Telling Stories

Green media maven Simran Sethi believes journalism can change the way people think—and so teaches students to be storytellers for the environment.
Closing credits from the film "Panels of Change."

Green media maven Simran Sethi is teaching students to be storytellers by training them to install solar arrays and then Tweet about it. Her course–Green Reporting, Green Building, Green Justice–was offered last semester through the University of Kansas’s William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Over spring break she brought the class to the Bay Area where they pitched in at the non-profit Grid Alternatives, which provides solar installations to low-income families. They also visited with other green-focused groups, including the offices of my own employer, William McDonough + Partners, where they tweeted madly about Cradle to Cradle design.

Sethi, who has covered sustainability for MTV and Oprah.com, among other outlets, says that “everyone can be a storyteller—not just journalists.” She is hardly alone in this belief. My co-author Lance Hosey and I focused a chapter of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design (Ecotone Publishing, 2007) on the topic. In our many conversations with women and men about sustainability, the subject came up repeatedly. “Communication—personal and public—is at the heart of social change, and the written and spoken word has done much to spread the word about sustainability,” we wrote. “Architect Jeanne Gang sums it up: ‘We have to get into the public imagination if we are going to transform how people think.’ ”

Sethi is certainly out to change how people think, both about journalism and about how we live. She believes in an embedded, participatory journalism; she gave each student a Flip camera, directing them to use Twitter and Facebook as their story platforms. “The environmental movement needs artists, marketers, and people with multi-media skills,” she says. The result was a crash course in storytelling with video and short texts, and these students were published on Twitter and did live blogs at triplepundit.com.

Her class came together from several academic departments. Of the 12, eight were from journalism, two from architecture and two from environmental studies. “Each student had to define what green meant to them,” Sethi said, “and then leverage that through collective journalism expressed in social media.”

Is there a line between journalism and advocacy? “Nothing is un-biased,” Sethi states.“We reveal a bias in what we choose to include and exclude. I have an agenda that leans toward green. I want clean water and I think everyone does. I think there is utility in making those desires transparent.” For Sethi, the rigor and legitimacy will come from practice, practice, practice. “Learning by doing helps these kids understand when to paraphrase, when to quote—these are foundational. Giving credit and truth telling—maybe these are easier when crowd sourcing is in play.” She suggests that this is working out the Fifth Estate in real time. “Lines are dissolving,” she adds. “We are all seamlessly participating in the world. Personal narrative is critical.”

In researching Women in Green, Lance and I talked with poet and ecologist Sandra Steingraber who wrote Living Downstream in 1997. “I thought that if I could lay bare what went on in my home town, it could be a method people could use anywhere,” she told us. “There’s a part of me that is convinced of the authority of one’s own experience. I think feminism has taught us that. And the world has changed since Silent Spring. People need a narrator, someone they can relate to, to take them through this territory.”

 Kira Gould is a writer and director of communications for William McDonough + Partners, an architecture and community design firm with offices in San Francisco, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Amsterdam. She is a graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism and still takes notes in a notebook; follow her on Twitter

Categories: Design Education

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