Introduce yourself! Who are you?
I am Lana Weidgenant. I am 20 years old and a Brazilian immigrant to the United States. I study Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and leads in various activism and advocacy efforts centering around food, climate, and youth empowerment.
Did you always know what you wanted to do as a career?
I always knew I wanted to help animals. Growing up as a young girl in Brazil, it was always very obvious to me that dogs left living on the streets experienced pain and suffering and that someone should help them. As I learned about factory farming, it became clear to me that there were billions of animals just like those street dogs in Brazil which felt pain and had sentiments. Animals in factory farming systems went through immense pain and suffering every day on a much more massive scale. I wanted to help them and be as effective as I could in reducing animal suffering with what I was equipped to do. Then, I learned more about the climate crisis and how both humans and animals were suffering already due to its impacts and would only suffer more as time went on. I learned about how the climate crisis will exacerbate all other social issues we care about and is not only immense in scale but incredibly urgent. To me, it became clear where I had to focus my efforts – for the animals I dearly loved as a child, for human issues, and for all the other social justice issues also impacted.
Were you scared to start the process?
Everything about following my dreams has been terrifying. None of this field or career path was expressed to me at any point growing up. Both of my parents went to school outside of the United States and had no idea what the American college experience was supposed to look like, much less how to change the world while going to class. And there is so much pressure that you carry on your shoulders being an immigrant, being the first in your family to attend these institutions, having so many people on the side of both your parents that you wish you could help, and all the while depending on academic grades-based scholarship and financial aid to remain within these institutions. It definitely takes a lot every day to stand up and say I am going to fight for the survival and well-being of others which I care about outside of myself and my immediate family.
What were some reasons you became an activist?
The world was not acting fast enough. The science was there, the academic opinions were there, the research was there, and yet I saw justice being delayed all around me. If the world was not listening to those with advanced degrees who finished the entire academia route, why should I aim to wait and follow that same path to speak up. After all, we can all take a stand and if not me, then who will?
Why is it important for others to get involved?
We all have at least one issue we care about. Take a stand on it. Have your voice heard and you will not only empower yourself, but benefit countless others as well.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Your life is not what happens to you but how you react to it. Your life is what you make of it, you are in control of how you react and what magic you make out of what life hands you.
What would you say to 16 year old you?
Don’t wait until you graduate to start doing what you want to do with your life. Whether that’s college, high school, middle school, a Master’s program, or extended education, start now. There is no better time than now. The younger you are, the more support you will have in starting an initiative and the more space you will have to try things, mess up, learn what you like to do, and move forward stronger than ever. So start now. Stop waiting. Leave the timeline behind and start creating the world you want to see today.
Have you ever had anyone doubt you? How did that make you feel?
Yes. Countless times. I have been rejected from programs and opportunities, ignored by people I had considered inspirations, and not taken seriously more times than I can count.
I always take it as a challenge. I don’t need any singular person or opportunity to create the future I want for myself or become the person I want to be.
What message do you think every woman should hear?
It is not your duty to prove or disprove any stereotype. Whether you like pink or hate it, are in a STEM field or shy away from math, whatever it may be, both choices are correct and valid. Never feel like you owe the judgement of the outside world anything but to be your truest, most authentic self.
Have you always had confidence in yourself?
No. Like many young girls, I did not grow up with self confidence. However, my decision to value and love myself regardless of how I or societal standards change has been crucial to my self confidence and ability to pursue the change I want to see in the world.
What do you love most about yourself?
I am relentlessly dedicated. No matter what the situation or what is happening around me, I will not be deterred in fighting hard for that which I know is possible.
Do you remember a specific time you overcame adversity?
I remember crying on my first day of school in the United States because I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. English is my third language and being able to acclimate – and thrive – within a new country and culture as a First Generation Immigrant has significantly shaped my life.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned along the way?
You can always change paths, change your mind, change the direction you were going in. It’s never too late or too early to start being the person you want to be and living the life you want to live.
What motivates you most?
Community. The people I love, those who support me, those I am fighting for, and those doing this work alongside me.
How do you manage your work-life balance?
I prioritize. I am always looking to see what is most important, what is most urgent, where I can be most effective and what I don’t need to be doing (what work could I easily pass on or train someone else to do in the same way I am doing). I am constantly transitioning away from old involvements, building towards new ones, and delegating and restructuring my work to build up other leaders. The way I see it, if anyone else can do the work I am doing, I don’t need to be doing it. I am in a constant search for where I can uniquely use my position and background to be most effective.
What do you do on a daily basis to grow and move forward?
Every day I engage with something I am excited about. Whether that’s an exciting opportunity, project, partnership, conversation, or otherwise. I constantly keep the spark going and remind myself why I’m here.
Do you have a mentor? If so, what did they teach you?
I have many and they have all made a massive impact in my life. Thomas Goodman, Debbie Schockett, and Kimberly Gutzler are three of the people I have tremendous gratitude for. One of my favorite mentorship lessons was the importance of connecting with people in this work. If you have an idea and can bring together the right people, you can change the world with just 5 minutes of your time.
What is one thing people would be surprised to hear about you?
I was a vastly different person less than 3 years ago. Entering college and moving away from home, I completely transformed myself from a quiet girl who never spoke up in classes or stood up strongly for any issue to someone who is confident, has many strong friendships across campus, and leads both in school extracurriculars and the larger issue areas outside of my university. I decided I wanted to change who I was and I did. Separate from my background and who I had been for most of my life, I stopped in my tracks, changed direction, and created the person I wanted to be so that I could enact the change I wanted to see in the world.
Lana Weidgenant is climate justice activist and advocate for shifting toward plant-rich food systems as a means to create a more sustainable, healthier world. She leads in various activism and advocacy efforts centering around food, climate, and youth empowerment. Lana is also a full-time undergraduate student that has been featured in multiple media outlets and she spoke at the United Nations in 2019.