Planet Forward Summit Focuses on Solutions to Climate Crisis

The 2024 Planet Forward Summit focused on empowering students to drive change through storytelling and featured discussions on sustainability challenges and solutions.

April 22, 2024

2024 Storyfest winners

From left: Imani M. Cheers, Joy Reeves, Micah Seidel, Delan Li, Mickki Garrity, Beverly Ndifoin, Amy Berquist, Isabella Lindblad and Frank Sesno. (Photo: Alexandra Daley-Clark/Lindblad Expeditions)

The Planet Forward Summit, celebrating its 11th year, returned to George Washington University on Thursday and Friday last week with the theme “Solutions for Survival.” 

This year’s Summit emphasized the urgency of the climate crisis and the role students can play in inspiring meaningful change and hope for the future. Students from more than 50 universities across the country, as well as sustainability leaders in various industries, convened at the Summit to share ideas and learn how to use storytelling to move the planet forward. 

GW President Ellen M. Granberg introduced the event by underscoring the importance of tackling the climate crisis. 

“At the George Washington University, we are driven by the idea that bold and innovative solutions can solve society's greatest challenges,” Granberg said. “And right now, there is no greater challenge than that of climate change and sustainability. Throughout GW classrooms, labs and more than 60 research centers and institutes, we are producing multi-disciplinary research, driving policy change and educating the future generation of leaders and changemakers who have the skills and knowledge to move our planet forward.” 

Frank Sesno, the founder of Planet Forward and the executive director of the GW Alliance for a Sustainable Future, told attendees that they have the power to make an impact through their work. 

“Stories matter,” Sesno said. “Communicating, conveying, capturing a mood, using data, elevating character. All these things are vital tools. And if you do it well, it can make a huge difference.” 

Imani M. Cheers, associate professor of digital storytelling in the School of Media and Public Affairs, gave a preview of what was in store for attendees throughout the summit. 

The agenda included a list of influential speakers, a private screening of the new film “Blue Carbon” and workshops for students that focused on various issues including how to craft stories that could be a catalyst for change. 

Cassandra Garber, the vice president of corporate sustainability and environmental social governance (ESG) at Dell Technologies, spoke about the challenges and opportunities for corporations as they work to balance financial objectives with environmental considerations. 

Garber has been working in corporate environments for more than 20 years and has more than a decade of experience focusing on sustainability and ESG. 

She said since corporations are for-profit entities, some challenges come with balancing financial goals and sustainability efforts. However, because corporations wield a significant influence in driving societal change, Garber believes there is a huge opportunity to create a positive impact by working with large companies. 

“I firmly believe there is tremendous power in guiding change within corporations,” Garber said. “And if we all have a real conversation about the role of the corporation in the future of society, there's so much potential.” 

Garber explained that Dell's priorities include reducing greenhouse gas emissions, using more recycled materials in their products and using more renewable energy.

“Our priorities are based on risks, opportunities and impacts,” Garber said. “We use that kind of concept to kind of choose what our priorities are. And that helps a lot because back to the business lens, a number of these areas, if you look into it, you can make money off of doing more environmentally friendly things.” 

Garber explained that as she promotes sustainability efforts within her company, she finds opportunities where environmentally sustainable initiatives show how they can align with profit goals. This approach not only benefits the planet but also demonstrates the potential for companies to thrive financially while being environmentally responsible. 

Andrea Bruce, a National Geographic photojournalist, spoke at the summit about how to tell a story on subject matters that might be uncomfortable or difficult to discuss. 

Bruce presented a piece she worked on for National Geographic on open defecation, a serious issue in many parts of the world that can pollute the environment and cause health issues for individuals living in the area. 

“When I’m faced with any story, this is the first thing I do: I research with a wide net, lead with curiosity and open-minded inquiry,” Bruce said. 

That research helps Bruce to find the scope of the story. In this case, that included the consequences of open defecation, particularly contaminating drinking water sources. 

“Today, nearly 950 million people still routinely practice open defecation,” Bruce said. “Diseases caused by poor sanitation and unsafe water kill some 1.4 million people per year.”

Bruce said she works to capture photos in the field, and she works with the people she’s documenting to craft the narrative. 

"During every step of the process, I'm thinking about the cliches to avoid and representation,” Bruce said. “I’m often collaborating with the people in these photos. I ask them what they think would be important to photograph and what they would like people around the world to know about their life.”

The next step in her storytelling process is to look for solutions. Bruce said it is an important way to avoid cliches and encourage compassion. 

Another essential part of the storytelling process is to find the heart of the story. 

“Find visuals that go beyond process,” Bruce said. “A photograph can be a feeling, a moment, a connection. Sometimes a photograph can answer questions, and sometimes it makes us ask more questions. Photos invite people to read the story.” 

She said focusing on small stories that highlight real people within a larger topic can make the issue feel more personal to an audience. 

Bruce ended by encouraging students to embrace their creative curiosity as a way of highlighting  important issues around the world.

At the end of the conference, the winners of Storyfest, the annual Planet Forward competition featuring the best student-told environmental stories of the year, were announced.

Among the winners was GW student Ayah Mahana, who completed her work for a B.A. in journalism and mass communication in December 2023. Her winning work is “Gen-Z’s calling: One youth-climate org works to turn anxiety into action.”

The Storyfest winners will embark on a once-in-a-lifetime storytelling expedition to Iceland or the Galápagos this summer. They will travel with Planet Forward and Lindblad Expeditions, which is providing its sixth year of cabins and support. 

The other winners were:

Best Written Story by a Media Student

Delan Li - University of Connecticut

“The Climate Necessity Defense: How activists are using civil disobedience to fight climate change”

Best Written Story by a Non-Media Student

Mickki Garrity - University of Minnesota

“Making Home: A story of beaver and babies”

Best Multimedia Story by a Media Student

Laura Isaza and Sachi Kitajima Mulkey - University of California, Berkeley

“Looking back on Alto Maipo: Hydropower and controversy in the Chilean Andes”

Best Multimedia Story by a Non-Media Student

Joy Reeves - Duke University

“Your friendly neighborhood spider-party: Community scientists use spider webs to monitor air pollution”

Best Video Story by a Media Student

Jason Marmon and Daniel Stipanovich - Arizona State University

“Sweltering Saguaros: Survival in a changing desert”

Best Video Story by a Non-Media Student

Micah Seidel - Rutgers University

“Growing Gigas - Martin & Delphia Selch Kosrae giant clam farm”

Spotlight Award

Beverly Ndifoin - University of Notre Dame

“Namé Recycling: Combining revenue, jobs, and sustainability”