Students take environmental messages, activism local

November 5, 2009 By Gwen Evans

The Tales from Planet Earth film festival this weekend, Nov. 6-8, will screen some 50 environmental films from around the world that explore how stories told through film can influence our understanding of, and relationships to, nature.

But the festival, organized by the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, is more than just hunkering down in a dark theater to watch spectacular films: Organizers hope the films will inspire audiences to action on behalf of environmental justice and the diversity of life.

And local action inspired by the festival is already under way, even though a single curtain has yet to be raised or light dimmed. UW–Madison students in the class Community Engagement Through Film have developed partnerships with area nonprofit organizations that work on issues raised in the festival’s films. The class is being taught by Gregg Mitman, festival director and interim director of the Nelson Institute; and Judith Helfand, filmmaker, activist, educator and artist in residence at UW–Madison this semester.

“There was so much enthusiasm from the last festival. I wanted to take that energy and turn it into activism,” says Mitman. “Environmental film festivals on college campuses are growing, and I wanted to create a model for others to follow. This class is a true expression of the Wisconsin Idea.”

The students’ class projects address, on a local level, issues such as hunger, homelessness, food sources, nutrition, emergency preparedness, animal rehabilitation and community-based conservation. The class has already established some exciting partnerships with impressive outcomes:

  • Several local grocery stores have agreed to stock products made by Porchlight, a local organization that hires and trains homeless people to work in its kitchens. Increasing sales of Porchlight’s products, which are mostly bottled goods such as jams and pickled veggies, baked goods and salads, will spur more hiring and training. The Wisconsin Union is also now buying some of these items for its food service operations, as are some campus sororities and the local Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company. In addition, Marling Home Works, a building supply company, is helping to organize a fundraiser to help Porchlight buy a commercial-scale convection oven to increase its productivity.
  • Madison’s Whole Foods Market has agreed to purchase food shares from the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition to donate to food pantries. Food pantries rarely have fresh vegetables to offer their clients, so this effort will ensure a steady supply on their shelves. Whole Foods will also donate fresh fruits through the winter months to help fill gaps. The Bradshaw-Knight Foundation has also purchased shares along with individual donors.
  • Interstate Books4School has agreed to donate a large number of children’s books to the food pantries.
  • Madison Gas & Electric Co. is donating $500 to several community groups to purchase green energy credits. These will help the groups pay their utility bills and also offset carbon emissions generated by the film festival.
  • Marling Home Works is donating materials to build a children’s garden kitchen at Troy Community Gardens on Madison’s north side, where they will learn to prepare healthy meals from the vegetables they help grow.

Other partnerships and projects are still being developed. “Some of these students have lived in Madison for years but have never left the isthmus. They are seeing that the issues in the films are very real, and real right here,” says Mitman. “They are also learning new ways to think about community service — where they learn about doing things ‘with’ people, not ‘for’ them. That builds relationships, trust and follow-through.”