. I had to go out on my own and quite frankly—pound the pavement. Within time, the press started to pick up on the work I was doing, and the current zeitgeist began to shift in my favor. By the time I signed with my second agency, my work was fairly known and I had a couple campaigns, a book contract, and a TV show under my belt. I felt as if I was still on the outskirts of the industry, but it’s only because I was going against the grain. I wasn’t going to do 99% of the jobs out there because 99% of the jobs didn’t fit my values. That means I had to say, “No” if I wanted to speak truth to power. When a potential six-figure job offer came my way that didn’t quite fit my values, my agent told me I had two choices: “You could take this job, become famous, and then use that money to put towards your causes. Or you can turn it down, hold onto your values, and see if another opportunity comes your way.” I turned it down. She was comfortable with that, and I appreciate that she was. It’s not easy to say “No” to that kind of money. My dad always tells me that I’ve always taken the harder road. I agree with him, but that’s where my gut points me, and I think that’s what makes me—me.
It’s exciting to see eco-friendly brands coming up more and more, what are some of your favorite eco-friendly brands?
I love so many brands—Voz, StudyNY, H Fredriksson, Jussara Lee. I just walked in New York Fashion Week for another new zero waste brand—Livari. They make stunning pieces, but honestly I buy so very little when it comes to the clothes I wear because I just don’t have space in my life for things. I wear a small palette of clothes, have some really precious ones that I refuse to part with, and I have to really see something compelling before I actually buy it. Having that control makes life so much simpler.
If there was one thing that a person could do every day or a small adjustment in their life that you wish more people would do to help the environment, what would it be?
This may not answer your question, but I have many smart, dynamic peers in my life that are either not working on something they are truly passionate about or are doing work that really leaves the world in a much more precarious state. I wish more people can live without fear and do the work that brings them both unfettered joy and helps restore the earth’s and people’s wellbeing. I check in with myself every 6 months or so to ask myself if I’m really doing what I really want to be doing. If I’m not, I try to change that. It may be a slow process, but at least there’s progress happening in the right direction.
Can you please tell us a little about SugarDetoxMe, what inspired you to write the book and launch the site?
After spending about a decade in fashion, I was looking for a new adventure and an opportunity fell into my lap to work on sustainable food systems. I always have “side projects”, and working in that company prompted me to take a closer look into what I was eating. I always had a sugar tooth; and it [sugar] had never not been in my life, so I did a personal “detox” to see how I would feel. I emailed my friends to let them know what I was doing, started a blog on www.sugardetox.me, and began to see people writing in who were going through the same struggles. What started off as a personal project became a mission to help people reduce their sugar intake and take back their health.
What made you decide to focus on sugar versus some of the other health diets? Most eco-friendly models these days are getting involved with the plant-based diet, as a person very involved in gardening and diets, what are your thoughts on the plant-based diet?
I highly recommend whole food, plant-based diets. Even an ardent food activist and vegetarian, Anna Lappe, wrote my Foreword. About 80% of SugarDetoxMe is vegetarian or vegan, and the rest is easily “swappable” for whole food, plant-based alternatives. In my writing, I share with people that meat, if eaten, should be eaten sparingly. So instead of “Meatless Mondays”—why not think of “Meat only on Mondays.” Make it special.
I don’t want to speak for Anna, but I think we both know that the vast majority of people in the United States in particular are not vegan or vegetarian, and that lifestyle changes—at least for most—come gradually. I wanted to tackle sugar first in my book because it comes from a personal place—a personal experience—and I recognize that in America, we’re on average consuming 2-3X the recommended upper limit of sugar daily, and it’s leading to diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver, and a host of other diseases that can be completely reversed through diet. These diseases were infinitesimal when I was born—but in the last 30 years they have skyrocketed and diabetes has become the largest burden on our health care system over the last 10 years. I knew I was doing something right, when a woman wrote in to SugarDetoxMe and said that through following the lifestyle plan, she was able to essentially drop her diabetes medication and nearly reverse her diabetes. But I sense that it has to be one issue at a time; and when people see the results, they might want to adopt more positive benefits that work for them—plant-based or not. But hey, perhaps it’ll be my next cookbook!
Speaking of books, we hear you are already starting on your next book! Can you please tell us the name of your next book and a little bit about it? What inspired you to write it? When can our readers look out for it?
My publishers definitely wanted me to write another cookbook, but I had a few people reach out to write a plant book, so that’ll definitely be my next one. Too soon to know when and where it’ll come out—good publishing takes time—so I will just tell people to tune into homesteadbrooklyn.com and on Instagram @homesteadbrooklyn for updates.
Ok, we have to ask, how did you connect with your pet chicken? What is her name? We want to know her story!
Yeah [laughing]. Yeah. Long story short: A wild bird—an ovenbird—was hurt at my community garden, so I took it up to the Wild Bird Fund, which is the only rehabilitation center for wild animals in New York City. While I was there, a little red hen jumped onto my lap and the folks at the Wild Bird Fund coaxed me into fostering her. That was like three months ago! So she—(her name is Kippetje or “Kippee” for short)—now lives with me and I take her to the community garden every day I can. She’s been a pleasure, but is also full on!
We think it is adorable that she is imprinted on you. Tell us a little more.
She really “chose” me I suppose. Perhaps animals can sense the weakest link? [laughing]. I’m trying to train her to be away from me, so I can at least get an iota of my life back, but right now it’s not possible, and I don’t know if it’ll ever be possible! Luckily, I’ve been working from home more and the last several photo shoots and campaigns that I’ve been on have wanted to “feature” the chicken, which I’m into—and she seems to love. People are really her “flock” and that’s when she feels the safest, so I’m glad I can give that to her.
Do you have any fun stories to share about you and your chicken?
Other than the fact that when I walk with her in Brooklyn, everyone and their grandmother points and says, “Chicken!”??? I have a ton of stories, but that’s the one that happens every day I walk outside with her. Otherwise, she’s a riot. I call it “chicken TV” because she’s so damn entertaining.
To learn more about Summer Rayne Oaks please check out her website: www.homesteadbrooklyn.com
Facebook: @summerrayneoakes and @homesteadbrooklyn
and her books links to Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Indigo here: http://www.sugardetox.me/books/
Interview by Kira Bucca, Editor in Chief of Jejune Magazine.