Planet Forward Summit Focuses on Importance of Diverse Voices in Search for Sustainable Solutions

The 2023 Planet Forward Summit heard from a top Ford Motor Company official about the future of the electric vehicle marketplace and from other voices during the two-day summit.

April 24, 2023

 Artealia Gilliard and Frank Sesno discuss electric vehicles at the Planet Forward Summit.

Artealia Gilliard and Frank Sesno discuss electric vehicles at the Planet Forward Summit. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Students from more than 30 universities across the nation committed to tackling the climate crisis convened at George Washington University and online for a two-day summit on the power of using storytelling to spur action. 

The Planet Forward Summit, celebrating its 10th year, brings sustainability leaders in various industries to discuss the challenges around climate change and successful, innovative strategies.

The theme of this year’s event was “All In.” Frank Sesno, director of strategic initiatives for the School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA) and founder of Planet Forward, explained to an energized room of students, faculty and attendees from across the country, that to save our planet, the world must be “all in.”

“You are all here because you care about the planet, because you need to tell these stories, because you are going to make a difference. That's a promise,” Sesno said. 

The impact of climate change is already being felt by millions of vulnerable people across the world, he said. “That's why we need we need to be all in, why we need these voices and ideas and why we need to communicate clearly. So that's our focus today,” Sesno said. 

Christopher Alan Bracey, GW provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, said universities are incredibly well positioned to work across political aisles and disciplines and be hubs of thought leadership and facilitators of conversation about how to address the climate crisis. He pointed to the many strides GW has made to become a more sustainable campus through its operations, teachings and research. 

“GW is on track to achieve carbon neutrality by the year 2030,” Bracey said. “With leadership from our Board of Trustees and campus community, GW has announced its commitment to divesting our endowment from businesses that derive the majority of their revenue from the extraction of fossil fuels.” 

During the two-day summit, students in attendance had the opportunity to hear from and meet innovators in sustainability and participate in workshops to learn how to craft stories that will spark action. 

One of the speakers students heard from was Artealia Gilliard, who works on Environmental Leadership and Sustainability at the Ford Motor Company. 

In a discussion moderated by Sesno, Gilliard spoke about the benefits of switching to electric vehicles (EV) and the challenges the automobile industry will see with the expansion of those vehicles. 

Sesno asked Gilliard how the expansion of EVs in the marketplace will impact workers in the auto industry. 

“When we think about a just transition, we think about our workforce, and we think about the communities around us,” Gilliard said. “And so, when Ford said that they wanted to be aligned with the Paris Agreement, one of the unique things about the Paris Agreement was your climate action strategy couldn't just count megatons of carbon. You're supposed to count the impact of the transition of your business on your workforce and local communities.”

Gilliard said the goal is to not make the same mistake as the coal industry, which resulted in a generation of employees being left behind. 

“They had no livelihood. They had no income, and they had no industry. And that's why it must be a journey and a transition because we have to find a way to move people along with us,” Gilliard said. 

Across the auto industry, she said, there needs to be an investment now in employees to learn those skill sets so workers are ready for jobs in EV. 

A student asked Gilliard what steps need to be taken to make electric cars more affordable. 

“I think the first thing is batteries,” Gilliard said. “That is the most expensive thing. If we can figure out how to bring the cost of batteries down, continue to innovate and recycle the ones that we have, that is going to be the game changer for really lowering the cost of the vehicle.” 

The summit featured other panels and speakers that centered on the need to be equitable and involve diverse voices as innovations are made in sustainability practices, including Matt Scott, director of storytelling and engagement at Project Drawdown; Sadie Babits, supervising climate editor at NPR; Katie Orlinsky, National Geographic contributing photographer; and Bergdís Ellertsdóttir, Ambassador of Iceland to the United States.

At the end of the conference, the winners of Storyfest, the annual Planet Forward competition highlighting student-generated environmental stories, were announced. 

The grand prize winners will get to travel with Lindblad Expeditions to Iceland for a once-in-a-lifetime storytelling expedition aboard the National Geographic Resolution. They will explore and report on the environmental solutions, preventative measures, and innovations already being developed in Iceland.

Vidya Muthupillai, a sophomore at the GW Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, won in the “Most Compelling Character” category for her article, “Growing Soil: Nebraska Sandhills Hint Changing tides in Agriculture.”

The other winners were:

  • Best Scalable Innovation: Gabe Allen and Tyler Hickman, University of Colorado Boulder. “In Colorado, the Soil Beneath Solar Panels Is Ripe for Growing Crops.”
  • Most Creative: Halley Hughes, University of Arizona. “Reconciliación en mi Río.”
  • Best Science Narrative: Katie Delk, University of Florida. “Solutions on the Half-Shell: Healing Florida's Waters with Clams.”
  • Best Use of Science or Data: Cassidy Hough, Michigan State. “Perennial Grains Are the Future of Sustainable Agriculture.”
  • Planet Forward Staff Award: Sachi Mulkey, University of California, Berkeley. “Reinventing a Sustainable Crab Fishery.”