There is no question 20-year-old Kayla is an activist. She’s outspoken, argumentative but nuanced and intellectually driven in her quest to help make more people in her Oakland community aware of the environment and nutrition. For her, she says much of the challenge she faces from her surroundings is the fact she is a woman discussing issues that have largely been ignored.
“We are a small community and we aren’t that well off,” says the first-year university student who has championed her fight against unhealthy eating and conservation efforts. With drought hitting the state hard this winter, she believes that she has an advantage in talking about change and better awareness of the world.
“A few years ago, many people just laughed at me when they found out I was vegetarian, saying it was a girly thing to do and that no real man would do that,” she continues, “but today, I think a lot more people are becoming aware of the foods we eat, even if we don’t have a lot of money. Going organic has been really important for my friends and family. It’s not too feminine any longer to be veg.”
The Vegetarian Resource Group has published statistics demonstrating that the majority vegetarians in the United States are female. And Kayla warns that the women she admires in the environmental and food revolution are still seen as women first rather than experts and leaders.
“I think of one of my biggest role models, Elizabeth Kucinich, and how she was for so long talked about in the media for what she looked like or who she was married to,” she says of the head of the Center for Food Strategy, a leading advocacy organization based in Washington with offices across the country. “For me, as a woman, I think it is important to see the changing conversation toward the issues as positive, but we have to get rid of this sexualization of women in the media and how it changes how others see environment and food issues.”
Kucinich herself believes there have been many recent gains in the environmental awareness/food outreach sector, including the addition of men to the movement, notably Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee on Responsible Medicine (PCRM). He is helping to reach a larger audience, including men. This helps change the perception that environmental activism and going organic or vegan is no longer a “feminine” ideal.
“It never really bothered me, but it is a challenge,” Kucinich said. “It has been interesting to see how the shift has changed. It used to be all about my hair, so I cut it off so they wouldn’t write [about it].”
She dubs that the “princess phase,” when she was too often referred to as Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s wife, even as she was a leading figure working at PCRM and food-related issues. Now, as the head of CFS, she believes that it is time to move beyond women’s appearance and more about the work they are doing.
“There are different degrees of femininity, and women should not see this as a hindrances, but be embraced and used” to help push the agenda forward.”
Part of CFS’s efforts have been on the environmental and health costs of genetically-modified products, or GMOs. While she may have received a large amount of press over her looks, with the Washington Post saying she would have been successful in the “other Hollywood” she finds solace in the progress her work has achieved.
“We do this because we know we are making a difference. We have filed numerous petitions to Congress on a number of issues and the campaigns we run against the GMO industry have been successful,” she says of continued efforts to help move the country toward more organic living.
Too often, however, for both Kucinich and Kayla, the conversation returns to them as women.
“People are opening up on food issues,” Kucinich says of the current trend, which she believes has moved beyond the simple coverage that women were the only ones pushing healthy diets.
“On a very basic level people are thinking about what they put on their plates. It is intimate and food can be a powerful idea, but it is still personal. People are getting a chance to change the world with every meal,” she adds.
For Kayla, leaders like Kucinich and the numerous women across the country working towards a healthier America, one that is more organic, forward thinking and environmentally friendly, remains a daily battle, but one that can be won.
“I believe that me being a woman helps people feel more comfortable about talking about food and they don’t really only see it as weak or feminine as they did maybe 10 years ago. This is great and positive for local communities here and elsewhere,” she says.