GW Student Wins White House Youth Sustainability Challenge

July 05, 2012

A rising junior wins the video contest for his documentary “Growth.”

When GW student Max Chen learned that the White House was sponsoring a Youth Sustainability Challenge and encouraging students to submit videos showing their commitment to making their community more sustainable, he knew that he wanted to be involved.

He just wasn’t sure what he wanted to portray in his video.

So he went on a run through Dumbarton Oaks Park in Georgetown and found inspiration through the trees around him.

Instead of shooting a video depicting one sustainability project in particular, Mr. Chen decided to make a video that showed his personal growth in becoming a more sustainable citizen. And he would use trees’ growth to help show his own.

“I love to tell stories, and so I just felt as though a story represented myself better than just an individual action,” said Mr. Chen, who is minoring in the university’s new sustainability minor.

Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Lisa P. Jackson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, launched the White House Youth Sustainability Challenge in May. They asked youth from around the country to tell the world through a short video what they are doing in their communities to foster sustainability.

Mr. Chen, a rising junior majoring in business administration with a concentration in international business, first became interested in environmental issues in high school when he saw a poster that read “Over one acre of rainforest is deforested every second.”

That poster was the impetus for founding an environmental community service group that led recycling campaigns and held fundraisers to protect the rainforest.

As a freshman at GW, he traveled to Greensburg, Kan., as part of GW’s Alternative Spring Break to help the town rebuild its infrastructure after it was hit by a tornado in 2007. Inspired by the town’s efforts to rebuild itself as one of the most sustainable cities in America, Mr. Chen decided to create a documentary of their work. The documentary ended up being featured on the PBS Nightly Business Report as part of GW’s Planet Forward.

Now Mr. Chen is the vice president of Green GW, a student organization committed to raising awareness about environmental issues. Over the past year, he’s helped bring notable speakers to campus, hosted film screenings, led a team at the Clinton Global Institute University and organized a fashion show highlighting clothes made from recyclable material.

Mr. Chen, who hopes to be a social entrepreneur one day, showed all of these efforts in his video by taping images of the various sustainability projects to a grove of trees in Roosevelt Park. As the video pans across the trees, it’s designed to showcase his personal growth toward becoming a leader in sustainability.

“I used different branches to symbolize different things I’ve been involved in,” said Mr. Chen, who is interning this summer at Tigercomm, a clean technology public relations firm.

But toward the end of the video, Mr. Chen says it doesn’t matter how much he’s done but that he’s tried – and will continue to try – to make the world a more sustainable place.

“It’s about doing what you can with what you have,” he says in the video.

Mr. Chen’s video, named “Growth,” received the most public votes, winning the popular choice category. Along with the winners for best overall, success in communicating sustainability, contribution to sustainability and innovation, Mr. Chen will be invited to the White House later this summer for a seminar on sustainability leadership.

“I'm so excited to win this contest, and it really means so much to me,” he said. “It was so humbling to know that I have that type of influence and that so many people – even people who I have never met before – are out there watching me and supporting me.”