Celeste Thorson advocacy spans women’s rights, diversity, environment and disability awareness. She is the ultimate expression of diversity herself. Celeste’s mother is of Lebanese, Spanish, French Huguenot and Apache Mescalero Native American descent. Her father was born in South Korea and was adopted as a young child by the Thorson family in Colorado. On her father’s side she is of South Korean and Scottish Irish descent.
Cooper: Can you share your involvement with Shane’s Inspiration now called Inclusion Matters?
Thorson: Inclusion Matters, yeah.
Cooper: Is that the first time you experienced that event, have you been to a playground?
Thorson: Yes. I discovered Inclusion Matters when it was Shane’s Inspiration about five-ish years ago. I was inspired by their mission and seeing these tangible contributions to our community. I had been to the playground without knowing it at Griffith Park, then once I went to their event, it educated me on what that enables people to experience and how it brings a community together. Over the years I’ve been following their mission, trying to be supportive towards them, their advocacy and educational programs. Having a child of my own really made things even more profound for me, because I wanted my child to be able to play with people of all different backgrounds and to grow up appreciating the beauty in everyone’s diversity. Bringing him to the park where everyone of all abilities can come together, and that is just a natural part of his experience and the evoluation of his friendships, I think is a really beautiful thing. I’m now able to reap the rewards of having my child be able to play with people of all different backgrounds. That’s really exciting.
Cooper: How old is your child?
Thorson: He’ll be three! He’s two right now, he just attended one of the play clubs, did T-ball and hockey for the first time, surrounded by so many children and adults of all different backgrounds and abilities. Whether it was differences in mobility, whether or not they’re neurotypical, it was really beautiful to see everyone come together and share this experience. He just loves it. It warmed my heart to think that, again, he’s growing up in an environment and a community where everyone’s celebrated.
Cooper: What were you doing there two years prior to having your son?
Thorson: Well, I’ve been a human and environmental rights advocate for many moons. It turns out that part of human rights is equal rights, and part of equal rights is disability rights. It’s a very all-encompassing umbrella when you simplify everything down to basic human rights, sustainable inclusion and making sure that people have the abilities to meet their most basic needs with an equitable approach to what’s provided by our community.
Thorson: Yes, I really appreciate them. A photographer friend of mine, his son is a part of Easterseals and benefits from all of their advocacy, support and programs. He brought me into a couple of their events. It was again wonderful to participate in that and be part of the community that brings together so many different folks and makes sure that they feel supported.
Cooper: The one I saw, was it Disneyland?
Thorson: No, it’s a walk that they do.
Cooper: Oh, the walk, right.
Thorson: One of their fundraising events. It’s really fun to see everybody come together, I also really love supporting Special Olympics and all of their programs. Seeing all of these different athletes come together and do their best work, celebrate the wins, cope with the losses, you know? It’s wonderful to be there to cheer people on through their experiences and support their athletic endeavors.
Cooper: After the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi that included thousands of athletes representing 170 countries the UAE changed their country’s language. They don’t use the word “disability”. Now they say “people of determination.”
Thorson: It’s so beautiful seeing that representation, and how powerful it is. You can literally change the way that government frames the conversation and the rights of entire groups and populations of people, what that would mean for their quality of life and their, again, human rights. Sometimes it’s these more inspiring events and stories, seeing people living their dreams, their best lives, that makes people see the truth. Which is that it’s beautiful, something to be celebrated, to be included in our everyday conversations online. All of our experiences are valid and deserve to have a place where they can be celebrated.
Cooper: You also do a traveling show. Is that an active part of your life?
Thorson: Certainly since COVID, not so much! But I finished that program quite a while before COVID, I had worked on a couple of different travel shows. I also have a kind of a lifestyle program that I work on myself. I do a bit with on-camera, whether it’s acting for different television programs or some behind-the-scenes work as a writer, producer and director. Right now I’m working on an Ed Tech (Education Technology) edutainment-type project that creates content for educational purposes. It’s exciting to make accredited courses more accessible to people of all backgrounds in high school. That’s a lot of fun.
Cooper: Is that part of the curriculum in the schools? Or is it an add-on to a program that schools can buy?
Thorson: Really both. There are so many ways that schools can utilize this resource, whether it’s through course expansion, course recovery, or through independent study. As we know, during the pandemic, so many teachers were thrown into the fire of, “Hey, not only do you have to be a professional educator, but now you have to be a webmaster!”
Thorson: “And an online teacher, a troubleshooter on the help desk, technical support, all of these different things, learn how to connect with students and engage them in that modality.” This company called Subject does a great job of trying to bridge those opportunity and achievement gaps. They support teachers, learners, administrators in being able to access those resources with a world-class, rigorous curriculum, amazing teachers and educators who are instructing to connect with the Gen Z audience and leveraging that communication style, which is a very unique and specific style.
Cooper: Interesting! Years ago I was working with at-risk youth in school systems dealing with different learning modalities using temperament theory, do you know Myers-Briggs?
Cooper: Trying to reach those students who were what the schools would consider “problem children” and how to reach them. You’re looking at millennials as a broad base. Are you looking at any divide in how to reach certain mindsets?
Thorson: Absolutely. I grew up with, Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Reading Rainbow, all of these wonderful things, which was a form of distance education, if you think about it. Or online learning, all of the things that weren’t in person. I bring a lot of information from those education programs. Bringing it full circle to utilize my talents trying to reach this Gen Z generation. Their attention spans are different. They’re the TikTok generation. They’re the Instagram generation. They respond to very succinct sound bites rather than the longer forms, storytelling, oral history, that I responded to when my high school teachers were lecturing in front of the class and telling us a story. Now they kind of want to catch the quick and, “Give me the need-to-know Cliff Notes, and make it funny!”
You know? It’s definitely a different language in communicating with them. And also understanding that they’re digital natives. They process information and they prefer to type something out rather than write it in cursive. All of these different things that help them achieve their academic goals by meeting them where they are.
Cooper: Did they come to you, or was this your project?
Thorson: They came to me. I’d worked with one of the media directors there, on many different projects. We’d collaborated on music videos, travel shows, all types of different things—with my background in edutainment, he thought of me to bring me on as a writer and executive producer. I’ve been really enjoying that project, especially during COVID seeing how Ed Tech can transform the lives of youth. Seeing that there were a lot of gaps created, a lot of children who unfortunately fell behind and need the opportunity for credit recovery now more than ever. It’s wonderful to see the schools be able to use this as a resource that’s accredited, and can help them achieve their goals.
Cooper: I heard you use the term “neurodiverse.” Are you doing anything in that realm?
Thorson: I’m hoping that there will be more—obviously, one thing about this particular program is, it can be accessible on your computer, so that already can help folks who really need a quiet space to focus. But I wouldn’t say there’s the type of accessibility yet. It’s such a new company. I know that’s something that is in the pipeline, takes a lot of mindfulness and making sure the curriculum is orchestrated that way. I know that right now they’re focus on pacing guides, which makes it accessible in certain ways. Sometimes you have to still follow the semester, but the timing of how you roll out the courses can be a little bit different based on people’s learning styles and where they need more support.
Cooper: Can you talk about other causes that you support or advocacy work that you do?
Thorson: Absolutely. I believe firmly in human rights. The baseline. It encompasses so many different aspects of the human experience, acknowledging that as the foundation across—all the different countries really benefit from having that basic declaration of human rights abided by and enforced by as many countries as possible. That’s something I’m very passionate about. And of course included in that are women’s rights, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, people of color. All of those experiences are validated by a lot of human rights, a lot of respect for human rights. We still have so far to go, and in some cases there are certain rights that are being rolled back. Sometimes it feels like two steps forward and three steps back. As long as we’re trying to move forward in the right direction, I’m passionate about moving that cause forward. But I think there are far too many adversaries these days.
Cooper: Did you say “rolled back” or “Roe’d back”?
Thorson: “Rolled.” (laughs)
Cooper: You gave a talk at the UN (United Nations) on women’s rights, could you talk about that?
Thorson: Yeah, the UN Women SoCal invited me to do a keynote for International Women’s Day, which was a lot of fun. I was able to share some of my perspective on women’s rights.
That was a really incredible experience, being surrounded by so many women from all different backgrounds, generations, sharing our collective experiences, American women and immigrant women. Looking at women’s rights as a whole from what we’re experiencing here to what women in India are experiencing, what women in Yemen and Iran are experiencing. Talking about all of those different things and being able to reflect on the privileges that we have here as well as how far we still have to go, that was a wonderful conversation. One of the best parts was hearing women from so many different backgrounds and their personal experiences. When they were sharing those things with me, sharing the pieces of advice that they would have given their younger selves, or that they would give to other women, was an inspiring experience. I had them write postcards to share with other women, and I put them up online in some cases. I still go back and look at those. They’re incredibly inspiring.
Cooper: How did they choose you for the keynote?
Thorson: In Laguna there was a lady who was a big advocate, and she reached out to me, having seen the work that I had done over many years and invited me to be a part of it.
Cooper: Have you heard of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)?
Thorson: Is that the Ability convention that you do here in LA?
Cooper: No that’s the Abilities Expo. Sorry, I’m still in the UN frame of mind. It’s the United Nations’ CRPD. It’s similar to the ADA in concept, each year, usually around June, the UN has this event, and the state parties, which are the countries, come together along with NGOs. Oftentimes panels during the CRPD invite speakers from around the world to share and discussion disability centric issues.
Thorson: It sounds incredible. I love what you’re talking about. It’s true, when you travel to all these different countries, even just basic accessibility can be really challenging. I remember traveling to Italy and going through public transportation, the train stations, the beautiful architecture, beautiful stone buildings that have been there for ages, and nary an elevator in sight, you know? I kept thinking, how do people in wheelchairs, people with mobility restrictions and limitations travel here? I asked some of the gentlemen who were working there, I guess they were like police officers at the train station, and they just kind of laughed, actually. They thought it was laughable that I would ask that question.
It was kind of a bit of a culture shock for me, because in that moment, it made me so grateful for what the ADA has done in America. Even countries with a far richer history than us, who have had a little bit more of a head start in the formation of their countries, are still needing to support their communities and haven’t quite gotten around to that yet. I would love to see how the UN is implementing some of these equal rights policies and how that would impact people with the most basic needs of transportation and getting where you need to go, for example.
Cooper: A lot of countries rushed to sign and to ratify, but then came the implementation. That’s the difficult part. For some countries it can be costly when you have an infrastructure like Italy with steps everywhere.
Thorson: Mm-hmm, yeah. And I understand if it’s in some places where you have historic buildings and things that maybe are protected in that way. But in train stations, or when it comes to public transportation and accessibility, post offices, public services, that’s where it really caught my eye, even just cobblestone streets are not particularly welcoming. The lack of support was palpable.
Cooper: We haven’t done much, but there’s a group we’ve communicated with several times based in Italy that is leading the charge, and one of their offshoots did a really interesting program in Venice where they created these ramps. You know how they have all these old bridges going over all these small channels, and sometimes there are steps on the bridges, and they’re too steep. They created platforms that would navigate in such a way, I think it was called Access Venice.
Cooper: When we were there, they had scaffolding type ramps going over all of the small connecting bridges. I don’t know if they stayed, or we were just there at the right time.
Thorson: It’s wonderful that you bring that up. The architecture and the way that these cities are built is not conducive to access, but the one thing about Venice is, they have so many floods, that even if they did want to put something up permanently, it would end up being under water at some point. So it makes sense that there’s a scaffolding that they can move around. I remember that they were using the same type of platforms during the floods, when the water would be rising and you wouldn’t even have access to the stairs if you wanted to. They used those ramps and walkways, and they’re able to move them around or raise them up or lower them.
Cooper: Several of the water taxis were accessible for a wheelchair to get on. So there is movement. It just may take a while.
Thorson: Yes! And that’s ironic, because that’s probably the city you would imagine being the least accessible.
Yet they’re one of the more progressive in making changes and putting the time and implementation in.
Cooper: Another place that’s accessible is South Korea. Have you been there?
Thorson: I have, I got to visit family, my grandmother’s sisters and my grand-aunt and her family. I was invited for Asia Model Festival award. They brought me out and they had all of these different performers and actors and models from around the world. It was really interesting.
Cooper: Did you ever take the subway?
Thorson: I never took the subway when I was in Korea, but I did in Japan.
Cooper: Yes, Japan’s really accessible.
Thorson: And I do remember how well thought-out so many things were in Japan.
Cooper: Something that we found that we don’t see in the States, they monitor everything, Japan, in the subway system. Even though the gaps are really narrow and they’re really not an issue, they know when somebody’s using a chair, and what cabin of the train they’re in. They run with this little hand held ramp and lay that down covering the small gap between the train and platform.
Thorson: Just a fold-out, just a small ramp?
Cooper: Right it only folds out flat. This covers the gap. Dubai is another place that’s accessible. You can’t even tell the difference between the train and the platform. It’s seamless.
Thorson: Wow, that’s wonderful. That level of consideration is so important. They’re going to spend the money anyway, so might as well do it right the first time if you can.
Put a little bit of planning and a little bit of consideration into it. That’s what I’m hoping with all of these new infrastructure bills and things that are happening. It would be wonderful if they could put the time and consideration into building an infrastructure that is accessible to everyone in our community.
Cooper: Can you talk about these projects you’re working on?
Thorson: Today I was pitching three shows to a production company and planning pre-production on two filming shoots, two separate shoots that we’re filming next week that I’ll be directing. Both are for Ed Tech, educational company. One of them is interviewing superintendents about the future of education. The second one I can’t talk too much about, but it’s also in the educational genre. Those are the things that have been keeping me very busy. I feel like I’ll be able to take a nice long bath and exhale next Friday leading into the weekend. There’s a lot of logistics and a lot of planning going into that.
Cooper: So right now most of your time is spent in that room?
Thorson: Yes. During COVID, and honestly, after having my son, I was re-prioritizing my energy. I wanted to focus on ways that I could utilize and channel my talents into something that would be fulfilling and would give me the ability to spend more time with my son. In the on-camera world, you need to be where you need to be when you need to be there, and there’s very little control that you have over that. Coming at it from a producer-director role, I’m able to create a little bit more flexibility and organize things so I can address my priorities in the best way. Whenever I get on-camera opportunities, I’ve been able to be a little bit more discriminating about them and determine if they’re the best fit for me, whether it’s the location or the travel time, if it’s on the other side of the country or in a different country. If it just doesn’t feel right at the moment, I’ve taken a step back in that way to make sure that I’m building independence in my son. And now I’m seeing the benefits of that. I’m seeing his independence and I’m feeling like, okay, now is the time when I might be able to start pursuing more of those interests and going more into that realm again, but believe it or not, I’m still nursing. That’s something that’s been important to me. I know I won’t be able to do it for a very long period of time. Not forever! We’re right towards the tail end here, but it was one of those things where I’ve had the luxury and the privilege to not have to interrupt that, and I know that so many mothers haven’t had that opportunity.
Cooper: When you write do think about disability inclusion?
Thorson: That is such a great point, and something that I remember being asked about at the Inclusion Matters event. They were asking about representation. I think one of the biggest things as a writer is that not every character needs to be explicitly spelled out what their life story is. They can just be who they are, they can be human, and so many different roles can be played by people with different backgrounds. You don’t have to make it about that, about what abilities they have. It can just be that they can tell that story, and it might have nothing to do with the overarching story line, it can just be that they’re doing their job in the script, and they happen to have different abilities than we do.
Having a disability and seeing it on camera is one of the most powerful things, because you really don’t have to have a lot of back story or explanation. There’s so much depth in that story just looking at that person and understand what they may have been through to get to where they are. Seeing CODA, that was such a powerful story, and to know that the actors were fluent in sign language, clearly their proficiency did not happen overnight. It was part of their lifestyle, their human experience. That’s what I want to see more of on camera. That’s why I think starting with the writers is such a powerful thing. If you can make the story about that, that’s wonderful. But you could just be a lawyer like any other lawyer and they just happen to be in a wheelchair or hard of hearing or have a different life scenario and a different background. It’s really important to have the Writers Guild of America, the Producers Guild, the Directors Guild get involved.
Cooper: Let me ask you about your acting these days?
Thorson: During the pandemic, obviously, I tried to focus more on writing and producing, because that was something I could do from a distance, remotely. The acting roles I was being offered were not conducive to maintaining the safety of my family, to be honest. It was a big risk to fly to Mexico and film for three weeks in the middle of a pandemic. Didn’t seem like the right thing to this new mom! (laughs) So, yes, I’ve been channeling my energy into this project right now. There are some acting opportunities that have come up that I’ve passed on because they haven’t been the best fit. I am looking forward to later this year getting more involved. I’m auditioning occasionally as well, but being able to be present with my child is important. I know that at this age—in a couple years he’ll be in school, and I won’t be able to spend as much time with him. It’ll be a whole new ball game. I still love doing on-camera work, so I know that when the right opportunity comes along, that’s what I’ll be focusing on.
I was recently a recurring guest star in “The Haves and Have-Nots,” which was a Tyler Perry show. That was a lot of fun. I’m sure once the stars align, it’s always that way, when things are the right fit and you’re the strongest choice, that’s when opportunity comes to fruition.