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Jennifer Schwab

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Modern Family, Rockefeller Style

Posted: 04/ 5/2012 4:48 pm

The ocean is a great equalizer, inspiring love not linked to geography, race, nationality or socio-economic status. A noteworthy ocean worshipper who has the talent, contacts, resources and desire to not only love our oceans but try to save them is Susan Cohn Rockefeller.

My first memory is of summer -- we would spend about a month in East Hampton -- building sand castles, collecting shells, feeling the sun, salt, and sand. The beach is a place where I feel calm and solace. I love the quality of light. I feel a connection with the ocean, and my children now have that same connection. Paddle boarding with wetsuits, digging for calms, it's the memory of burying myself in the sand as a small child. It is very elemental.

These are the reminisces of Sue Rockefeller: ocean activist, documentary filmmaker, jewelry designer, mother/stepmother of four children and wife of David Rockefeller, Jr. And perhaps most importantly, a truly down-to-earth, compassionate and unpretentious person. How can I make a statement like this? When I first met Sue Rockefeller at a social function, she was simply a person standing next to me with a wine glass. After a fairly lengthy conversation, I sensed a special humor, intelligence and charisma about her, and we exchanged contact information. Only upon looking at it later did I notice the surname. And since then, I have seen her commit random acts of kindness and generosity that speak volumes about her character.

Rockefeller cites the New Yorker article from 2006 entitled "The Darkening of the Sea" by Elizabeth Kolbert as a watershed in cultivating her interest in the ocean and morphing that into meaningful activism. "As a board member of Oceana and Chairwoman of the Ocean Council, I'm deeply committed to the health and wellbeing of our oceans. This allows me access to the most up-to-date and in-depth knowledge currently available on the state of our waters, both good and bad. When I first began working with Oceana, Barbara Ettinger and I co-produced the documentary "A Sea Change" on ocean acidification. This helped to educate people on the effects of carbon dioxide on our waters. To celebrate the completion of that film, I designed a mermaid pin, which I wore to an Oceana event. During an interview I was asked about the pin. I responded that I needed to believe in the existence of the mermaid because of what she represents: Mystery and Hope. Thus I followed this fascination with mermaids by writing and producing "Mission of Mermaids". You can view the trailer for it here.

This very personal documentary recently debuted at the Washington D.C. Environmental Film Festival. "It is a poetic plea to save the oceans. It's my voiceover and is a combination of science and the power of myth to provide a wakeup call. The message has to do with the need to take care of ourselves. Our health is connected to the ocean. It combines a personal, spiritual plea with an environmental message," Rockefeller explained. In an unusual twist, she pulled most of the footage for Mission of Mermaids off the internet. The concept here was to reuse footage, not burn more fossil fuels to create the film. Another key message is the danger that plastic brings to the ocean and how we need to shy away from single-use plastics.

Of course, there are other aspects to Susan Rockefeller's life, which she identifies as having three focal points: family, arts and environment. A current project combining all three is the Christie's "Bid to Save the Earth," a live and online auction benefitting a host of environmental charities. Susan and David Jr. serve as co-chairs for the event, as they have for the previous two years. So far, Christie's has raised nearly $5 million for Central Park Conservancy, Conservation International, Oceana and NRDC in 2010-11. This year's event will be held at Christie's New York on April 11 (the online portion of the auction begins March 29, and is available to the general public through April 19). While her jewelry designing and nonprofit work on behalf of the oceans covers the arts and environment portions, family is sacred and time is carved out to be sure it is always top priority.

"Every year, we take a month-long retreat to Maine with our family members, and we try to minimize work commitments as much as humanly possible. We focus on the children, outdoor activities, and things we can do together as a family unit, technology-free." Her husband, David Rockefeller Jr., is an avid sailor and boater. They go boating and sailing, swim and paddleboard, among other ocean-based pursuits.

The financial wherewithal to retreat for a month is not really new to Sue Rockefeller. She grew up in an affluent New York suburban home, as her father, Bertram Cohn, now retired from First Manhattan Corp., and her mother, Barbara, are philanthropists in their own right. They are active with the Wilderness Society, Sarah Lawrence College, as well as Tel Aviv University, serving as role models for Sue to continue her life's calling by working with a variety of non-profits.

Which brings up an interesting point that must be asked. "What is being a Rockefeller really like?" Sue admits there are special responsibilities that come with this hallowed territory.

If you don't have passion, talent, and the ability to deliver on what you promise, then your name can get you only so far. The Rockefellers have a wonderful family heritage. I love the traditions, and I feel honored to be a part of this family. There is something special about how much they have achieved in the world. They have made so many advances not only in business but medicine, philanthropy, the arts, I feel both humbled and honored at the history and depth of the family's philanthropic accomplishments. And I love the idea that David and I can work together to create positive momentum that will help influence our children and others about the need to preserve and protect our ocean environments worldwide.

You can read more by Jennifer Schwab on her blog, Inner Green.

 

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