2019 Planet Forward Summit Driving impact through a new generation of environmental communicators.

Stories are the epicenter of impact: the drivers of tangible, quantifiable change that shapes the course of history, brings people together, and creates solutions.

At the 2019 Planet Forward Summit, students from across the United States gathered with policymakers, corporate executives, scientists, journalists, and innovators to learn how to be storytellers of impact for the planet. We learned how to approach stories with an end goal in mind, and how a broad spectrum of mediums can help achieve those goals effectively – all from some of the best communicators in the world.

Led by storytelling platform PlanetForward.org at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, the 2019 Planet Forward Summit included major speakers and topics ranging from ocean plastics to conservation; environmental policy to plant based diets. Read on to discover the tangible impact of our Summit.

Main Sessions

From Disposable to Reusable: Can ‘Loop’ Solve the World’s Plastics Problem?

It’s time to take out the trash, once and for all. Tom Szaky has one mission: to outsmart waste. As the planet drowns in plastic and chokes on trash, Tom’s company, TerraCycle, is discovering new ways to turn waste into consumer goods – and they’re getting some of the biggest brands in consumer goods to join them. Tom showed us how the plastic crisis all began from the power of a single story – one that created a world-wide disposability mindset – and how a new story is driving major impact not only for the world’s biggest brands, but for our planet.

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Telling Stories That Reach

Impact isn’t one-size-fits-all. So, how do we define and measure it? It all depends on what you as a storyteller, set out to do. So said our panel of women leaders, whose experience ranged from public service, to podcasting, to global corporate communications.

For Danielle Nkojo, a public servant with the D.C. Department of Energy and the Environment, impact is about behavior change. “The impact that I’m trying to get at is for people to revalue their clothes," Danielle said. "What’s connecting people, I think, is to think about the story of their clothing.”

Kameel Stanley, a podcaster with St. Louis Public Radio, shared how her definition of impact shifted as she transitioned into podcasting full-time. “My idea of impact has changed now that I’m a podcaster,” Kameel said. “Because of the nature of podcasting, you have such a different, and oftentimes, more intimate relationship with your audience.”

And what does impact look like for those in corporate roles? For Kimberly West, Director of External Communications at MARS, Inc., impact involves humanizing their sustainability story – and developing relationships in the process. “How can you get a better way to build a more sustainable relationship with people?” Kimberly asked.

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Students With Impact

A good story starts with a strong voice. Since 2009, students from across the U.S. have developed theirs and found a platform to share their stories with Planet Forward. From America’s Heartland to Alaska, Wisconsin to Rome, Italy, four students with four different academic backgrounds shared how Planet Forward not only helped them find their voice, but launched them to make lasting impact through their storytelling.

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Stories Can Change Our World

Impact is driven by knowing your audience – and what you want them to do. So said Kaitlin Yarnall, SVP of Storytelling at National Geographic. Purpose drives everything behind a story, from medium, to content, to delivery. “We don’t just make documentaries to save things and put them out there and hope it’s going to work,” Kaitlin said. “What we do is we think about who is the audience that we’re trying to reach.”

Kaitlin shared the impact behind one documentary series, “Pristine Seas.” Seeking to protect 20 areas of ocean by 2020, a National Geographic team designed the documentary by targeting specific government leaders with the authority to do so, and developed and screened the series just for them. The result? As of 2019, 21 areas of oceans around the world have been protected – exceeding their goal – and the team is only just getting started.

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NowThis is Storytelling with Impact

A phone + a few questions = the storyteller's starter kit. Zinhle Essamuah and Lucy Biggers from NowThis News shared the platform’s approach to storytelling, and how one small step into storytelling can not only make a difference in the world – but for careers as well.

Zinhle Essamuah, a host and correspondent for NowThis, who got her start at Planet Forward as a student, walked us through specific tactics and questions that help NowThis reporters define their stories to mobilize audiences. We learned how to identify the most compelling components of stories, and how to drive audiences to action through a simple set of questions.

Lucy Biggers, a producer for NowThis, shared how she broke into the environmental beat, and how using new media platforms helps her connect and engage young audiences. For her, it all started with a small idea and the camera app on her phone three years ago. Now, she has launched a mini-series, “One Small Step,” about environmental lifestyles on Facebook Watch, which is followed by thousands.

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The Greenprint: Plant-Based Diet, Best Body, Better World

Never underestimate the impact of a single changed habit. So said Marco Borges, a New York Times bestselling author, the founder of 22 Days Nutrition, and Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s personal nutritionist. Marco’s mission? To help save the planet - and our health - one plant-based meal at a time. “We’ve got to do everything possible today to do our best to make this planet a better place and to be better stewards of what we’ve been given for the future generations to come,” Marco said.

That’s why he partnered with Beyoncé and Jay-Z to challenge their fans to adopt healthier habits for the chance to win free concert tickets for life. If fans pledged to eat one plant-based meal a day for life, over 61 billion lifetime carbon emissions and 846 billion lifetime gallons of water could be saved. Within 48 hours of launching that partnership, the Greenprint Project pledge reached over 200 million people, and got worldwide media outlets talking about plant-based living. And Marco is only just getting started.

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Empowering the Next Generation of Environmental Heroes

For impact that lasts, focus on empowering the next generation. When Laura Turner Seydel and her father, media mogul Ted Turner, launched Captain Planet, schools weren’t doing enough to educate young audiences on environmental issues. Now, it’s a different story. The TV show created a new generation of committed, empathetic youth across America – and the world – who would be changemakers in their homes, communities, and schools.

And that’s exactly what happened. Since its launch in 1990, the cartoon gained a worldwide following: over 113 episodes were broadcasted in 100 countries, and translated into 23 different languages. From the characters to the principles taught in the show, Captain Planet has ingrained itself in the memories of its watchers over the years, and the Captain Planet Foundation continues to work with schools all over the world to implement environmental projects and develop curricula to continue to form the next generation of environmental heroes.

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Stories Change Behavior

Can a single picture generate a movement? For Steve Winter, an award-winning photographer with National Geographic, his photos have generated movements and campaigns to protect endangered cat species around the world – from tigers to cougars, panthers to jaguars. In order to generate real impact, Steve had to figure out what was so important about the natural habitats of these big cats – and why their importance should matter to his audience.

Using unique perspectives in photography, Steve captured the images that moved general audiences and policymakers alike to preserve some of the most misunderstood and trafficked species in the world. From Brazil to China, Nepal to Hollywood, Steve saw tremendous impact from his work – and shares how we can highlight unlikely characters in our natural habitats, too.

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Lunch Keynote

Data might be king, but relationships drive it forward. As the global population continues to grow significantly, organizations are developing new tools to help feed an increasingly hungry planet – and sustainably, too. Stella Salvo from Bayer Crop Science shared what her team is doing to help farmers produce more, on less. As the company explores the future of plant genetics, and how scientific discoveries can help sustainably combat global hunger, Stella’s team has discovered that technological advancement alone isn’t the answer – connecting with people is what makes their scientists successful.

Stella explained how people are at the heart of any scientific breakthrough – and how stories of farmers, families, and community members help to keep Bayer’s scientific advancements focused on what matters.

Breakout Sessions

Making Better Pictures

Visual storytelling has little to do with equipment, and everything to do with how we view the world. In this skills-based workshop, Bill Douthitt of Science Magazine shared practical, hands-on tactics that would instantly improve not only how we take pictures, but how we attract audience interest to our visual stories - and how visual storytelling can become a career, too.

Sound Off: Using Podcasting as a Way to Amplify Storytelling

One of the coolest ways to amplify storytelling is through sound. In this workshop, Kameel Stanley, journalist and host of an award-winning NPR podcast, We Live Here, shared practical techniques attendees could immediately apply to step up their sound-based storytelling. From developing a story pitch to promoting a podcast in a competitive landscape, Kameel taught us how to launch into the podcast space – and how podcasts can make a huge impact in local contexts.

Gene Editing: Is This The Next Food Revolution?

What exactly is gene editing, and what is CRISPR? In this panel discussion between a journalist, a farmer, and a plant geneticist, we learned about the technology behind a new frontier of possibilities for sustainable food, and discovered what kind of impact gene editing might have for agriculture and farmers.

STEMinism: Women, Girls, and Leadership in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math

How can we inspire a new generation of women to lead, despite challenges in STEM workplaces? Women are underrepresented in several areas of STEM, especially in STEM leadership. By fostering open dialogue, this panel engaged women from every walk of life to share their experiences, challenges, and successes, and to empower a new generation to lead fearlessly. Hosted by Jamie Hestekin of University of Arkansas, a Planet Forward Consortium member.

Science Stories That Stick: Connecting With Your Audience

How can values-based conversations help environmental communicators engage with audiences – despite tricky topics? In this panel, we discussed GMOs, gene editing, and how scientific understanding and the power of story impacts consumer decisions and societal stigma.

SymbioSEAS: Connecting Science, Education, Art, and Society

Impactful storytelling bridges the gap between scientific research and its impact on local communities. One locally based art exhibit in Honolulu, Hawaii, is doing precisely that. A collaborative effort between community artists and scientists at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, the exhibit brings global awareness to the health and rehabilitation of oceans and coral reef, and engages the local community to tell the story of the coral reef – and the scientists who study them. Led by Emily Sesno and Beth Lenz of University of Hawaii at Manoa, a Planet Forward Consortium member.

Teaching the Earth: Lessons from the Classroom and Beyond

Designed for faculty attendees in mind, this session focused on best practices in teaching environmental communication from Planet Forward Consortium members, led by Andy Kavoori of University of Georgia. Faculty from Consortium schools shared the models they have used in their teaching, what has worked, and what might need some tweaking. Students and faculty alike brainstormed together to share what campuses across the United States are doing to equip the next generation of environmental storytellers for success.

Place and Environment: Place-Based Learning that Bolsters Environmental Literacy

How can more college classes break outside the traditional classroom and into their natural environments? Jerod Foster, Assistant Dean and professor from Texas Tech University - a Planet Forward Consortium member - highlighted Adventure Media, an experiential media and communications course that exposes students to the natural environment through backcountry bikepacking and media production. Joined by Justin Rex, a Texas Tech graduate student and Planet Forward Correspondent, they shared how more faculty can integrate field-based academics into their coursework, too.

Eco-Educational Gaming

Can games be stories? And can they have impact? If a story features compelling characters overcoming obstacles to achieve worthy outcomes, then yes! This session explored games as interactive narratives for education, raising awareness, influencing behaviors, and persuasion. Designed for both faculty and students in mind, we learned how to use eco-educational games to drive progress – both within the classroom, and in the local community. Led by Curt Gervich from SUNY Plattsburgh - a Planet Forward Consortium member.

Climate Meets the Press

From left to right: Jeff Nesbit, Executive Director, Climate Nexus; Katy Daigle, Deputy News Editor, Science News; Rajesh Mirchandani, Chief Communications Officer, UN Foundation; Frank Sesno, Founder, Planet Forward; Lucy Biggers, Producer, NowThis News.

How the environmental story has been covered in the past 20 years has changed completely - and for the better. But how will the story impact the 2020 elections?

Jeff Nesbit

Jeff Nesbit is no outsider to environmental communications. The former director of public affairs at two federal agencies, and the communications director for former Vice President Dan Quayle, Jeff was well in-tune with the state of climate change – and how its story was dispersed to the American public. That’s why, in 2011, he left his political career and formed Climate Nexus: a strategic communications group designed to better shape the way climate news is communicated in the United States.

According to Jeff, the problem with climate communication wasn’t the science, but how it was discussed. “Scientists have talked about this issue as something where the worst impacts might be felt later in this century,” said Jeff. “But the truth is, there are really bad things happening right now that are climate-related.”

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By refocusing climate communications onto immediate effects felt by most Americans, Climate Nexus began to see a shift in the way environmental issues were covered. And, most importantly, they began to see their own impact in the American public. “The polling numbers are starting to jump off the roof,” Jeff said. “The only people left who deny climate change are 20-25% of the population that also now believes that Donald Trump is the greatest president in American history. It’s the same demographic.”

Katy Daigle

Katy Daigle, deputy news editor at Science News, agreed. She explained that, previously, environmental news used to be shared using projections, estimations, and probabilities. Using such language can make it difficult for scientists and communicators alike to apply the science behind these figures. But, there’s been a significant shift. “Now, in the last couple of years, the story has very much become about what’s happening now,” Katy said. “What are we witnessing? How is it affecting our lives today? How is it going to affect our lives next year, not next generation?”

Katy went on to explain the difference in today’s environmental storytelling: science is no longer the story; it’s the vehicle delivering the story to the public. It explains why we see what we see, but the focus of the story is the climate phenomena that the American public has experienced.

Lucy Biggers

But how does this impact the next generation of environmental leaders? And are their perceptions of climate change different than those of generations before? According to Lucy Biggers, a producer with NowThis News, millennials and Gen Z-ers alike are a new breed of environmental news consumers. Younger generations are more concerned for the environment than any other generation, and it’s this same demographic that makes the majority of Lucy's audience as a producer.

“Young viewers take climate change for granted,” Lucy said. By merging entertainment with news, Lucy and the team at NowThis create tactile content that focuses on solutions to the climate crisis, and encourages their audience - most of which is under 20 years of age - to take action, themselves. It’s somewhat of a challenge in a beat that has been notoriously pessimistic, but Lucy advocates for future communicators to focus on the solutions to climate problems. “As soon as you become activated, you become motivated,” Lucy said.

Rajesh Mirchandani

Rajesh Mirchandani, Chief Communications Officer at the United Nations Foundation, agreed. “This is an activist generation,” Rajesh said. “This is a generation that will do something about it.” What has caused this shift in mentality? For one, media outlets have changed the way environmental news is covered. Climate change used to be an intangible topic so overwhelming that people didn’t know what to do. But media organizations have since played an essential role to help people understand what’s happening - and the immediate, practical actions they could take. “Your decisions as a consumer, and your lifestyle decisions are actually one of the best ways - as well as voting - to show policymakers the kinds of policies they should enact,” Rajesh said.

And this trend isn’t unique to the United States, alone. Rajesh sees similar trends following in global media coverage of climate change, too. The nature of what we’re hearing in the media is different: rather than debating whether climate change is real or not, news coverage focuses on who or what is to blame.

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The 2019 Planet Forward Storyfest Awards

From left to right: Peter Jurich (University of Wisconsin-Madison); Vicki Deng (Reed College); Terrius Harris (University of Mississippi); Ellen Wang (George Washington University); Sven Lindblad (Lindblad Expeditions); Christina Trexler (University of Arkansas); Haley Knighten (University of Arkansas); Frank Sesno (Planet Forward); Dr. Imani Cheers (Planet Forward). Not pictured: Guy Ginsberg (George Washington University)

We celebrated and rewarded the best environmental storytelling told by college students by awarding the prestigious Planet Forward Storyfest Awards in front of a live audience. Storyfest 2019 grand prize winners will travel on a 10-day expedition throughout the Galápagos Islands with eco-tourism pioneers Lindblad Expeditions in August 2019.

Hundreds of submissions were entered by college students across the United States from every academic background, undergraduate and graduate level included. To compete, up to three stories per student could be submitted on subject related to food, water, energy, mobility, the built environment, or biodiversity in any combination of media. Winners were selected based on quality of information and production, creativity in presentation, impact of storytelling, and scalability of the innovation shared. Work was judged by National Geographic photographer Karen Kasmauski, Jean-Paul Polo, Rachel Aronoff, Larry Evans, and Sara Snyder.

Winners were Peter Jurich (University of Wisconsin-Madison) for best article; Vicki Deng (Reed College) for best multimedia/photo essay; Guy Ginsberg (George Washington University) for best podcast; Terrius Harris (University of Mississippi) for best short/sharable video; Ellen Wang (George Washington University) for best video; and Haley Knighten and Christina Trexler, (University of Arkansas) a team for the fan favorite category.

Winners will travel to the Galápagos Islands for a 10-day voyage with Lindblad Expeditions aboard the National Geographic Endeavour II with a team of naturalists, Lindblad-National Geographic photo instructors, an undersea specialist, and a wellness instructor, to explore the rich biodiversity and endemic species of the Galápagos, and report on the unparalleled stories found there. Stories will be published on PlanetForward.org.

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Our Impact

300+ attendees, 40+ schools representing:

100+ Organizations represented, including:

Planet Forward thanks the sponsors of the 2019 Summit

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