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and science need storytellers now more than ever.

The 2017 Planet Forward Summit

Stories that Last:
Native American
Traditions of

Robin Kimmerer, director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment and professor at SUNY-ESF, led our conversation about creative storytelling.

“We need a different kind of science — and we have one. It has existed for millennia. It is called traditional ecological knowledge, which is rich in teachings about how people can give back to land,” she said.

She emphasized the importance of not only being thankful for Earth, but also of thinking about what we can give back to the planet.

“In a storytelling tradition which seems to exclude the other 200 million species that we could be learning from, is it any wonder then that every day, kids in school can recognize 100 corporate logos and 10 plants?”

Dr. Kimmerer then shared a native story from the Potawatomi people about the creation of the world. The story described the importance of reciprocity between the gifts of animals and the gratitude of humans.


“It is a story of mind, body, emotion, and spirit, to remind us that at the very beginning of time, the rest of the world was our life raft, and now, so much closer to the end, we must be theirs,” she said.

The 2017 Planet Forward Summit on April 6-7 in Washington, D.C., looked at storytelling through the lens of our Storyfest contest categories: character, creativity, science/data, innovation and big ideas.

The event brought schools, students and faculty from all over the U.S. to the conversation. 

Over the course of two days, we heard from storytelling experts. We learned about communicating to inspire action.  

And we rewarded the best environmental storytelling by college students. 

Our 12 Planet Forward student correspondents — and others from schools across the country — filed hundreds of stories last year. The very best were awarded our Storyfest prize: a storytelling expedition in June 2017 to the Brazilian rainforest. 

Read on to relive the event. Get inspired. Then, tell your story to move the planet forward.








Built Environment

Character-driven Stories

Driven Stories 
Can Change

the World ▶︎

Discovery Communication's Vice President of Creative Solutions James Gilbey opened the 2017 Summit with a conversation about character.

“I’m a big believer in that we should always look over our shoulder. You’re only as good as the work that you see,” Gilbey said.

He told the audience about Discovery’s Project C.A.T., the goal of which is to double the tiger population by 2022. Gilbey then showed an ad Discovery created for the project, which features tigers as characters.

“When you’re a great storyteller you will always look for a new way to tell a story, a new way to communicate a message. Often a message has been told so many times that it simply falls on deaf ears. When you’re a great storyteller you use characters — character storytelling — to find a new light,” he said.

Gilbey played a series of PSAs and commercials to highlight great examples of character storytelling. The presentation featured stories from Google and Greenpeace; stories that utilize different storytelling methods including one-second videos and GoPros; and stories that evoke different emotions, from anger to joy.

“People often think when they tell a story they have to tick a lot of boxes. You don’t. You have to tell an amazing story that is relatable, that comes from a single person or a group of people, that comes from a perspective — you cannot tell an amazing story that you tell in the abstract,” Gilbey said.


The Reality of Virtual Reality ▶︎

Asher and Ogle invited a volunteer, Emily Robinson, a sophomore at the George Washington University, to demonstrate the virtual reality experience for the audience. The demonstration explored ocean acidification, allowing the user to virtually walk around a reef undergoing acidification.

“Storytelling isn’t just about facts, but also engaging people. There’s a real emotional, human component to virtual reality, where you are becoming part of it,” Asher said.

Tobin Asher, lab manager at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) at Stanford University, and Elise Ogle, project manager at VHIL, explored scientific storytelling through a virtual reality demonstration.

“It’s important that we can achieve this thing called presence, which is the feeling that you are not passively watching something, but actively experiencing it. Experiences are a big part of our lives. Experiences shape the way we think, shape our behavior,” Asher said.

Ogle discussed various studies VHIL has conducted, explaining the importance of immersive storytelling.

“How can we use virtual reality to change attitudes about the environment and behaviors toward the environment?” she asked.

Using Innovation to Tell the Food Story ▶︎

Planet Forward Founder Frank Sesno spoke with Katie Dotterer-Pyle, farmer at Cow Comfort Inn; Shawn Lightfoot, co-founder of the Fresh Food Factory and Art-Drenaline Cafe; and Chris Policinski, president and CEO of Land O’Lakes, Inc.

The panel discussed innovation at all levels, from farms to communities to businesses. Dotterer-Pyle uses Facebook to tell the story of her farm and her cows. She said that public opinion is the biggest obstacle to her storytelling.

“It’s very scary to find out how many people either don’t drink milk, or think we abuse our cows, or think that we inject them with antibiotics and it’s like, where are you getting this?” she said. She uses the hashtag #AskAFarmerNotGoogle on her Facebook posts.

Lightfoot works with the residents of Anacostia, a neighborhood in Southeast Washington, D.C. He provides job training and sustainability education to people often not given a second chance, from ex-felons to veterans.

“The community we chose to work with is the community that’s being overlooked,” Lightfoot said.

Policinski started a new business unit of Land O’Lakes, called Sustain, where the goal is to enrich the sustainability story.

“We all need to mix it up a little bit more to learn the importance of technology, to learn that Katie’s an entrepreneur and her business is driven by innovation and technology and we can trust her,” Policinski said.

Sesno engaged Imani Cheers, a professor at the George Washington University, in the conversation. Cheers offered up story ideas for the three innovators. Her ideas included putting a GoPro on a cow to a launching social media campaign.

Katie Dotterer-Pyle uses Facebook to tell the story
of her cows.

Shawn Lightfoot provides sustainability education in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Storytelling with Innovation

 The Mandela Fellows 

Mandela Fellows

From left: Nana Boakye-Yiadom of Ghana, Rachel Kalera-Mhango of Malawi and Funmi Adebajo of Nigeria

Big Ideas: Reporting Ideas and Innovations that Make an Impact ▶︎

Planet Forward Founder Frank Sesno engaged three African journalists and Mandela Fellows in a conversation about big ideas that move the planet forward. Funmi Adebajo from Nigeria, Nana Boakye-Yiadom from Ghana, and Rachel Kalera-Mhango from Malawi shared innovative ways in which they report and communicate.

“How can we move the planet forward when several thousand people do not have access to education?” Adebajo asked. She works to provide vocational training for mothers so they can afford to send their children to school. Adebajo uses social media to tell the stories of these mothers and their children.

Boakye-Yiadom is a radio journalist who uses data storytelling to convey science.

“There are more cell phones in Ghana than human beings,” said Boakye-Yiadom, explaining the importance of utilizing technology to tell stories.

Kalera-Mhango is a broadcast journalist who reports on women’s health. She uses journalism to both share knowledge with women and spread awareness of women’s health issues.

“You need a strong character, and you need to find a line that will make a difference at the end of the day. It’s all about social change. It’s all about solutions,” said Kalera-Mhango.

Telling the Story
of Climate Change 

Andrew Revkin, senior reporter on climate change for ProPublica, sat down with Frank Sesno, founder of Planet Forward, for a conversation about telling the story of climate change. Revkin said he first realized the gravity of man-made climate change in 1988, when he wrote his first cover story about the topic for Discover magazine.

“1988 was the last time carbon dioxide was at 350 parts per million, which is now this kind of iconic number… it had all the elements of news, the science had been evolving for 150 years,” Revkin said.

Revkin has covered climate change in the Amazon, the North Pole, the Vatican, and the White House to name a few.

“It (climate change) never fits on the front page very well. You’d have to either simplify it and get it wrong, or if you tried to make it true to scope and nature no one would read it,” Revkin said.

When Sesno asked Revkin why he doesn’t use the term "climate denier," Revkin explained that it’s because everyone has a different view of climate change.

“We’re all in states of denial,” he said.



After lunch, attendees broke out into smaller groups with targeted conversations.

Students Moving
the Planet Forward

Frank Sesno interviewed some exceptional students - and the next generation of leaders - who shared their stories, motivations and insights. Guests: Sydney Gray, Purdue University, Land O’Lakes Global Food Challenge; Jacob Lebel, Planet Forward Correspondent, Umpqua Community College; Olivia Iannone, Planet Forward Correspondent, SUNY-ESF.


22nd Century Thinking

What are today’s dream teams working on for tomorrow? Participants peered into the future — to hear from, engage with, and be inspired by the people and companies bringing next century thinking to our present world. Guests: Kate Brandt, Lead for Sustainability, Google; Jordan Goldstein, Managing Principal, Gensler.


Frontiers of Storytelling

Virtual Reality - Experts from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and
The Nature Conservancy took a
deeper dive into virtual reality as a groundbreaking storytelling device, and discussed how they’ve overcome the barriers to incorporating this technology. Guests: Tobin Asher, Stanford University; Ethan Kearns, The Nature Conservancy; Elise Ogle, Stanford University.


Data Storytelling 101

How do you take a piece of data and create a compelling story? Our communication experts shared 
techniques for and the importance of using data in stories. Guests: Holly Butka, Global Consumer Engagement Lead, Monsanto; Charla Lord, Senior Media Communications Manager, Monsanto.

Meet the Mandela Fellows

The Mandela Fellow spoke with Frank Sesno about how the story gets told on a continent that is facing the fastest growth, but also perhaps the most urgent environmental challenges. Guests: Olorunfunmi Adebajo, Nana Boakye-Yiadom, Rachel Kalera-Mhango, Journalists and Mandela Fellows. Moderator: Frank Sesno.

Science in the Polarized Era

With science and facts being questioned regularly, our panel of science experts looked at how we, as scientists and storytellers, cut through the noise. Guests: Jamie Hestekin, Associate Professor, Chemical Engineering, University of Arkansas; Tom Lovejoy, “Godfather of Biodiversity”; Professor, George Mason University; Jim Buizer, Deputy Director for Climate Adaptation and International Development, Institute of the Environment, University of Arizona. Moderator: Barbara Kline Pope, Executive Director, Communications of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

The Power of Narratives to Inspire Social Change

This panel of expert communicators looked at how you construct a narrative to inspire social change, and also explored whether the media format you choose plays into your storytelling. Guests: Erik Assadourian, Senior Fellow, The Worldwatch Institute; Rachael Baxter, Co-Founder, Conscious Magazine; Wilma Clopton, Filmmaker, NMHS Unlimited Film Productions; Jenny Rogers, Associate Editor, The Nature Conservancy Magazine. Moderator: Dr. Imani M. Cheers, Assistant Professor, George Washington University.

The Art and Impact of Environmental Photography

Dennis Dimick, who served for many years as National Geographic's environment editor, discussed the value of environmental photography as a tool for visual storytelling and documentation. Participants also were invited to bring copies of their own environmental photos to discuss their work with Dimick.

Escaping Your Bubble: 
Framing Bridges Across
the Political Divide 

In response to student feedback received at the Sustaining Sustainability in the Trump Years forum at GW, and through two surveys conducted since, we are offering this summit breakout session on how to escape our ideological bubbles and how to bridge the political divides that separate us. After a brief overview of the framework, participants sorted into small groups to practice techniques for recognizing one's biases, reconfiguring one's news feeds, detecting fake news, and shifting one's perspective or viewpoint in order to hear and respond to others in less polarizing terms and ways. Guests: Michael Svoboda, Sustainability Minor Director, George Washington University; Zachary Elder, Incoming Director, Pearl Bailey Public Library, Newport News, Va.

Communicating Amid Complexity

From complexity as a 'challenge’
to ‘complexity is an invitation’; this discussion opened the space for communicating about difficult issues. Guests: Holly Butka, Global Consumer Engagement Lead, Monsanto; Charla Lord, Senior Media Communications Manager, Monsanto; Barrett Pitner, Journalist, The Daily Beast. Moderator: Paul Hirsch, Assistant Professor, SUNY-ESF.

Ask More: The Power
of Questions

Questions help us break down barriers, pinpoint solutions, and explore new ways of doing things. Frank Sesno addressed ways to put questions to work in a truly effective way.

An Interview
with Kate Brandt

Kate Brandt, sustainability lead at Google, joined Summit attendees at lunch for a conversation about her experiences working both the federal government and the leading technology company.

“I grew up with a huge appreciation for being outside, for being in nature, for observing our national monuments like Muir Woods,” Brandt said, explaining where her passion for sustainability stems from. ​

Brandt worked for the Obama campaign and the Pentagon before moving out to Silicon Valley to explore sustainability in the private sector.  Here are some highlights from the Q&A between Frank Sesno and Brandt: 

Q: The navy's done some amazing things with biofuels... was that all your inspiration?

A: I had a chance to work on that program... And what we had to do initially was to "prove the case" — to prove that this was safe. So we started by certifying all the ships and the planes and saying that chemically the long chain hydrocarbon that was of algae or of the gas was exactly the same chemical as a fossil fuel. And then we really tried to work to get the word out amongst the community and, understandably, we still had aviators who were like "I'm not so sure about this." So what we did things like we partnered with the Blue Angels. And had the Blue Angels fly on biofuel. And, of course, didn't see any difference. And then we went and did a military exercise in the middle of the Pacific off of Hawaii and all the ships and planes were running on biofuel and nuclear - it was the "great green fleet." 


Q: How did you go from Washington to Silicon Valley - federal government to the Google "government"?

A: In my last role at the White House I had the chance to work with a lot of sustainability officers from the private sector; was really fascinated with the connection and really how similar all of our work was. And I started to think about what am I going to do when the administration is over. I remember vividly - it was a Sunday afternoon, I was walking out of thee gym...up in Chinatown here - and I went to my phone and I had a LinkedIn message and it was from Google, saying "we have a job we want to talk to you about." ... So I had the chance to go to California to talk with our team and sustainability has been a priority for Google since we were founded 18 years ago ... and that's not always the case with the companies you work for. I feel incredibly lucky that our founders have always cared very deeply about the issue. ...  The team had decided they want to bring someone in to kind of look across the many different sustainability teams that we have that think about sustainability - how we operate our sustainability centers, our real estate portfolios, our supply chain, our consumer electronics business - but what is the overarching strategy that binds all of that work together. And then how do we keep moving forward; how do we keep innovating? 

Q: Let's talk about data centers. It sounds boring, but without data centers, nobody's doing a search. Nobody's Googling much of anything. They are gigantic energy consumers, right?

A: Yes. ... The data centers are really kind of the heart and soul of our business. We have 13 global data centers - we have two more coming online soon. And what these are, they are essentially very large buildings with a whole bunch of servers in them. They need energy, they need to be cooled - and you need to cool them down to keep them running. ... We started building them back in 2007.   We've always built these data centers with a core value of making them as efficient as possible. How we designed the systems. How we designed the hardware so that it can be remanufactured and reused. And, of course, how we think about energy. We've been incredibly focused on energy efficiency. We're currently about 50 percent more efficient than the industry average. 

Q: How? What are you doing that others are not?

A: It's a whole combination of factors - because we design our data centers from the ground up. And we also design all of the hardware in them as well. It's a little known fact that we're one of the largest server manufacturers - but just for ourselves. So we have full control within our value chain, construction and operations - to continue optimizing. But we're always looking for new opportunities and so we hit this point a couple of years ago with this measure of PUE - power usage effectiveness - how much of the building is using the energy vs. the servers. You want the servers to be using as much anergy as possible and the building to be as efficient as possible. And we we plateaued - kind of industrywide - but we had an incredible young guy on our team, Jim Gao, who was very deep in the data center operations world. And he took a class in his spare time on machine learning. And Jim had this wild idea - what if we applied machine learning to data centers? Machine learning is essentially you can write an algorithm that optimizes across a system - any system. If you think about having 10 dials with 10 settings - that's 10 billion different permutations. So even the really amazing, brilliant engineers we have inside Google couldn't optimize across that as well as machine learning could optimize. So Jim cobbled together this small team - a 20 percent project at Google - and he tested this out in the data center and found he could get 40 percent more efficiency in our cooling, by applying machine learning. So now not only are we deploying this all across our data center fleet, but we're also thinking about other opportunities to apply this technology.  

Q: What about cloud computing? What's the story there?

A: So, it's very related. Because we have this incredibly efficient platform operating within these data centers, when companies or individuals come to the cloud and use Gmail, Google docs - you get to operate all that on our system. We funded a study that UC-Berkeley did a couple of years ago and they looked at this question: What would happen if you took all the office workers around the country and move them onto the cloud. And what they found was this would lead to an up to 87-percent reduction in the amount of energy for IT services — which would power the city of Los Angeles for one year.  Interestingly, my first exposure to this was when I was still in the government. The General Services Administration, the GSA, they said "Hey, we want to get on Gmail. ..." Google said to the GSA, "Can we do a study? Can we look at the difference of your energy usage with your email before you went to Gmail, back when you had your old server closet down the hall and when you switched over." And what they found was a 98% improvement in emissions and energy use when they switched. 

Q: You've got this project now - ForestWatch. Tell us about that.

A: One of the things I'm excited about is not only the great innovations we make and how we operate as a company, but what Google's tools can do ... to unlock some of our biggest environmental challenges. We have this amazing team that sits within Geo - that's Google Maps, Google Earth - and they're called Geo for Good. They think about how do we take all this geomapping technology we have plus cloud, plus machine learning, and then partner with NGOs, partner with universities to help them unlock environmental data challenges. ForestWatch is one of the earliest examples of this, which is a partnership with World Resources Institute, WRI. What ForestWatch has been able to do is pull in data that looks at 100 percent of the world's forest and literally watches them and can see when there is deforestation when there is forestry happening when there shouldn't be. So this has been a very powerful tool. 


Q: You've been in the public sector, and now you're in the private sector. What's the sustainability story?

A: I feel so privileged to be doing this work in the private sector right now, because I think the private sector has a critical role to play. The big idea that we've been thinking about is the role of global business and improving people's lives in the 21st century - and the 22nd century - while reducing our use of primary materials and our use of fossil fuels. And we really believe it's entirely possible and it can be done in a way that makes business sense and in a way that makes people's lives better and that's good for the planet.

Announced at the Summit
CARE & Planet Forward 

a student 




The 2017 Storyfest Winners (going to Brazil!) are:

*click names to see winners' submissions 

Innovator Award

Jayme Dittmar

University of Montana

Left Brain Award

22nd Century Award

Sydney Greene

Arizona State University

Right Brain Award

Visionary Award

Jacob Lebel

Umpqua Community College

Fan Favorite Award

Nolan Hausler
& Emily Robinson

The George Washington University




Our Storyfest 2017 grand prize winners are traveling to the Brazilian rainforest with the "Godfather of Biodiversity" Dr. Thomas Lovejoy and Emmy Award-winning journalist Frank Sesno in mid-June.

Lovejoy, a biologist who coined the term "biodiversity," has worked in the Brazilian Amazon since 1965 on a project that has been called "the greatest ecology experiment of all time," according to Duke University's Stuart Pimm, a noted biologist. Lovejoy also founded the popular public television series "Nature."

According to George Mason University, in the 1970s he helped bring attention to the issue of tropical deforestation, and in 1980, he published the first estimate of global extinction rates. 

Sesno is Planet Forward's founder and director of GW's School of Media and Public Affairs. His career spans more than three decades, including 21 years at CNN where he served as White House correspondent, anchor, and Washington Bureau Chief. He has interviewed five U.S. presidents and literally thousands of political, business, and civic leaders. Sesno is also the author of "Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions, and Spark Change."

Planet Forward thanks
the 2017 Summit sponsors

Title Sponsors

Presenting Sponsors

Contributing Sponsors

attendees, representing:

American University

Arizona State

Auburn University

College of the Menominee Nation

Columbia University *

Corcoran School of the Arts & Design

Florida International University

Furman University *

George Mason 

The George Washington University *

Georgetown University

Iowa State

Jackson State University *

Middlebury College *

Northeastern University

Pepperdine University

Purdue University

Salish Kootenai College

The University
of the South 

Stanford University



Umpqua Community College

University of Arizona *

of Arkansas 

of Minnesota *

of Mississippi *

of Montana

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

of Virginia

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Washington State University

*consortium school


organizations represented

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