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Susan Rockefeller

2016, Interview. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, artist, and conservationist. Her latest endeavor, Musings, is a digital magazine that curates ideas and innovations that pave the way for a more sustainable future. As the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Musings, Susan offers a portal to vetted products and brands that are pioneers in health, environmental, and social consciousness.

In addition to providing sustainable alternatives for cross-category consumption, Susan interviews thought-leaders in entrepreneurship, responsible innovation, and social impact to provide inspirational calls to action and day-to-day solutions that drive positive change. A longstanding philanthropist, Susan sits on the boards of Oceana, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, We are Family Foundation, Southampton Arts Center, and Land and Garden Preserve.

She is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations and is additionally an advisor to Food Systems 6, MADE SAFE, Oceanic Global, and Ohana & Co. In her film work, Susan is a Principal of Louverture films and a member of the Film Committee for the Museum of Modern Art. Her original films, including Food For Thought, Food for Life, Striking a Chord, Making the Crooked Straight, and Mission of Mermaids, have aired on HBO, PBS, and the Discovery Channel.


Iliana María Such: Can you describe a childhood experience that influenced your business career, especially your relationship with filmmaking?

Susan Rockefeller: I've always been a visual person and wondered at the marvels of nature. As a child, I engaged in many activities, from sledding on hills in my backyard, ice skating on ponds, gymnastics, and swimming to collecting frogs and wandering the woods near my home. I also did many ceramics. 

The ability to notice intricacies at a young age trained my eye to frame photographs. One of my first memories was of visiting my grandparent's home at the age of six or seven and looking at the book, "The Decisive Moment" by Henri Cartier-Bresson. I was captivated by how you could tell a story through a frozen image. Collectively, these interests came together through filmmaking. 

Such: Could you give us insight into the creative process behind the Food for Thought Film? What do you recommend as a first step to take action and get involved?

Rockefeller: I have been involved with farm issues, working on farms and in gardens since my early twenties. With increases in diabetes alongside an uptick in fast and processed food, I wanted to understand better where we may have gone wrong with our desire for convenience food. Convenient for whom and at what cost? Our health and the health of our soil?

I was inspired to create a film about the beauty and mystery of soil as well as the creation of community through gardening. I loved the idea of the power to vote three times a day with your fork, spoon, or chopstick. So, I thought, why not create a film about the connection between the health of our soil and our health -- and provide a foundation for inspiration, education, and action?

I figured the time was ripe for a film emphasizing the power of a productive farm ecosystem and healthy communities, the makings of a food revolution, the need for food justice, and the resilience regarding climate change and food security.

The film is available at no cost at and in English, Spanish, Italian, French, Japanese, and Mandarin.

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Lensed by Stone Barns

Such: Which philosopher has inspired you throughout your career? Why?

Rockefeller: Philosophical writers such as Wendell Berry have been an inspiration! Mary Oliver for her gift of poetry. Also, I have been moved by the poetics of Bob Dylan's lyrics and Simon & Garfunkel's mus

Such: What is a good personal experience defining the Food for Thought, Food for Life collection? What are your challenges?

Rockefeller: Creating Food For Thought involved some mulling over ideas. There are no easy answers, rather gradations of gray; where you live, what variety of foods are available, and your income will influence your food choices. Food For Thought connotes the idea of food for longevity. Food as medicine. 

I used recycled sterling silver from Sabin Metals for my jewelry collection that supports the film. I worked with bees, honeycombs, and forks to remind us of the pollinators that give us food and the notions of voting with your fork three times a day. A friend of mine, Stephanie Sacks, wrote a wonderful book "What The Fork Are You Eating?" Another reminder to think before you munch. :-)

Such: Can you tell us more about the power of the 1% for the Planet model?

Rockefeller: This is a model that Patagonia came up with to make it easy for businesses to give one percent of their profits to the planet. There are several claims, such as giving 100% returns to a nonprofit organization. But this never tells you exactly what, if any, profits were made. 1% for the Planet levels the playing field to create a platform for companies to match their interest with participating nonprofits.

Simple and transparent.

Such: Can you tell us about the game-changing program Global Fishing Watch launched in 2016?

Rockefeller: It truly has been a game changer. Google, Sky Truth, and Oceana have created a more robust surveillance system for large-scale fishing vessels. It's free, and anyone can use it once it's up and running. You can track vessels and see if they're fishing legally. The power to track empowers local fishermen and governments, citizen activists, and NGOs to watch better, enforce fishing vessel regulations, and report unusual or illegal fishing practices. Very exciting! It will help make our oceans abundant once again!

Such: What is the single most inspiring video you have seen addressing today's biggest challenges, which include: climate change, food security, poverty reduction, and quality of life for all?

Rockefeller: I am a science fiction buff, so a few dystopian films come to mind. The first is Soylent Green with Charlton Heston. It takes place in a futuristic NYC where an investigation into the source of the city's food is underway. I won't say more. Another is the post-nuclear Armageddon Mad Max and On The Beach. Also, movies such as The Pelican Brief and Syriana that deal with corporate greed are good examples of the obstacles facing us for change.

Then there are documentaries such as Food Inc., Fed Up, OMG GMO, which help to illustrate particular fragments of what's happening to our ecosystem. I also enjoy Ted Talks, which provide insight into various ways of technology, engineering, and design that can help shape our future. No one film is the answer, rather, a kaleidoscope of films is needed. And, of course, my two short films, Mission of Mermaids and Food For Thought, Food For Life, deal with climate change concerning our oceans and agriculture.

Such: You have a creative and poetic soul, could you describe for us through Haiku poetry your connection to mother nature?


Such: What role does music play in your creative process?

Rockefeller: Without music, especially in film and documentaries, it's hard to create a nuanced emotional impact. So music plays a big part in my storytelling. On a more personal level, I enjoy music for dancing and moving my body, for soul-contemplative times, either classical or contemporary journey music. There are so many genres that evoke different memories and responses. So the music is just amazing! It's universal. It's healing; it's a connector across race, culture, and class. And it adds to the heart so much of life's experience. 

Such: Was there a particular human exchange that inspired you to take charitable action regarding the causes you love?

Rockefeller: My childhood memories of being by the ocean and the wonder and fun it generated for myself and my family inspire me. My mom cooked healthy food for us, fresh vegetables and fruit. She loves to garden and found great joy in presenting food.

Having raised two children myself, I now understand the need for the family meal and serving nutritious dishes. In my twenties, I studied ecological agriculture at the University of California, Santa Cruz, after which I lived a subsistence life in Alaska in the Arctic with the Inuit, in which nearly ninety percent of the food came from hunting, fishing, and small gardens.

The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry had a transformative effect on me in college. Also, one of my professors, David Smith, at Hampshire College was instrumental in my love of reading American literature about landscapes and nature. So rather than one particular event, all of these and probably more moved me to be involved in conservation.

Such: You have a healthy relationship with your husband, David Rockefeller Jr. How is he as a person, not as a global leader?

Rockefeller: He is kind, smart, funny, brilliant, and manages to balance an enormous amount of time around family, philanthropy, and conservation, as well as using his voice for narration, narrating films, books on tape, and reading poetry. We nurture our marriage and, even in our busyness, make time just to be together. Marriage takes work and imagination and is open to both individual aspirations and shared goals as a couple. My husband has his priorities straight, and his values and mine are aligned. He is one of the smartest people I know and one of the kindest--and his humor, thankfully, helps us get through whatever difficulties may arise.

Such: What advice can you share with the world on the importance of empowering others to reach one's full potential? How do you empower others in your daily life?

Rockefeller: Be yourself. Don't worry about what others think. The eccentrics are the ones who emerge happier and more satisfied. Feel and listen to your heart, find what you love, and work to find meaningful work and connections with like-minded people. Be a lifelong learner. Read the paper, get a perspective on where you are in the world, and find ways to give and be of service. I can guarantee you will feel better the more you give to others. Giving will help you find your potential as well.

Such: Would you describe yourself as a spiritual person? Can you share one of your more profound spiritual experiences with us?

Rockefeller: I am a spiritual person. I think the older you get, the more you appreciate each day you are here. Life is a miracle; the more you delve into your environment, the more you realize how utterly amazing it is to be alive. I wake up to an All Souls daily meditation email from the Unitarian Church, one block from our home. I was raised Jewish, culturally, and not religious. I love the culture of Judaism and the tenets of the Judeo-Christian traditions. So the Universalist Unitarian Church is a great place for a blended marriage and family.

There are several spiritual experiences. For example, colors that emerge during a fading sunset, the abundance of sea life in the Alaskan waters to the emergence of a deep night sky with twinkling stars. Discovering the Aurora Borealis in the Alaskan Arctic and watching the pink and green colors swim across the evening sky, seeming to touch the earth from the heavens above. Wonder, awe, and silence usually come with these encounters. They are each of spiritual significance. The most profound spiritual journey of all is the gift of motherhood. Having two children has been my greatest joy and the most excellent reminder of the miracle of life and love.

As a gardener, I am in awe of nature's gifts, which are all around us, most notably, the abundance of vegetables and sacred geometry. My delight is never-ending, especially as I age and know how fragile and miraculous it is to be alive.

Such: What is your message to entrepreneurs struggling to launch their ideas?

Rockefeller: Commit to your vision, and be adaptable to change, failure is part of being an entrepreneur. If you fall, get up and keep working on your vision. Seek advice and know that success comes with collaboration and partnership. Work and pay your dues. Gain experience, ask for help, get a mentor, and let your life unfold. Have faith.

Such: What is your greatest hope for the future? What is next for Susan Rockefeller?

Rockefeller: My greatest hope is for a worldwide spiritual transformation simultaneous with advanced technology and global empathy in how we approach all our productions and processes - in essence, to have a circular economy where there is zero waste.

I hope that we can create a thriving economy that treasures the natural environment--and in doing so, bring back abundance in our oceans and health in our soils, and in turn, have a world with less inequality and more social good for all living things. What's next? More time for rest, rejuvenation, and re-imagine this vision for the future! More art, family, nature, and collaborations with like-minded businesses and nonprofits to help create health and beauty for ourselves and the earth.

Such: How would you like to be remembered?

Rockefeller: As a kind, loving daughter, wife, mother, and friend who loved family, art, and nature and worked to protect them through art, philanthropy, and day-to-day life.

Such: Who are your top three living NOBLE thought leaders?

Rockefeller: Pope Francis for his transformative work and for encouraging over one billion Catholics worldwide to serve the earth and each other. His Excellency Amr Al Dabbagh for his work in service to children around the world and his harnessing the power and creativity of entrepreneurship to help alleviate suffering and solve the many challenges facing our global community. Robert Zemeckis for directing and creating some of the most compelling films: The Walk, Contact, Cast Away, Back to the Future, and Forest Gump. His films touch upon the power of art, passion, and our ability to connect with the mystery of being alive.

Such: What does being noble in the 21st Century mean?

Rockefeller: To be noble is to be kind and considerate and to be of service to others. Noble is the responsibility for making the world a safer and healthier place for all.

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