Jun 22 2022 - Seattle, Washington

National Geographic Explorer Asha Stuart on environmental justice storytelling

Asha Stuart filming during a National Geographic expedition in Beaufort, South Carolina. Photo by Emad Rashidi

Asha Stuart filming during a National Geographic expedition in Beaufort, South Carolina. Photo by Emad Rashidi

By Sally Fouts

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Global Leader of The Climate Pledge

National Geographic Explorer Asha Stuart sits down with Sally Fouts, Global Leader of The Climate Pledge to discuss what inspires her environmental justice storytelling.

In May 2022, the National Geographic Society announced a collaboration with The Climate Pledge to support climate storytelling as part of the Society’s Global Storyteller’s Fund. This collaboration will support 15 National Geographic Explorers over three years to document the global climate crisis. Documentary photographer and filmmaker Asha Stuart is one of the first five climate storytellers supported through this collaboration. Asha will produce a documentary that portrays climate-related environmental justice themes: Black and Brown neighborhoods being at higher risk of flooding and how extreme heat weather is disproportionately affecting people of color.

Sally Fouts: From the Rohingya refugee crisis to the isolated and reclusive Siddi people, you’ve traveled the world to tell the stories of marginalized communities facing injustice. What draws you to these stories?

Asha Stuart: I've always been fascinated with tribal communities and distinct cultures. My interest in environmental storytelling stems from the realization that environmental stories on distressed communities have been under-documented for decades. As a storyteller, my mission is to visually bridge people to places and communities around the world that I feel should have their voice heard. The purpose of my work is to document and visually unpack the layers of societal issues that create barriers for people of color to live and thrive in a safe environment. As our environment continues to change, it's important for me to tell stories that embody a new era of global history that is etched into the soul of current times.

Young Siddi dancers pose for a portrait in Karnataka, India. Photo by Asha Stuart
Young Siddi dancers pose for a portrait in Karnataka, India. Photo by Asha Stuart

Fouts: Your latest grant with The Climate Pledge and the National Geographic Society focuses on environmental justice in the southern United States. What inspired you to focus on this issue?

Stuart: When I think about Black history, one of the most significant periods for policies impacting African-American communities was the Jim Crow Era. During this time period, white and Black communities were legally segregated into racial geographic compositions that divided where each community could live through a “red-line”. Today, African-Americans are still witnessing the environmental, social, and economic effects of red-lined neighborhoods. From the shorelines of the Atlantic Ocean to the bayous of Louisiana, historically red-lined African-American towns are rapidly disappearing and are left without economic mobility and justice due to environmental degradation. I was inspired to document this issue because so much of American history has helped to uphold contemporary issues that Black people are still impacted by in 2022. As the conversation on environmental issues continues to grow, I believe it is critical for Black voices to be included and not forgotten.

Fishermen in Africatown, Alabama fish near local industries. Photo by Asha Stuart
Fishermen in Africatown, Alabama fish near local industries. Photo by Asha Stuart

Fouts: What do people and businesses need to understand about the connection between climate change and environmental justice?

Stuart: People and businesses need to understand that climate change and environmental injustice are closely tied at the foundational root. When it comes to addressing climate change, we’ve seen policies and distribution of resources not prioritized for communities most vulnerable to these problems. It's vital to understand this element and to have empathy for those most impacted.

Fouts: Tell me about someone you’ve met who has left a lasting impact on your work?

Stuart: While I was in Beaufort, South Carolina, I met with Kenneth Hodges, a local cultural bearer and advocate in the community. We traveled together throughout the Gullah Geechee Corridor and he kept reminding me why he advocates for his community, often repeating, “I do it for the culture.” I feel like although small, he has embedded that mantra in me. It's so important for me to represent my community through the work that I do. By having the opportunity to reflect and to establish a voice within my work, I keep the community as my guiding compass.

A Gullah Geechee neighborhood in Beaufort, South Carolina. Photo by Asha Stuart
A Gullah Geechee neighborhood in Beaufort, South Carolina. Photo by Asha Stuart

Fouts: What do you hope your work inspires people and businesses to do?

Stuart: My hope is to bring awareness to vanishing cultures that are threatened by climate change and environmental injustice—and to spark a dialogue that includes the narratives of the most vulnerable. By bringing attention to the plight of marginalized communities, I hope to educate, inform and push people around the world to take action.

Aerial view of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor in South Carolina. Photo by Asha Stuart
Aerial view of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor in South Carolina. Photo by Asha Stuart

Fouts: And lastly, what gives you hope for the future of the planet?

Stuart: What gives me hope is the loud voices coming from the millennial and Gen Z generation who understand our environment is changing and that if we don’t combat the climate crisis, we won’t have a world to live in.