Olivia at Fordham University, her alma mater, wearing a sweater her friend was going to donate. Photo: Emma DiMarco.
Olivia was 15 when Jane Philbrick came to her school and asked students to imagine a better world for their community through the revitalization of a local brownfield. Inspired by Jane and her willingness to listen to “kids” Olivia began as an intern on an earlier project. Fast forward a half-dozen years later and she has become co-founder of TILL and an outspoken activist for environmental change.
Name / Age: Olivia Greenspan / 22
Preferred Pronouns: She/her
Current city: Hometown: Easton, Connecticut
Working in: Stamford, Connecticut
What is your cause?
I’m focused primarily on preventing climate collapse and creating systems that recognize the dignity of all people.
How does TILL address this issue?
TILL is an acronym that stands for “Today’s Industrial Living Landscapes.” It’s an organization I co-founded with artist Jane Philbrick, and our primary project is the holistic regeneration of contaminated properties known as brownfields. By planning to heal the land with plants and building raised above the ground out of a type of very strong wood called CLT, TILL developments would be carbon farms, as opposed to carbon factories.
If you’re trying to combat the climate crisis, the built environment is a great place to start given that it’s responsible for 39% of all greenhouse gas emissions. This figure doesn’t even include emissions “embodied” in the building process, like the emissions created by manufacturing steel and concrete. I gave a TEDxYouth talk on TILL’s model for building on brownfields here.
Another part of our holistic development strategy is partnering with value-aligned companies that build economic, social, and ecological value. In Stamford, we are building TILL: bioFASHIONtech, an ecological fashion incubator and collection of ecological fashion brands. Our plan is to move the permanent LAB, studios, manufacturing, and other ecological ventures onto a property we own.
This is a massive – and massively impressive project! How did you first get involved and what’s your story behind your decision to make this commitment to change?
I started as an intern in high school on an earlier program created by Jane Philbrick called re-wire, which was a Conecticut state-funded program to envision what could be done with a derelict 56 acre brownfield in the area I grew up. For two years I learned about green energy, local & sustainable food, architecture, art, and transportation, among other related topics.
When I went to college, I moved on from the initial brownfield project and worked on related and unrelated projects. During my freshman year at Fordham, I was part of a team consulting BMW on how to sell more of their electric vehicle, the i3. I also helped build and run a program funded by the Verizon Foundation (video on that here). These two projects were offered to me through Fordham’s Social Innovation Collaboratory, then-headed by Carey Weiss. I also read about animal agriculture, effective altruism, and climate change and took courses across economics, psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and philosophy.
It happened without me really knowing it. There wasn’t an “aha.” The more I learned, the more my behavior changed (and continues to change). I’m interested in many things, but feel compelled to spend my time, energy, and resources on slowing climate change. It doesn’t feel like a decision. It feels like nothing else makes sense to spend my time on right now.
What have you learned in the process?
1. Listen to advice from others but obey your instinct and trust your inner conscience.
3. I believe personal action is political action, as long as the personal action isn’t compromising your ability to work well on the traditionally political activities.
4. I always think meditating won’t make a difference but it always make a difference! I find that I’m better able to access certain patterns of thinking that I recognize from childhood when I’m meditating regularly. I’m convinced that there’s certain neural tracts that are dormant in my brain and when I meditate they “wake up.” I don’t know. I’m not a neuroscientist. Any neuroscientists out there? Richard Davidson? Please email me your thoughts. I’m now reminding myself to meditate later.
Who have you found to be influential for you on this path?
Aside from my business partner, Jane Philbrick (which is too obvious a choice!) I’ve been blessed by an incredible community of mentors.
1. Carey Weiss, Director, Social Innovation Collaboratory at Fordham University. I met Carey in my first month at Fordham. Carey teaches me how to lead with compassion, power and grace.
2. Representative Anne Hughes of Connecticut’s 135th District. Representative Hughes is an absolute model of justice, strength, and the power of moral will.
3. My godfather Bob AKA “Baba.” Baba’s values guide me every day. Baba values truth, compassion, and commitment. He is my north star. Love you Baba!
Tell us about a moment that was successful to you.
A successful moment was our inaugural bioFASHIONtech Summit on June 24, 2019 (photos). Our speakers were beyond breathtaking, we hit our attendance goal, we catered the entire day trash-free, AND we commissioned 3 ecological fashion collections, produced right in our Stamford bioFASHIONtech LAB in the 10 weeks before the Summit. No Kill Mag did an awesome piece on the Summit here. Thank you No Kill!
What’s an ongoing challenge?
Consumer awareness is definitely an ongoing challenge. I am so grateful to organizations like Remake and the documentary makers behind The True Cost and everyone else who fights against abusive fast fashion retailers every day.
And how do you combat that and keep your spirits up?
Things are changing really quickly. I close my eyes and imagine the year 2030, when every brand’s practices are traceable and accountable. I practice gratitude for working with the most amazing team known to mankind. I reflect on how much of an impact our LAB at Stamford Town Center (the mall) has had in less than 5 months. We reach shoppers who are not specifically looking for ecological fashion. People walk in with all kinds of fast fashion bags in their hand, and that’s okay. That’s the beauty of our LAB: everyone is welcome. We are basically offering impromptu lessons on fast fashion and ecological alternatives every single day to people who had no idea what they were walking into, and we’ve been so gratified by the community’s openness and enthusiasm. It’s hard to stay down for too long at the LAB when people walk in all day supporting us, welcoming us, and congratulating us on our mission and vision.
Do you have a favorite quote?
“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
This is a quote by Samuel Beckett. I discovered the quote in When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, which is the only book I’ve ever cried while reading.
What resources would you recommend to people who want to learn more about this issue OR start something similar?
– Fashion Revolution
– The True Cost
– UN Environment
– McKinsey The State of Fashion 2019 report
– stay up to date on recent climate articles in The New York Times, Financial Times, Fast Company, Wall Street Journal, No Kill Mag, etc
In your free time where can we find you / what do you like to do?
Oh, this is where I get so boring. I prioritize hanging out with my friends and family. We like to cook, walk outside, try (mostly vegan) restaurants, watch movies. For exercise I like yoga. I want to paint more but don’t know where to source sustainable materials. Any suggestions?
Anything else you feel important to add?