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Art as a tool for environmental justice

Artists Kim Anno and Gao Ling discuss the role of the humanities in environmental justice work during an evening of conversation and community art-making.

Three women sit outdoors talking.
“Art can let people think. We are all sharing the same Earth and the same kind of language in art,” said Gao Ling, an environmental justice artist, during an April 12 event at the O'Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm. (Image credit: Madison Pobis)

Science and public policy are often the go-to fields for solving environmental challenges. Yet, art and artists also have key roles to play in advancing, reflecting, and shaping solutions to environmental problems – particularly for communities who disproportionately experience harmful impacts. That was the message shared by visual artists Kim Anno and Gao Ling, who visited the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm on April 12 to speak and participate in a community art project.

Joining with Stanford students, faculty, and other community members, Anno and Gao crafted pieces of a banner that will be stitched together and ultimately displayed in a new center for environmental justice in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. The center will serve as a convening space for the community of environmental justice scholars and students at Stanford that has been growing through grassroots organization over the past decade.

Collaborate and create

Emily Polk, an advanced lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric and co-lead of the Environmental Justice Working Group, welcomed the artists and attendees to the event. “The humanities connect us in vital and urgent ways to each other, reminding us we are not alone in our grief or naïve in our hope,” Polk said. Literature, painting, music, and other art forms can provide a “collective language” for making meaning from “interrelated crises,” such as climate change and social injustice.

The Environmental Justice Working Group, an intergenerational collective of staff, students, and faculty working to embed environmental justice at Stanford through teaching, research and community-engaged learning, supported travel for the invited artists. Stanford Roots, a student club focused on the intersection of food, human, and environmental systems, provided fabric for the community banner. The Notation in Science Communication and Notation in Cultural Rhetorics, who also co-hosted the event, recorded the event for students in those programs, and the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm and the Institute for Diversity in the Arts contributed additional support.

The arts give us a way to imagine possibilities for our survival that provide a necessary complement to our quantifiable data and models.

Emily Polk Advanced Lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric and co-lead of the Environmental Justice Working Group

Different media, same goal

Students listen to the panel of artists.
Students attending the event listen to the moderated panel discussion with the visiting artists. (Image credit: Madison Pobis)

In a discussion moderated by Aiyana Washington, an undergraduate student in Earth Systems and Theater and Performance studies and a co-director of this year’s Earthtones environmental justice festival, Gao described her ongoing photography project “The Big Mist 大雾,” which launched in 2013. After noticing increasingly hazy and unhealthy air quality in Beijing and across Asia, Gao recalled, she asked people on social media to submit selfies that playfully engage our contemporary attitude to air pollution. The photos, which Gao has archived on a public website, feature participants covering their faces in a variety of creative (and at times comically ineffective) ways – flags, leaves, homemade gas masks, and more – to protect themselves from smog.

More than 200 people from around the world submitted photographs for the project. By presenting the images as a series, Gao aims to bring attention to environmental health issues that people share across cultural or language boundaries. “Art can let people think,” Gao said. “We are all sharing the same Earth and the same kind of language in art.

Anno spoke about her 2012 film “Water City Durban,” which calls attention to sea level rise. Set in South Africa, the film depicts a soccer match played in the ocean, with the game rules adapted to a future where the sea has inundated the city. She expressed that art is a way to elevate environmental issues and stimulate action using the universal languages of image and feeling. “Art allows humor, joy, and passion,” Anno said. “Art doesn’t change the world, but it changes consciousness in a very deep way.” In 2017, Anno founded Wild Projects, a non-profit organization that serves as a collaborative hub for art, film, music and social practice, and environmental justice projects.

Art as a bridge

A student sitting in a crowd of people asks a question.
Susana Barrón, a Stanford Master of Fine Arts student in documentary film and video, poses a question to the panel of artists. (Image credit: Madison Pobis)

The panelists emphasized that art and science both rely on exploration. While art elevates issues and helps people connect with stories, it also can serve as a bridge between different disciplines and ways of knowing. Gao converted some of the photographs from “The Big Mist 大雾” project into GIFs, which could be shared across digital platforms. “Animation can reach audiences that science could never reach without it,” Anno said in response.

Susana Barrón, a Master of Fine Arts student in documentary film and video, attended the event after learning about environmental justice and art in a Stanford class with Anno. “I want to keep challenging myself to think critically about the environment through art. I think there's so much possibility there to think in a different way,” Barrón said. “As someone who is first-generation American, this is so important for me. Because oftentimes there's barriers for us to enter into this conversation, and art has been so liberating for me as an artist and as an environmental justice activist.”

Illustrating a collective vision

A young woman holds up an illustrated piece of fabric.
Stanford undergraduate Samantha Reising holds up a piece of fabric banner illustrated with the Colorado landscape. The pieces will be sewn together and displayed in the new center for environmental justice in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. (Image credit: Madison Pobis)

Following the panel discussion, Tanvi Dutta Gupta, a master’s student in the Earth Systems program, prompted the group to illustrate their collective vision of a just environmental future by drawing and painting on panels of fabric. The collaborative spirit embodied in the banner is meant to be a model for what is possible with the new center for environmental justice.

Sibyl Diver, a lecturer in the Earth Systems program who co-leads the Environmental Justice Working Group, shared her excitement for how the center will create opportunities for scholars and students on campus to work alongside community members and “benefit from the kind of leadership, vision, knowledge, and long-term commitment to change that is found in frontline communities doing environmental justice work.”

A group of students listens to a panel of artists.

More on environmental justice

David Pellow describes environmental injustices and need for action in inaugural dean’s lecture

December 2022

A new dean’s lecture series through the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability launched Dec. 6 with a conversation on environmental justice by David Pellow, a distinguished professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Environmental justice roundtable highlights energy and policy, health, and Indigenous Peoples issues

February 2023

The second event in a new dean’s lecture series through the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability featured environmental justice experts in energy, environmental health, and Native environmental policy.

Media Contacts

Madison Pobis
Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, (650) 725-5617

Emily Polk
Environmental Justice Working Group

Sibyl Diver
Environmental Justice Working Group

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