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WRI Wins Award for its Environmental Justice Film, “Sunita”

Consider this blog post to have been written hastily on the back of a cocktail napkin. Not really, of course, as my handwriting is increasingly poor in this digital age. But I’m in acceptance-speech mode, as WRI just won the 2012 EthicMark Award for its environmental justice film, Sunita.

This award, which I recently accepted at the Sustainable Brands London conference, is given for advertisements that “uplift the human spirit and society.” WRI tied for first place in the non-profit category, along with Ten Thousand Villages’ fantastic film, World Fair Trade Day 2011. We at WRI are incredibly thankful to the folks who honored us with this award—the World Business Academy, Ethical Markets Media, and the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business—and I’m thrilled to be returning to Washington, D.C. with our first-ever award for communications.

While the story of winning this award is certainly a pleasure to share, it’s nothing compared to the story of creating Sunita.

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Sunita’s Story

WRI’s The Access Initiative (TAI)—a project that works to promote access to information, public participation, and transparency in environmental decision-making—approached me about making a video about one year ago. We sat down to discuss what they wanted to say. It was a typical creative kick-off meeting that asked the usual questions: Who’s the audience? What’s your budget? When’s the deadline?

Soon after I began asking these questions, TAI's Director, Lalanath de Silva, told me about a woman named Sunita and the struggles she experienced with her local government. Sunita makes a living collecting firewood from a forest near her home. One day, she finds a sign telling her that she must vacate the land, as the forest and the property her home is on are being razed to make way for a new highway. When Sunita tries visiting her local government’s office to complain, she’s told there’s nothing she can do—the decision is final, and she and her children must vacate in seven days.

I liked the story. A lot. I sat there imagining sitting down with this very proud woman and shooting a beautiful video that would give us a glimpse into her everyday life and the difficulties she’d experienced.

But it wasn’t that simple.

One Name and Face to Represent 2.5 Billion

“Great! So, can we interview Sunita?” I asked. The looks on the faces of the team seated around the table told me I lacked a key detail. “Sunita is not actually one person,” Lalanath explained, “She’s a character I developed to represent many, many people I’ve met over many years that tell me their own variation of this story.”

Oh.

Lalanath explained how billions of people across the globe regularly experience hardships like Sunita’s, due to their poverty and lack of participation in environmental and development decision-making. In fact, more than 2.5 billion people around the world live on less than $2 a day. In order to protect their livelihoods and ensure that environmental decisions benefit local communities, these citizens need to have a voice in government.

“Millions of women like Sunita have similar problems, and they live all around the world—sometimes they are our next door neighbors,” said Lalanath, who also narrated the video. “If we want development to help people like Sunita, then we have to do business differently and include them in our plans and decisions.”

Sunita gives a face to the billions of people facing injustices across the world, making her message all the more relatable and easy to understand—and harder to ignore. Animation was the perfect medium to tell this story.

Protecting Citizens from Environmental Injustice

Our video was born out of the TAI team’s passion for the work they do and the real life experiences Lalanath has had through many years. The fact that Sunita has been recognized with this award is humbling to me and the TAI team. It’s also a good indicator that people really do care about the struggles of people in developing countries.

We'll prominently feature this award in our offices in Washington, D.C. We will continue to tell Sunita's story and others like hers in order to reach the audiences that have the means to affect real change on the ground. It’s our hope that this video will be a very small part of the solutions required to solve very complex problems--like environmental injustice.

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