Alumni Community Environmental Justice

Deia Schlosberg, Filmmaker

Director and producer of the 2019 documentary The Story of Plastic, Deia Schlosberg is an educator, activist, and journalist who graduated from WashU in 2003 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Earth & Planetary Sciences and a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Visual Communications. Then, after a two-year off-road, 7800-mile trek in the Andes Mountains, she attended Montana State University, where she earned a Master’s of Fine Arts in Science & Natural History Filmmaking. 

Reporting on various environmental issues through her art, Schlosberg is best known for producing How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change (2016), co-producing Awake, A Dream from Standing Rock (2017) and The Reluctant Radical (2018), and receiving two Student Emmys through her documentary Backyard.

In 2016, while filming a TransCanada oil pipeline protest in North Dakota, she was arrested with 45-years’ worth of felony charges, which led to an open letter addressed to the Obama administration advocating for her release, citing journalistic freedom. 

In 2019, she released the award-winning documentary The Story of Plastic, in collaboration with the The Story of Stuff project, documenting the life cycle of plastic from production to pollution, from refinery to recycling, dismantling the myths of Big Plastic and exposing the human and environmental devastation along the way. 

Jarea Fang, a communication intern with the Office of Sustainability, spoke with Deia Schlosberg to learn more about her career and engagement for environmental justice.

How did your years at WashU prepare you for a career in environmental justice, filmmaking, and journalism? 

So many ways… From the very specific skills I learned as a visual communications student, to the knowledge of earth systems and the science of climate change as an earth and planetary science student, to my almost-minor in African American literature and learning to question who controls the prevailing narrative and why. But on top of classroom material, the people I met and became close to, the diversity of experiences my friends and teammates on the cross country and track and ultimate teams and students at my work-study job had and shared with me – all of that contributed to my worldview and desire to pursue justice.

How has your career as a documentary filmmaker changed you as an activist? 

The word “activist” is strange to me, because I don’t think anyone really sets out to be an activist. They just start acting in accordance with what they believe, and that can look like a certain career path, or becoming more civically engaged, or fighting for your or your community’s health. So for me and my skill sets and experiences, documentary filmmaking is the best way that I know to create tools to support movements for social and environmental justice — and those are the things I feel strongest about using my limited time on this planet to work toward.

What was it like to create The Story of Plastic, a project that exposes the entire life-cycle of plastic and its impacts on human health, going much beyond the frequently reported waste disposal component? Did you find anything challenging along the way, or discover things you didn’t expect? 

We were fortunate to have the trust of and access to the global Break Free From Plastic movement, with countless amazing community organizers, scientists, and organizations to help us explore the interconnectedness and nuance of the whole plastics issue – beyond just the most visible part that’s gotten the most media attention. But for sure, assembling all of this amazing material into a compelling narrative and not just a research paper was probably the hardest part of making this film.

As far as discovering anything I didn’t expect, I guess just the depth of the disregard for human and environmental health. I knew it existed in the fossil fuel/petrochemical industry, but the degree to which some of these corporations are willing to harm communities for the sake of profit is really mind-blowing. There’s way too much information out there and the people in charge of these decisions are too smart to be able to claim plausible deniability. 

Reporting on grassroots efforts and frontline communities means that you are sometimes put in the front lines of danger. Especially since your arrest in North Dakota while documenting the tar sands pipeline protest, how and where do you find the courage and hope to continue fighting as an individual? 

Obviously, everything going on in the world right now is overwhelming, and especially in this country. I feel like the only two options are to check out or to do something about it. And once you start doing this work you meet people who don’t have the option to check out – they are affected every day. So for me to check out would mean to ignore people I care about that are suffering, and that’s something I can’t do. So for me it’s not really a matter of hope or courage, it’s just what has to be done. 

In light of the global mobilization for racial justice we are experiencing today, how do you see your work changing or evolving in the future? 

I’ve tried to highlight the intersection between racial justice and environmental justice in my work to date, but moving forward, it’s likely my tone will shift from one of “this is a problem” to “this is THE problem.” The current systems of oppression only exist to the extent that they do because of structural racism, so to fail to point that out whenever possible is to deny the foundation of the problems we seek to fix.

As an expert in both communication and environmental issues, what is something that you think the media should change about how they’re covering sustainability, climate change, and environmental justice? 

Oooh boy…. I think the first thing that needs to happen is the decoupling of media coverage from ratings, because that takes the power away from advertisers, who are the last people who should be determining which information to deliver to the public. Second, it seems that the percentage of time we hear from pundits vs the time we hear from experts is grossly out of proportion. I think it’s harmful to promote speculation when the science exists. It’s gotten us to this point of total division in this country (and many others), where facts are irrelevant and it’s all about which manufactured narrative people prefer to believe.

Tell us about a project you’re working on that the world should be excited about? 

The big project I’m working on now is a documentary series that follows 11 households from all around the US over three years as they participate in an unconditional basic income trial. We’ve been capturing their experiences and how the basic incomes affect their lives, and it’s been totally amazing and powerful. I’m super excited to share it with the world. We’re finishing filming this summer and will be in post-production for the next several months. It’s currently titled Bootstraps.

What is your advice for WashU students who want to go beyond individual behavior change and engage in activism and collective action?

It’s all about relationships. If you make the work social it both gives you a constant sense of accountability and keeps it enjoyable – which is imperative if you want to make it part of your life and not get burnt out. 

Interested in connecting personally with more WashU alumni involved with sustainability work? Join the WashU Sustainability Network LinkedIn Group – an online networking and resource group that brings together alumni, students, parents, staff, and faculty to network, explore, discuss trends, and share technology, business, and market information in all areas of sustainability.