A lot of famous people become environmental activists. But very few of them come to the cause the way Rosario Dawson did. When she was six, Dawson and her parents moved into an abandoned tenement in New York City’s East Village. It had no hot water or electricity. They were squatters—scrapping and salvaging and building a home out of found materials from around the city. When someone put a chair out on the curb, her family would stop to see if it could be rehabbed or repurposed in some way. As a little girl,“I knew about Sheetrock and reusing nails,” she says. “It was often about necessity, but even then, it made sense—if it’s not broken, we can use it, and if it is, we can fix it.”
Her mother was an activist, attending rallies and marches for progressive issues. Soon Dawson was taking up causes of her own. “My very first campaign was to save trees when I was 10 years old,” she says. “I made a bunch of posters because I wasn’t thinking about it so clearly.” She never left that thrifty, eco-conscious mentality behind.
For example, Dawson just bought a new property on the East Coast, and some of the surrounding trees need to be removed due to weather damage. “We’re turning them into furniture,”she says. (Her dream home would be something totally off the grid, with geothermal heating, where she could grow her own food.) She eats a mostly plant-based diet these days, but she’s tried raw and vegan diets as well. She didn’t buy a car until she was 26—a 2006 Prius that she swears she still owns (“I don’t need a fancy big car to get from here to there,”she says). “I probably could get rid of more things,” Dawson admits, but “I tend to hold on to things because it stresses me out to imagine them ending up in a landfill.” She also knows personal choices, on their own, aren’t going to solve our climate crisis. “We have to put pressure on companies and the government, because sweeping change is necessary.”
Her activism isn’t a side interest—it’s a central part of almost every project she takes on. In 2018, she executive-produced and narrated The Need to Grow, a documentary based on the terrifying premise that we have only 60 years’ worth of farmable topsoil left on earth (don’t panic: The movie also outlines solutions to deal with the problem). Her African fashion line, Studio 189, uses recycled fabrics and other sustainable materials, like pineapple leather. Voto Latino, the organization she co-founded to encourage civic engagement among Latinx voters, makes clear the ways in which our changing climate impacts such communities directly. She’s also worked on campaigns to encourage people to start their own gardens, and volunteered with an organization that trains the formerly incarcerated and gang-affiliated to install solar panels and to silkscreen reusable grocery bags, which Dawson and other activists distributed at stores in Los Angeles ahead of the statewide ban on single-use plastics.
Last year, Dawson produced and appeared in the second season of The North Pole, a web series set in Oakland, California, that deals explicitly with issues like climate change and gentrification. It’s unlike other narratives we’ve seen on this subject in popular culture—and that’s the point. Too often, “we don’t include a lot of communities in the conversation that we could,”she says. “It tends to be very white and affluent.”
Dawson is fluent in the politics and practicalities of climate change—she recently told The Washington Post that she was considering going back to college to learn “regenerative farming and soil practices to capture carbon”—and speaks about such topics with the force and urgency of a presidential candidate at a debate who’s just been told she’s out of time. So it’s no surprise she has said running for office is on her bucket list.
When we spoke in late January, Dawson was deep in production on a new, yet-unnamed project (it was recently announced that she's joined the season 2 cast of The Mandalorian), but was hoping to get a free weekend so she could make it to Washington, DC, for Fire Drill Fridays, the weekly climate change protests on Capitol Hill where Jane Fonda and her famous friends keep getting arrested. (The protests have since been moved to the Internet.) “I am always down to get arrested for a good cause,” she says. Her boyfriend, you may have heard, is New Jersey senator (and former presidential candidate) Cory Booker. “I know very well he’d like to be out there [protesting] with me,” she says. But Booker, who’s been vegan for many years,“is fighting the good fight on the inside.” Dawson adds, “He’s very, very concerned and scared that there isn’t more urgency around [climate change].”
And that is exactly what Dawson brings to the fight. “The reality is, the people who have been making a lot of decisions that are corrupting our planet are able to do so because more of us aren’t involved,” she says. “It’s beautiful to me how humans acclimate, but there’s a danger in that, too, because we can’t just adjust—we have to do something to stop this!” Dawson’s out there doing all she can, hoping you’ll join her.
Styled by Arianne Phillips. Hair by Makiko Nara for Oribe. Makeup by Ermahn Ospina at A. Spiegelman Management. Manicure by Alex Jachno for Tom Ford Beauty. Set design by Jack Flanagan at The Wall Group. Produced by Nathalie Akiya at Kranky Produktions.
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of ELLE.
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