Erin Penner grew up in Massachusetts and went to college in Boston. So of course, we immediately clicked. And her warmth and compassion for others are infectious. She founded an outdoor, exploration-based school ILA, which stands for Inspired Little Activists. The 3- and 4-year-olds learn how to be concerned about their surroundings and the people in them. When she’s not teaching, she’s working with the unhoused community in Los Angeles or advocating for LGBT rights. She belongs to the Hollywood United Neighborhood Council and does all she can to make her corner of the world a better place. The world needs more people like Erin Penner.
Here are a few excerpts from our interview with her. Listen to the whole podcast on the Passionistas Project page.
Passionistas: Erin, what are you most passionate about?
Erin Penner: I'm most passionate about giving a voice to people that aren't being heard. And giving them a platform to really say what they need and speak what's on their mind and whether it's working with the homeless or with children it's just giving them a voice.
Passionistas: So how does that translate into what you do for a living?
Erin Penner: I started my own nonprofit organization that teaches kids how to take ownership of L.A. So they clean Griffith Park and they clean the beach and they feed the homeless and they're on the metro twice a month. And they go all over the city and they really are advocates for the city and for people in need and for themselves. So gives them quite a voice.
When I came here 12 years ago I had my teaching degree from Wheelock College in Boston… I was nannying for quite some time. And one of the children's preschool teachers grabbed me and she had her own school out here in L.A. And I was working one-on-one with her for years and she branched out and the school moved to Griffith Park and became entirely outside. But she had a child two years ago and I took it over, rebranded it and added my own little flair to it.
Passionistas: And what's the flair that you added?
Erin Penner: I made it very much an activism school and it's actually called Inspired Little Activists. And what she was doing is very nature driven and this still is. But nature's not necessarily my passion. I enjoy being outside very much but I'm not really a put-your-hiking-boots-on-every-single-day kind of person even though we do do that. But I added my own let's-grab-a-backpack-get-on-the-metro-and-go-meet-Mayor-Garcetti and stuff like that. So it's kind of both.
Passionistas: Do you feel like kids that age are underestimated in what they're capable of grasping?
Erin Penner: 100 percent. And I talk about it all the time. I talk about it like a specific behavior like LGBT rights. We underestimate how much they can handle how much they want to learn. And we can put a stigma on stuff. So, some people whisper when they say the word gay and it's like, no some of them have two moms and two dads and why is that something that we whisper? So we talk about that stuff and then they learn about Harvey Milk and they know that love is love. And it doesn't matter. And they teach their family about it. And the family is like, “oh my god it would have been so scared to even touch this topic.” Which is crazy. So we definitely underestimate what kids can handle.
Passionistas: Do you have cultural heroines that have influenced you?
Erin Penner: It would be Lucille Ball and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Because I feel like it's so important to be a bad ass basically but to have humor in there. And I think people forget that and they think you have to be so stiff and dry. But I mean that's, that's those are generally my closest friends, who are not only can they handle my mouth but they're equally funny and just you know let it all slide. And I feel like those two women were at the pinnacle like that and that picture of that. It's really important to me. I can't stand when people censor me. I realized for years people did. My ex-boyfriend did. And it was always, “Be quiet, you're too loud, and that's raunchy” or whatever. And as you get older, that is the exact opposite of what I am or what I want. And those are the women that I look up to.
Passionistas: So what advice would you give to a young woman who wants to be an activist?
Erin Penner: Don't be discouraged by people that try to silence you. My biggest hurdle, and I get it from my friends, good friends a lot, is they view your passion as anger. Now we say just because I'm pissed that our rights are being taken away, don't think that I'm sitting at home and I'm burning my bra and throwing crap across the house and that I hate life. I mean I'm laughing and smiling nonstop. And there is this misconception that if you're passionate and angry about something that you must be angry inside. And it's not true. And I think that's something we need to teach girls a lot is to have a voice and be really loud and to not be mad, not to be mad at people that think you're just angry. They just don't get it. And you're allowed to just stomp your feet and try to fix stuff.
Robin's done that for me a lot because I'll still say, “Oh god I shouldn't I should get so mad and say that. Or not it's not very positive.” And she's like, “Screw that. That was wrong and you have every right to yell at that person and stick up for them.” And so I have to keep reminding myself that because we always apologize. We're just taught to apologize. I refuse to, refuse to do that anymore. My friend calls me "unapologetically angry" and it's my favorite slogan because it's true. I'm not scared of being angry anymore.
Passionistas: What's your secret to a rewarding life?
Erin Penner: I realize that I am living the most rewarding life and it's helping people. To me it's selfish in a way because helping people makes me feel so good. Sometimes I think am I doing this out of the kindness in my heart or is it just because I literally I get off on their smile or just giving them a sweater or something like that? But I think if you wake up every day and you don't hate your job and you're making someone smile it's just the most rewarding thing ever.
To find out more about ILA visit ILAAdventureSchool.org. And be sure to subscribe to the Passionistas Project Podcast so you don't miss any of our upcoming inspiring guests.