By Greg Varner
What is the best way to increase public awareness, civic engagement and empathy around sustainability and the climate crisis? At a recent summit hosted by Planet Forward, a project of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA), the answer was clear: the best way to engage people is through storytelling. efficient.
The Planet Forward Summit format, held at the Jack Morton Auditorium on Thursday, combined an awards ceremony with inspiring remarks from numerous guests, each speaking briefly. Project founder Frank Sesno, director of strategic initiatives for SMPA, served as host and chief speaker for the event, which drew students from more than 80 campuses.
“I won’t mince words,” Sesno said in his opening remarks. “We are in danger.”
Acknowledging that the climate crisis is complicated by other crises such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the scourge of disinformation, Sesno said we must also recognize that there are inspiring stories to be told, of research, intervention and progress. “Through stories,” he said, “we mobilize, we understand and we sympathize.”
GW President Mark S. Wrighton gave a welcome speech, saying the GW community is “committed to building a better world”. He mentioned extreme weather events, record heat, floods and droughts as “urgent warnings that we must act on using all the science and creativity we can muster”.
Chef and humanitarian José Andrés, founder of World Central Kitchen, uses his culinary talent to feed people in crisis and is currently helping refugees from Ukraine. Creator of a sustainability course at GW called World on a Plate, Andrés appeared virtually for an interview with course co-teacher Tara Scully, associate professor of biology and director of GW’s sustainability minor program.
“In the richest country in human history, we have a huge food insecure population,” Andrés said, adding that this is a problem we know how to solve. even if we lack the political will. “We have to make politicians understand that they are there to serve us.”
Jocelyn Brown Hall, director of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in North America, said there was not enough discussion about agriculture, seeds and breeding in relation to conflicts in the world. “Farming touches every solitary aspect of a person’s life 24/7,” she said.
The late Tom Lovejoy, known as the Godfather of Biodiversity and member of Planet Forward’s advisory board since 2017, was remembered in a short film depicting his work in the Brazilian rainforest. “You tell stories by going there and taking people with you,” Sesno said, citing Lovejoy as an exemplary scientist, advocate and storyteller.
“The most effective way we tell food stories is to get personal, find someone we can relate to,” Sesno said, “and let them tell their story in their own words.”
Several speakers testified to the importance of inviting diverse voices into environmental and policy discussions. Communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as Black and Indigenous communities, are least often given a seat at the table when climate solutions are discussed. If recognized, they are generally seen as victims rather than resources that could offer or contribute to solutions.
“We can’t solve the climate crisis without the perspectives of people who haven’t been in the room,” said Matt Scott, BBA ’14, head of storytelling and engagement for Project Drawdown, a resource for climate solutions.
Sesno announced a new initiative with the University of Arizona (UA) to launch the Planet Forward Indigenous Student Correspondent Project. Two Indigenous graduate students, Alexander Cotnoir of GW and JoRee LaFrance of UA, designed the new project. They joined Sesno on stage to talk about bringing Indigenous students together to learn from each other and pursue environmental stories that affect their communities.
A keynote address by Arati Kumar-Rao, a National Geographic Explorer, addressed the slow violence of climate change and environmental migrants. She asked the audience to imagine living on the banks of the Ganges in India when the water level rises dangerously.
“Stories have the power to illuminate interdependencies within a biogeographical region,” Kumar-Rao said, “and therefore help frame policy.”
After announcing that GW would be hiring a new faculty member as the Ted Turner Professor of Environmental Media, Sesno spoke again about the importance of effective storytelling.
“We need to tell the stories better,” Sesno said. “We are inundated with so much information, so much media, so many attitudes, so much conflict, so much misinformation.”
As part of the summit, Planet Forward’s eighth annual Storyfest competition recognized the best student storytelling of the year in various categories such as “Most Compelling Character” and “Best Use of Science and Data.” Five winners received an experiential learning expedition to Alaska with Storyfest sponsor Lindblad Expeditions. Two GW students were among the five winners: Jennifer Cuyuch for Plantita Power: Microgreens in the District and Farzona Comnas for her essay, How Trees Can Save a Drowning Desert.
When members of the public were asked to suggest topics for future inquiries, several ideas were presented, including industrial agriculture, the links between climate and housing, and the power of artwork to engage people. on climate issues.