I Am Her: Antoinette Taus On Saving Mangroves & Uplifting Communities

From teen star to UNEP Goodwill Ambassador

Our “I Am Her” series features the female movers and shakers of the industry to learn how femininity and power coincide beautifully and seamlessly together.

While Antoinette Taus is still known to many in the Philippines as Anna (Annakarenina) or Bianca de Jesus (T.G.I.S), her iconic roles in a couple of the most popular and longest-running TV shows in the country during the late ‘90s, these days she’s making waves and pouring her talents into a new endeavour: saving the environment and empowering communities.

Inspired by a similar movement in Los Angeles, she founded Communities Organized for Resource Allocation (CORA) in 2016, a non-profit organisation dedicated to raising awareness for environmental issues and helping underserved sectors. It has grown from a simple feeding program held by friends to a powerful force for conservation. For her excellent advocacy work, she was named the National Goodwill Ambassador for the Philippines by the United Nations Environment Programme. Now, she continues to work with several media organisations to spread awareness and serves as the host of The Podcast of Plastic.

There’s no doubt that Antoinette Taus’s journey from being a popular teen star to the founder of CORA is interesting. Curious to know how she got from point A to B? Ahead, she shares about her life as an advocate, what inspired her to take this path and more.

I'm an actor, an environmental advocate and _______.

“A volunteer. I really use the word volunteer, because I feel that a lot of what I do today is really centred on the fact that I just really reached that point in life where I just wanted to find a way to help in any way I can — whether it's people or the planet, or a friend in need. And I feel that we all have the capacity to be a volunteer in our own right.”

What inspired you to become an environmental advocate? Is there a specific moment that ignited your interest in conservation?

I wasn’t raised from an environmentally conscious or sustainable kind of standpoint. It wasn't something that I was exposed to at a young age. But what I was very much surrounded with was the energy of and the love of my mom. She was a huge influence in my life. She's my best friend, my idol, my everything. She was always a human being that stood for helping others in any way possible. She always said to never hesitate in lending a helping hand and to make an effort to be there for that person. She even used to say to not worry about how you're going to help. Because if you just take that step to help them, the universe will conspire to help you help them.

And to me, that was really truly powerful to see her live her life in that way, and involve us, the family, in every little way, whether it be special occasions or just random days of encountering people in need. I lost my mom to cancer in 2004. And that was a very significant time in my life. Back then, people didn't really talk about mental health issues as much. And upon the passing of my mom, I did not even realise at that time that I was already experiencing deep depression, from the loss of a loved one.

Eventually, I realised that pain is not there to punish us. I feel that it's there to open up our eyes to help us realise things and connect us because we all experience pain. It really brought me to that place of wanting to do more. And so, I and some friends came together and discussed what can we do. And it really just boiled back to how we can give back to people in need.

Tell us more about how you founded CORA.

We got inspired by a movement that was started in Los Angeles called #HashtagLunchbag. It’s an organisation that was also founded by friends coming together. What they did was put USD10 in each of the lunch bags they prepared and gave them away to the homeless afterwards. In just five years, many amplified this mission — and our organisation, CORA (named after my late mother), was one of them. And that's how it began.

With CORA, we started with a feeding program. After a year, we learned more about food waste and that’s where we started learning about sustainability as well. When the United Nations Environment Program came out with a campaign called Clean Seas, it was very profound and significant for us. Before that campaign, I didn't really realise the actual effects of plastic pollution on everything around us, including marine life, our health, and how it's in everything. It really inspired us to begin the movement of our coastal cleanups. And that's how everything began towards learning more about plastic pollution, climate change, learning about its impact, especially on communities and on people.

It was really inspiring for me to learn later on that a lot of the missions that begin in this world are actually inspired by other movements. So we see that it's really important not to pressure ourselves to think that we have to begin something so profound, it's really more about looking out for the needs that are out there and looking at the opportunities to help. There are a lot of groups that provide these opportunities, these inspirations, and ways for us to follow. I like to be transparent and share this because I don't want anyone to ever think that they don't have the capacity to make a difference — or that it’s too late. I started at the age of 35. Before that, I wasn't really doing any of these missions. We really can all help in our own way.

Let's talk about WoMangroveWarriors. How did CORA come up with the idea of rehabilitating mangroves while promoting gender equality?

I'm also an ambassador for resilience at Oxfam Pilipinas. It’s an organisation that is doing incredible work on social justice and gender-based issues. While working with them, I learned so much about how women have the incredible capacity to actually be heroes when it comes to building climate-resilient communities but are not being given the same opportunities and platforms to share their skills, their brilliance.

Then, we learned about the power of mangroves and discovered that actually, we do have a lot of women across the Philippines who are already responsible for protecting these precious ecosystems. The simple presence of mangroves could already do so much to save lives. They can act as a protective barrier against strong typhoons and have the power to store and sequester carbon. At the same time, mangrove rehabilitation can be a source of livelihood for women and with this, we're empowering them, we're empowering their families, we're empowering their children as well. So it really shows that when we really integrate things, we see how nature, local communities can really be a valuable partnership in order to help build a better world for us.

What were the challenges that you encountered while setting up a nonprofit organization? How did you overcome these hurdles?

As CORA grew, we moved forward with wanting to work with more communities, with different companies and brands that could support us, the local government, and the national government. With that, you need a legal and registered organisation. The process was very intimidating for me in the beginning, but I'm really not afraid to ask questions. I always tell people to put themselves out there, especially if they believe that their mission and intentions are pure. I went to the Securities and Exchange Commission myself. I brought whatever I could in anticipation of whatever they might need from me. And I asked the questions about registering as a nonprofit organisation.

Another challenge was managing time. There are only so many hours in one day and this was something I was so passionate about and I’m dedicated to it. It really just consumed every aspect of my being that I made the conscious choice to put my full time and dedication into the work of CORA. People think I've quit entertainment, but I've actually not. I've just shifted the focus of how I'm involved in media projects.  While I may not be doing as many soap operas and movies as before, I'm so grateful that I was able to do that throughout my young life, but now I'm very focused on CORA. I was able to launch an eco-tourism show with CNN Philippines. I've done work with Fox Asia, Discovery Channel and National Geographic. I’m thankful that I was able to integrate my passion and work in a meaningful way.

I think the challenges are the same as any great achievement or goal or mission that we want to build. It's not easy. I'm extremely grateful but I also cry. I go through a lot of anxiety and stress. I try to manage that as much as I can, because it is a very, very difficult job with a lot of challenges and sacrifices, and more than anything, what we achieve together is what makes it all worth it. And not just for us, but most especially the generations to come.

Advocacy fatigue is something that a lot of environmental advocates face. What inspires you to continue to do what you do?

As much as I try to balance out my life, it has been a pretty chaotic two years. But at the same time, it’s also a very purposeful time, because as difficult as things have become, it is more crucial for us to act. When those moments happen, what you really need to focus on is the positive impact that you're hopefully making. So it's really remembering that when you keep going, others can keep going too. And I guess that's how I'd like to end it to keep that fire burning, right? Because at the end of the day, it really is all about the communities.

Another thing to emphasise is to take care of your mental health. So whatever it may be, whether it's advocacy work or any work that you were doing, you know, if you need a break, you need to take a break, because there's that famous saying that you can't pour from an empty cup. So taking care of yourself first, so that you can keep helping others or making sure that you have a strong sense of balance in the work that you do, and monitoring your mental and physical health so that you can keep being there for others as well.

What can regular folks do to live a more sustainable and environmentally conscious lifestyle?

People tend to think that sustainability is extremely scientific. But in reality, it's more about being mindful. And also, you know, acting out of love — love for people, love for all of creation and everything around us. So I feel that's a good way of moving forward. It's more of a transformative approach, I would say, rather than just listing a number of actions that we can do, because you can also personalise those actions in your own way for your own individual and special impact.

Share with us your closet essentials.

I’ll begin with fashion! As someone who worked in the entertainment industry, I used to be called out as an outfit repeater. But throughout my sustainability journey, I realised that there’s really nothing wrong with that. I love this white shirt that I’m wearing now and I’ve worn it many, many times — it’s one of my favourite tops.

I also treasure the clothes that my mum passed down to me including a precious pinya-made filipiniana gown. For beauty, I like using products from Davines Sustainable Beauty. I also bring my tumbler, my collapsible cup and my eco bag everywhere I go.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

(Cover photo from: @antoinettetaus)

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