Representation Matters for Climate Justice

By Amy Brady

This month I have for you something a little different. Rather than an interview, I have a transcript of a luminating panel that took place on March 22 this year. Co-presented by New York Women in Film & Television and the National Democratic Institute, this panel, called “Representation Matters for Climate Justice,” took place as part of the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women. It features remarkable women filmmakers and activists, including the award-winning documentary film producer Emily Wanja, two-time Emmy Award winner and Oscar nominated producer Lydia Dean Pilcher, pan-African feminist and activist Mwanahamisi Singano, and documentary director, producer, and cinematographer Rachel Lears. The panel was moderated by journalist Natasha Del Toro. Together, they discuss how filmmaking can help move the needle on climate action and the importance of representation in the arts, especially the kind that pushes for climate justice. Their conversation was riveting and wide-reaching.

Natasha: Let’s kick off the conversation by hearing from each of you. Why do you think that representation matters in achieving equitable climate justice?

Emily: To me representation matters a great deal because it gives visibility. It helps other people understand your perspective, and it helps other people understand where you’re coming from, what you’re struggling with, where you could be needing help, or maybe some of the solutions that you’re developing in your context and how that could lead to much more collaboration.

Let me just give a very short example with this film that we did, Thank you for the Rain. [This man] is a farmer and he is in deep rural Kenya. And he’s representing so many farmers like him, and especially women, of course, who are going through that daily, right? They are on the frontline. The thing is what has happened traditionally, that voice, that experience of our communities, where I come from, are hardly seen in many places. In fact, they are hardly heard, even on platforms or events where climate decisions are being made or policies are being passed, decisions that will affect their lives.

Lydia: [Matters of representation are] probably the most important conversation because one of the things that we’ve seen as climate change has amplified and accelerated is that it affects people disproportionately. We’re living in an era of globalization where we’re all much more aware of what’s happening in different parts of the world. We’re living in a very interesting moment right now with what’s happening in Ukraine. And we can see how much we need each other and how much we need to support each other. And we can only do that by really making sure that we are including all the voices in the conversation that need to be there. And so, in the work that we all do, the conversations that we’re having, we need to really pay attention to what voices are represented.

Mwanahamisi: I echo what everyone has said already, but for me representation boils down to three key words: inclusion, perception, and impact. It’s really important for all of us to be included and to be seen, and it’s important for all of us to be told that what we do matters.

The vast world that we live in is diverse in terms of culture, in terms of identity, in terms of region that we come from, but also in terms of gender. All the identities combined make us who we are, but also involve perception and impact, because those who are not included cannot be remembered. When it comes to impact, the evidence has shown us that if you don’t have a certain group at the table, chances are their issue is not being discussed. The impact to the solution might not resonate with them, might not fit their reality.

Rachel: I’m very interested in this question and for a while my film work has been focused on exploring the nature of power and how politically impossible things become possible. This is my third film about multiracial cross-class coalition building, and my second film that highlights women’s leadership. And when I turned towards climate justice, I found as others have mentioned, that it’s no coincidence that many of the most compelling leaders in the climate justice movement are young BIPOC women. Because across the world, young people, women, and people of color are often the most affected by the climate crisis. Many would say they don’t have the luxury of cynicism on this issue. But these are not necessarily the voices and the leaders that are usually highlighted as leaders in media narratives.

There’s a really powerful cultural shift that can happen with storytelling narratives, with film, where the tables can turn. Everyone, including viewers from dominant groups, can identify through the empathy that film creates with protagonists from underrepresented or marginalized groups. So I think that’s a really powerful cultural shift. In my film To the End, we’re presenting young women of color as leaders representing everyone, the broader multiracial, multi-gender, cross-class, intergenerational movement that we’re going to need to stop the climate crisis. At the end of the day, how we get to decarbonization matters as much as getting it done.

Natasha: Emily, how did you get into media and politics, and were there any big obstacles that you had to overcome?

Emily: Getting into climate storytelling in film was an obstacle in the sense that I felt I needed to learn so much and very quickly some of the language that is used to describe climate issues. Things like adaptation, things like resilience, and all this very important jargon that goes with research and science. It felt intimidating because I come from storytelling and we use different kinds of jargon, but when it comes to climate storytelling, specifically, I needed to understand these things. This is because when you’re running an impact campaign, you have film as this powerful tool, it forces you to work and partner with NGOs, civil societies, who are in this field and who’ve been in this field for much longer than I have. I needed to understand their language. It is the only way that I could put together proposals that would support this work.

I say this knowing that sometimes language can be a barrier. When we go down to our communities, for example, that are represented in these stories, well, my grandmother may not necessarily describe the experience of climate in the language that we are describing [it] with. It affects her economics, her tradition, and all these things. She, in fact, may not think that her Indigenous knowledge is needed and needs to be taken into account as we are all trying to find a solution.

Natasha: Mishy, how did you get into politics and media? Did you have any obstacles to overcome?

Mwanahamisi (Mishy): Yes and no. Yes, I grew up from a caste of society where it was prescribed for me that I should be a housewife and that should be the world that I operate [in]. But, no, because earlier on when I was young, I made the decision that I just don’t want to conform to the norms and to the traditions. We were born three of us, all girls, and I remember when my youngest sister was born, my dad was so sad because it was another girl. And I made the decision at that age that I would be my daddy’s boy. I wanted to do everything that everybody thought I wouldn’t do. I had that intentionality within me – that I have to operate in the spaces that had not been operated in [by women].

And I have been an activist engaging in politics. It has been hard, but I knew what I was getting into. And every now and then, I affirm my conviction and my commitment that I have to do this. And I have to do this for the right reason, because for me doing it is also to rewrite the narrative and [that] representation matters. I happen to be an activist, Black, a Muslim woman wearing a head scarf. And that is not the symbol or that is not the identity you see often in the spaces where I operate. So I knew that by me being here, I’m not just fulfilling and serving my dream, but also opening doors, because there are young women coming from my community.

Natasha: Rachel, did you have an “aha moment” that led you to know that you needed to work in the realm of climate justice. Was there a moment for you?

Rachel: Yes, actually there was. I had been working in films about social justice and been really deeply involved in movements for some time already, but in the fall of 2018, when the IPCC report came out, it was a real wake up call for a lot of people. I think that was the report that stated that we have until 2030 to make drastic changes in every aspect of our economy and society in order to avert the worst effects of the climate crisis. And beyond that, this is not a question of technology or finance. It’s a question of political will and political courage. And that really struck me. At the time I was in post-production for my film Knock Down the House, which was about courageous female candidates challenging political machines across the United States.

I became really obsessed with this idea on the broader scale of the climate crisis. We need to look toward politics because that is the process through which we negotiate power in our society, and in all societies. That’s what politics is. So that really became the focus point of my interest at the time. And now, the way I see it, is that there’s this really productive interplay between large-scale movements for large-scale policy change and local knowledge, locally-led solutions that are being spearheaded by frontline communities. I think Emily mentioned that, in a lot of cases, Indigenous knowledge is really key in so many of the solutions. And these are the solutions that we need to scale up in order to actually solve this crisis. I became really interested in that juxtaposition.

Natasha: Lydia, did you have an “aha moment” that led you to want to work in this realm? [Your film] Radium Girls – I didn’t know about that story. I’m so glad that you brought it to light.

Lydia: Well, I’ve always loved stories. Since I was a kid, I was a huge reader, loved to put on plays, loved to watch movies. Never really understood that it was a possible career, but when I found out that it could [be], I felt like my life began. But there was something I wanted to add that sort of bridges a little bit from the last question to this – the word “network,” because it’s one of the things that really made the Radium Girls story super powerful to me as a storyteller, aside from the fact that it’s a true story and that the EPA still uses their court case today to go up against big corporate chemical companies.

At the time these were just young factory workers. They didn’t imagine this was their life. They had dreams of things that they were going to go off and do. And when a group of them realized that they were being poisoned and there was a corporate coverup, they felt compelled to do something, but they didn’t have any power. Most of them were still teenagers and came from Italian immigrant families. New York was across the river. They were in Orange, New Jersey. And what happened was they went to the head of the Consumers League and met with Wiley Stevens. Because one of them was sick and Wiley Stevens had been seeing these reports come across her desk from the New York, New Jersey health department, she knew something wasn’t right.

And these girls were there and living proof that something wasn’t right. We find out that the corporation had done the research. They knew it was poisoning, and they were continuing to let the girls lift the paint brushes and the radium, even as they were being diagnosed with syphilis by the corporate doctors. But the interesting piece to me: we found a letter at the Library of Congress from when Wiley Stevens called her friend, Alice Hamilton, a scientist, a physician, who was a pioneer in industrial toxicology. She had been working with Jane Adams at Hull House. She was all about women in social issues. Women had just gotten the right to vote in America and they were organized and they wanted to use that power. They wanted to use those networks and networks is the operative word, because I think that there’s a version of the world where we might not have ever even heard of the radium girls, but those women went into action.

My career spans a time when female storytelling was considered non-commercial. We were told by the powers that be in Hollywood that women don’t go to the movies. I think as my career as a producer grew, I was naturally gravitating toward women storytellers and telling female stories. I could really see that the narrative that was being told wasn’t true. And that was when a lot of things started to change, when data came into the equation with the internet, when we were able to prove what people like or didn’t like, where the audiences were or where they weren’t. We didn’t have to listen to the powers that be who wanted to just put their narrative out there. So again, this is all, I think, network representation, the power of your voice. They’re my “aha” about why I do what I do.

Natasha: We know that women hold the post of “environment minister” more than any other ministerial post in the world. We also know that particularly in underserved and geographically marginalized communities, women are at the forefront of climate justice movements. Emily, how representative are you of the leadership on this issue in your sectors?

Emily: I don’t know. I feel that I’m doing what I’ve got to do, right? With this new understanding I have of the power of storytelling and how it can be used to actually accelerate change and play a big part in the way we need to start reimagining solutions, the way we need to start reimagining partnerships and collaboration towards our common solutions. But I feel like there needs to be a whole lot more of us. I do what I can, but I don’t think that doing anything on my own is enough. There needs to be a whole lot more of us. I respect and I’m so happy to see Mishy here.

If we talk about representation touching on visibility, touching on your ability to drive impact, touching on where – forgive me for using this phrase – where on the pipeline, I wanted to use the phrase “on the food chain,” where do you see it? Are you able to influence decisions? Are you able to make decisions that actually have an impact on the lives of the people you represent or the people whom you identify with? The people who most need solutions and interventions? If I look at it that way, then there needs to be a whole lot more of us in this kind of space advocating, amplifying and uplifting, elevating others like us, who don’t yet get the limelight or who don’t get the visibility that they deserve, despite doing so much on the ground. I don’t know if that answers the question, but that’s how I interpreted it.

Natasha: Given that New York City and cities like Miami, which I just moved from, and New Orleans, where I lived before, are preparing for the impact of climate change, what can indie filmmakers do and what can other content producers do to inform the public? Rachel?

Rachel: I love this question because I really think climate change should be included in all our stories. It doesn’t even have to be the focus. This is the backdrop of all of our lives. It’s covered in ways in the mainstream media that are very disempowering. So independent film has a really incredible opportunity and responsibility to challenge the narratives that we’re going to hear on the mainstream media, which is just like, “oh, disaster’s coming, but there’s nothing we can do because nothing’s ever changed before. So why would it change now? Why don’t you just give up?” There’s such an opportunity to tell the stories of people who are most affected by the crisis, to include characters who are really grappling with grief and fear about the climate crisis and moving beyond that, stories of action and visions for how we can solve this crisis.

There’s an incredible resource by the Good Energy Project called The Climate Storytelling Playbook. I only found out about it after I had finished To the End, but they worked with many, many writers in Hollywood and other parts of film and television, as well as activists and cultural producers, to talk about how we can begin to shift narratives as writers, how writers can begin to think about putting this into their stories. And when I say writers, I include that to mean documentary storytellers as well. I think it’s a great resource.

Natasha: Mishy, can you talk to us about being a feminist, an African feminist? Somebody might not necessarily connect that immediately with climate change. What does your work have to do with climate change?

Mwanahamisi: I work with organizations to support women and coordinate them, and to ensure the voices of women are at the center of the decision processes. That includes, for example, coordinating engagement of women in the UNF processes, coordinating engagement of women in UN SDG processes. So our work has centered climate change and gender. Most of our members, when they get to the UNF spaces, see decisions being made because they demanded decision. They bring to this space the reality that women are facing, but also the solutions that women are doing across the board and their stories and their voices.

Our work in so many ways fits into the idea that we need to be there, at the table, not on the menu. When you are represented, you are representing the un-represented, those who are supposed to be represented. I think there has been a structure of biases where, when you are coming from a minority community, people see you [as] nothing more than that identity. So you end up carrying the burden of representing the entire [experience of an] African woman, when engaging the space. I’m supposed to represent a billion people, but I might not have the legitimacy to do that because at the end of the day, I might be in that space in my capacity as a policy.

We have been taught that if women don’t raise their hands and speak about gender, the whole hundred men in the room won’t speak about it. If a feminist won’t raise that conversation, nobody will, because we have delegated this work to this specific group. And if that is how we operate, then that representation will continue to be tokenized and won’t lead to structural change because I strongly believe there is no voiceless people, but there has been a deliberate decision to silence some of the groups.

Natasha: This year’s CSW topic is “gender equality today for a sustainable future.” So do we need to talk about men, Mishy?

Mwanahamisi: Oh, yes. We need to talk about men. We need to tell them strongly that they need to pass back the room so that more women can sit and make decisions.

Natasha: The impact [from] climate change that [we] will experience 25 years from now has already been set into motion. What is the one practical thing that each of us can do to become activists and representatives on climate justice? Lydia?

Lydia: Well, we did a study in the industry. The Hollywood studios had been calculating carbon footprints for a long time. And when the data was all put together, it was very interesting. It didn’t matter whether it was an independent film, a tentpole film, or an episode of television, anywhere from 46% to 54% of the carbon footprint was fuel consumption. And so, [the thing to do at this point is] to influence and model behavior [through] clean energy. And we have to look at it no matter what industry we’re in across the world. I think we all need to become experts in clean energy, and in our industry, we’re trying to make sure people in LA know that every 76 station has renewable diesel.

There’s no reason not to be using it, and we are also saying that we need to create demand with the studio, the financers, the powers that be, we need the infrastructure to run electrified productions. We don’t need diesel generators. It’s over. We’re working with a UN initiative right now: the Entertainment Industry Net Zero Accord. And clean energy is really what we’re leading with out of the gate.

In terms of the global conversation, the resources aren’t as available, but we have to create that demand. As the UN is saying, we have eight years left. If we can’t reduce our carbon emissions by 50% within the next eight years, we will hit a point of no return. And last year, our emissions increased 6%. So we haven’t yet hit a point where we’re going in the right direction.

Natasha: Emily, what is the one practical thing that each one of us can do to become activists and representatives on climate justice?

Emily: Scientists will do their thing. Researchers will go and research. Musicians will sing. Storytellers will tell stories. Looking at it from the perspective of a storyteller, we need to challenge ourselves as well and work a whole lot more closely with the climate movement. We need to constantly ask ourselves: What are the stories that are needed right now? What are the stories that we must tell right now?

Natasha: I’m getting some questions coming in from the Q&A. This was a question that was submitted for everyone. What actions do you wish men would take to support women’s leadership in your industries? Who wants to take that one? Rachel?

Rachel: When I think about representation in the film industry in the United States, which is the context I work in, I think a lot about social democracy and the way institutions are funded by national governments in many other parts of the world. I’ve done a lot of work in Latin America, but of course [government funding] exists across Europe and other parts of the world – institutions that support work that will not necessarily be supported by what the prevailing market forces want to see at that moment in time.

So in the United States, we need a huge social democratic transformation of our society in order to really create the conditions of possibility for a more equitable film industry. And that includes policies like universal healthcare and free college tuition, the sorts of policies that are going to make it possible for people who don’t usually have the luxury to take the risk of becoming a filmmaker. It’s a risky job proposition. So, I would like for men and everyone to be doing [this] in our industry.

Natasha: And Mishy, this is a question that came in from our listeners: How can climate change advocacy become powerful and impactful in authoritarian states where rights and representation are absent?

Mwanahamisi: The answer is complicated because you really need to understand the intersecting structural issues that gave us the climate crisis. We strongly believe that climate change is the product of capitalism as the model of production, colonialism, authoritarianism, like all those that brought us the crisis that we are [in] now. We really need to imagine a different world. The one thing I think all of us should do is to educate ourselves on these intersecting structural issues and oppression. Because if we hand over that power, that’s only a certain class or a certain group that can theorize, that can imagine a new world, that can invent solution. Then we are denying ourselves the power to change the system.

But also we are denying the power of creating the world that is better for all of us. There is an urgent need for the process of creating the alternative, rather than just us seeking and expressing our dissatisfaction. I strongly feel those who have created the problem, well, they don’t have legitimacy to create the solutions. You’re speaking about the women who for so long have been the custodians of land. They have been custodians of waters. They know what is next. So having them in the room is not just a political critique, but also brings people who have expertise on how things can be done because they have been doing it. And they have never been part of destroying the planet, nor have they been part of oppressing people.

Natasha: I have another question here from the Q&A. Any ideas about how stories from the polar regions, especially Indigenous Arctic stories, could be amplified?

Lydia: There’s a big movement in our industry now to uphold underrepresented voices and there are groups that support this work actively: the Center for Cultural Power, Pop Cultura, Collaborative, Color of Change, even The Climate Storytelling Playbook that Rachel mentioned, which is out on April 19 and will be online. These are all endeavors to bring a democracy to the voices that tell stories. And I think it’s an interesting time. We live and work in an industry that’s highly skilled – there’s a lot of training that needs to happen to tell stories. But we are also seeing a movement in terms of international filmmaking and local filmmaking. And that’s where the real stories are going to come forward when people can tell their own stories.

Emily: I wanted to add onto what Lydia just shared. The person who asked that question, I’m happy to do a follow up with you if you have an actual specific request or a specific story that you’re thinking of. And I’d also like to talk about some of the work that we do at Doc Society, which is [that] we have a full climate unit and it has a climate fund, and it also has a climate story lab. What we do with the climate story unit is amplify narrative shifts on climate justice, especially amplifying Indigenous voices and marginalized experiences. What we say is that we need a biodiversity of storytelling that is as diverse as the ecosystem we are seeking to save.

Natasha: How do you think women can collaborate and build alliances across all sectors on climate justice? This is a really important question for all of you. Why don’t we start with Rachel.  

Rachel: My answer is going to be incomplete and I hope others will chime in. What I think about when I think about that question is really what it means to conceptualize systemic change and the transformational change of the systems that are causing the climate crisis. Women have incredible abilities to synthesize and to make those connections. It’s fantastic if any of us has the opportunity in our lives to [personally use] clean energy, but until we have a systematic change of infrastructure that’s available, we’re not going to be getting to the scale that we need to actually solve this crisis.

So to me, any conversation about change on the scale of the crisis itself has to really hone in on challenging the political power of the fossil fuel industry. And that takes a particular shape in the United States. It takes a particular shape in other countries around the globe, but in the United States, which I’m most familiar with, there’s a very strong connection between money and politics, and the type of change that is supported or not supported in our politics. Women are in an incredible position to forge these alliances around the world, to lead projects in individual, local, and national contexts, and also to build alliances between movements around the world. We can learn from each other’s successes and failures, as movements have had to do throughout history. We’re so interconnected. Now there’s an incredible opportunity to continue those conversations so that we can really take back the future.

Natasha: Mishy, how do you think women can collaborate and build alliances across all sectors on climate justice?

Mwanahamisi: The answer is hard because you have to acknowledge that women are so diverse. We are so diverse [as a] group and often our politics might not align, our interests might not align. And often, we think we want to come together assuming that we are all the same, because we just happened to be called women. But then we start to do that and we realize that there’s difference between us and then the movement starts cracking. So recognizing that we are very diverse and we need to do that hard work of reaching out to the diverse sector [is important].

We do have to work with filmmakers. We need to work with the policy makers and the women who are decision-makers in politics who are [being sent] by their government to negotiate, for example. We need that holistic engagement. And I feel that a lot of that work has already started to happen.

Also, we should be kind to ourselves, and take [it] genuinely slowly, because often the world will be telling all of us 3.7 billion women that we need to speak with one voice. So it can also be kind to know that we are diverse.

Lydia: I think about audience a lot. It’s been interesting to track the perception of climate change across the general public. We’ve gone from like a couple of decades ago, 40% of the public would acknowledge that climate change was a real issue or that it was something we should be thinking about. And then it creeped up to 60% and this year it actually spiked to 70%. To me, that means our audience has increased by a number of people who want climate stories and want to understand the issues and want solutions.

People are more personally affected. Now they want to understand [what’s happening with climate] so they can respond. But impact producing and what Emily is talking about is so critical. On Radium Girls, we did an impact campaign with the Sierra Club and we reached out and formed partnerships with over a hundred organizations in the U.S. It was interesting to me in this world of pandemic Zoom, how many living rooms you can go into and have these conversations. But we had women across the country working, everybody from the national Coalition of Labor Union women to state legislatures, congresswomen, and senators, all who wanted to talk about these issues that affected communities and their states.

Erin Brockovich got involved in our campaign and we did some panels with her and toxic chemical communities. We worked with Women’s Earth Alliance who organized it. There are women who go in and organize women leaders in different communities who need help standing up against the corporate powers that are polluting their neighborhoods. It went from worker safety to science, to health issues, political voices. It crossed so many issues, but it was amazing to me how many women were organizing in all these different areas, and that somehow we could connect the conversation [to] the movie. If there’s a conversation to be had, find it. Do it.

Natasha: What are some of the things that are misconceptions that may push someone away who should be a part of the conversation?

Rachel: Lydia, you mentioned changing attitudes. I’m most familiar with the statistics on communications around this in the United States, but I think one misconception that I’ve found in releasing this film and among many of the journalists I’ve spoken to, is that at least half of the population does not believe that climate change is real. That is not true. You know, as Lydia mentioned, 70% of people think it’s important and that we should be doing something major about it. What that misconception is reflecting is actually our political culture, where there’s an entire political party that does not acknowledge it.

And that blocks any action on it. And a huge part of the other political party is not particularly active on it either. So I would love for more people to know that it’s not actually as controversial as people think it is. There are controversies around exactly what we should do anytime. You’re talking about dismantling a huge, powerful industry. That’s going to be controversial, but the idea that we should do something big about it, and we should have those conversations – that’s not actually controversial.

Natasha: In the same way that I’m interested in how you all came to this work, I’m also interested to know what has informed you and what can inform some of our listeners as they’re educating themselves more about this issue and how to become more involved. What are some film sites that each of you suggests our audience should be aware of?

Emily: For those who are thinking about using storytelling for impact, for instance, I’d definitely recommend the Impact Field Diet. I got into the whole world of impact producing in 2016. And really before that, I had never heard of impact producing in my life. This is a really good resource and it’s been translated into so many languages and it’s a really good deep dive and very simplified into how can you use your material to drive any kind of social change.

Lydia: One of the books that came out last year that I carried around and read a little bit every night is All We Can Save. It’s edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Catherine Wilkinson, and it’s just a beautiful collection of essays and stories and poems. And it gives you so much, it just fills you up and it’s what we need because climate anxiety is real and it’s intense, and we need to feel hope. And the other one that I’ll just mention is Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. She has developed a philosophy around nature and how we are nature. And therefore we need to take ownership of what’s happening with the planet as part of the nature that we are. Those two books have given me a lot of hopeful inspiration to put on my critical hat and do the hard work.

Natasha: We definitely need inspiration and hope in general. And especially with this topic which is so daunting. Unfortunately I have run out of time. I want to thank you so much for bringing your thoughtful answers to this panel and for all of the work that you do. It’s really incredible and it has ripple effects. So thank you for sharing your expertise and your heart with us today.

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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