Investing in Storytelling to Shift Power, Support Communities, & Advance Equitable Climate Solutions

An Environmental Grantmakers Association Panel Discussion “Stories make people, and people make...

An Environmental Grantmakers Association Panel Discussion

“Stories make people, and people make change” -Culture Surge

When we think about climate solutions, what images come to mind? Maybe we’re first thinking about electric cars, solar panels, a written policy that could shift things along. Albeit helpful, these oftentimes ubiquitous images more often than not miss an essential element: people, and the stories behind them. In October 2022, The Redford Center presented a screening of our Community Power Clean Transportation film series at the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) ‘Fall Retreat ” with a simple ask: “don’t forget the stories.” stories that have the power to move individuals to action, reframe narratives, and shift hearts and minds to the reality of our current climate movement.

But why use storytelling specifically? What difference do we hope to achieve?

At The Redford Center, we are guided by the deep belief that stories have the power to mobilize communities, and spur changes in the way we perceive environmental topics covered by veils of inaccessibility, defeatism, and misrepresentation. 

We Support Films that Help:
– Change Policy
– Connect Movements
– Amplify Frontline Voices
– Drive Innovation
– Increase Representation
– Empower Communities
Advance Environmental and Media Literacy

Community Power: A Case Study
From 2021 – 2022 The Redford Center called on local filmmaking teams from the diverse, communities of Arizona, Nevada, Indianapolis, New Jersey, and Minnesota, to produce the Community Power series, chronicling local Clean Transportation activists, storytellers, and culture-makers as the visionary leaders needed to build the movement toward a just environmental future. Alongside the League of Conservation Voters, and their environmental justice branch, Chispa, we produced five films across five different states aimed at reimagining what “clean transportation” means, and who is leading the movement and solutions.

Community Power Arizona: En Nuestrxs Manos (In Our Hands)
Directed by Pita Juarez, Community Power Arizona: En Nuestrxs Manos (In Our Hands) tells the story of how residents of Maricopa County — where 1 in every 9 children suffers from asthma —  rallied their community power in a historic milestone that brought clean transportation to their school district.

Community Power Nevada: Unidxs En Acción (United In Action)
Directed by Nicolas Cadena, Community Power Nevada: Unidxs En Acción (United In Action) tells the story of how a group of Latine community activists in Clark County, Nevada — one of the most polluted counties in the country — are using their own unique brand of community power to rally for their right to breathe clean air.

Community Power Indiana: Beyond The Line
Directed by Sam Mirpoorian, Community Power Indiana: Beyond The Line tells the story of the city of Indianapolis’ bipartisan support for clean transportation headed by IndyGo. By eliminating inequitable barriers and investing in IndyGo’s Red and Purple Lines, the city has provided a safe, reliable, and economically accessible commute alternative and more.

Community Power New Jersey: Our Streets
Directed by Adam Nawrot, Community Power New Jersey: Our Streets tells the story of about how the cycling activists of Trenton, New Jersey channeled their collective power to advocate for everyone’s right to safe and accessible streets, clean transportation, and community resources.

Community Power Minnesota: Transportation and Happiness
Directed by Sebastian Schnabel and produced by Cici Yixuan Wu, Community Power Minnesota: Transportation and Happiness introduces us to the groundbreaking work of Dr. Yingling Fan. Dr. Fan and her community have developed a “Transportation Happiness Map” that captures the positive emotions tied to biking, public transportation, and avoiding traffic. Community leaders see this data as the groundwork for clean transportation and infrastructure design that prioritizes the health of people and our planet.

Lessons Learned

At the EGA fall retreat, a panel moderated by Arturo Garcia-Costas from the New York Community Trust, featuring Community Power representatives Nicolas Cadena (Nevada), Pita Juarez (Arizona) and Yingling Fan (Minnesota), dove into observations and lessons learned throughout the series. Bringing forth valuable insights for the environmental grantmaking community at large, and urging the continued support of these vital narratives, and the communities who wield their power.

Investing in Stories can…

  • Advance innovative and equitable solutions:
    • Community members in Arizona amplified community-driven clean transit system and community members in Nevada implemented the use of air quality technology in their fight for clean air
  • Shift power:
    • Community members in Indiana transformed a polarized national conversation into a local bi-partisan success
  • Support communities:
    • Community members in New Jersey and Minnesota increased local efforts and dialogue around transit expansion and infrastructure design
  • Connect Movements:
    • Each film serves as a narrative tool to mobilize other cities. For example, Community Power Indiana and Community Power Minnesota present IndyGo and the Transportation and Happiness map as models for other communities to utilize and source inspiration from

Amplify Solutions that Work

Community power is something that happens every day…but it is rarely seen or documented” said Nicolas “Nico” Cadena, director of Community Power Nevada: Unidxs en Acción. 

We understand that solutions exist, and are being enacted not just by individuals with monetary means, but also by communities who wield the power of solidarity and care. To that effect, we urged the grantmaking community to source stories from existing solutions and implementation efforts, as well as ask themselves “Who’s leading on the frontlines? What’s working in communities? Where is there already buy-in and success?”

Through these questions, we aim to avoid prescriptive campaign messaging and understand that designing top-down creates barriers and limits learning.

Shift Power from Funders to Communities

Pita Juarez, director of Community Power Arizona: En Nuestrxs Manos, reminded grantmakers that: “With topics that can be a bit dry…it’s the community that’s inspired a lot of the filmmaking we’re making; they’ve made it relatable to people — like me, like you —who are not directly involved in conversation around policy.”

When funders collaborate with community partners, community-specific impact goals begin to design themselves and are guided by the needs, context, and wisdom of leading communities. By partnering directly with communities, funders can ensure that the stories being chronicled reach the ears of the right stakeholders. We at The Redford Center are well aware that who sees a film is often more important than how many people see it. As documentarians, we know that one of the dangers of extractive or “fly-in” filmmaking, is assuming ownership of a community’s story, causing harm and missing the mark on the correct stakeholders to address localized needs.

Equitable Intersectional Solutions

Environmental solutions require collaborative effort, and multi-stakeholder action. Yingling Fan, an academic researcher, and the featured community leader  in Community Power Minnesota: Transportation and Happiness observed that “As a researcher we are often seen as independent. I think there is some level of credibility associated with a researcher doing rigorous research around a certain topic. But what’s more important, I think we realize for our research to have impact is to make our research as accessible as possible….I think what [The Redford Center] is doing, utilizing short films to convey research findings, I think that’s very important and will make this connection and certainly benefit the research community to make sure their work is relevant and impactful.”

As a global concern, it is imperative that we reimagine who is part of the climate and environmental movement. Through narrative strategy, storytellers have the power to include like minded voices that so often see themselves working in isolation. We believe that we must strive to highlight voices of the most impacted, who may not see themselves in dominant narratives. 

Moving Forward

These lessons can be applied broadly, across the environmental movement, and with the hope of uplifting the wisdom and solutions at a time when we need them most. We invite all funders and organizations who wish to join in this shared fight to think about the stories that dominate our movement and ask ourselves, who do they point to? Who benefits from them? What stories are not being heard? 

Solutions exist, and it is the job of the storyteller to help bring these stories to the forefront in a way that promotes just implementation, care, and equity. We see the opportunity of using these stories in our movement as the spark necessary to ignite a collective call to action, and hope for our shared humanity. When people think about climate solutions, our vision is that faces, stories, and communities come to mind; communities that remind us that we all carry community power within ourselves, along with the agency to use it.