Planet Forward inspires Sesno to lead GW’s new Alliance for a Sustainable Future

George Washington University students discuss the impacts of climate change and the role they'd like to see their institution play in campus-wide sustainability.

Aaron Dye, Daria Nastasia

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George Washington University named Planet Forward founding director and Emmy Award-winning journalist, Frank Sesno as the inaugural head of the George Washington University Alliance for a Sustainable Future on Wednesday.

But this story doesn’t begin with the Alliance or even at GW. Instead, its roots are in the Colorado Rockies. An avid horseback rider and camping aficionado, Sesno’s love for the beauty and balance of our world started as a young child. There wasn’t a specific moment that he can recall a love for the environment, he said, but rather a mosaic of memories. 

In exploring the spiritual experience of our environment, Sesno came to believe every inch of earth he saw should be protected. During his time at international bureaus such as the Associated Press and CNN, this environmental adoration took form in his journalism. Among the stories he worked on at CNN, the environmental angle was an ever-present factor in stories ranging from the local, global, economic, and political. As he worked on documentaries and coverage across the world, the urgency of this fight was undeniable. 

“This challenge is the most daunting and paralyzing, but also the most exciting and hopeful challenge that humanity has ever been confronted with,” Sesno said.  

Frank Sesno loves telling stories and inspiring solutions — it’s a muscle he’s flexed his entire life. The power of student storytelling has been clear to Sesno since his time as a student at Wilton High School in Connecticut, where he fought to cover controversial topics for the school newspaper. Decades later, that same spirit would inspire the next generation of young environmental storytellers to think courageously through a project called “Planet Forward.”

Founded in 2009, Planet Forward came out of a need for effective environmental science communication and awareness. Sesno wanted a space for students to learn and participate in the climate conversation, but it’s the stories that speak to people that leave a lasting impact.

“You give a person a piece of data and they’ll probably forget it the next day,” Sesno said. “But embed that data in a story and people will remember it — and understand the context of why it matters.” 

Since its birth, Planet Forward has expanded in ways Sesno had only dreamt of. With thousands of student participants and over 30 partner universities across the globe, the project is an epicenter of innovation and solution. 

In the classroom, Sesno’s Sustainability Reporting class has long offered students a space to research and report on the most pressing issues facing the climate, but the manner in which students connect to the crisis has changed over the years. 

“What I’m now finding out when I go around the table and ask students why they’re in the class is that they’re starting to tell personal stories. It’s their first person experience with climate change and I didn’t hear that when I started teaching this class 15 years ago,” Sesno said.

These days, Sesno wears many hats. Beyond serving as the founding director of Planet Forward, Sesno is the director of strategic initiatives for GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA), professor of Sustainability Reporting, and now a new one: the executive director of the George Washington University Alliance for a Sustainable Future. 

The Alliance will take a multidisciplinary approach across university programs to engage in sustainability with a purpose to convene, expand, and research on the basis of climate change in the nation’s capital. Among its goals will be expanding the sustainability minor and deepening the student experience around climate and sustainability through experiential learning, internships, projects, and work across Washington and beyond.

A critical component of the Alliance will be communicating science and sustainability through the Planet Forward platform, where students across disciplines write, publish, and share stories from around the world about the ideas and innovations that will move the planet forward.

According to Sesno, Planet Forward served as an inspiration not only for his role as director, but for the development of the Alliance at large. 

“Planet Forward was the catalyst for this new, very ambitious venture. It will also ground one of the cornerstones of the research and teaching space of the Alliance: communication and storytelling,” Sesno said. 

The Alliance will also focus on critical research by leading experts and scholars across disciplines who will convene to assemble significant research proposals, expand funding sources, and communicate the most urgent issues relating to the climate crisis.

The creation of the Alliance is another sign of the commitment GW is making in the climate fight. In 2020, GW pledged to accelerate its carbon neutrality timeline to at least 2030. The recent renovation of Thurston Hall also served as an opportunity to improve sustainability efforts in the building, which earned a LEED Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council — GW’s second Platinum building on campus. 

While the future is daunting, it’s not hopeless. For the self-proclaimed “glass half empty optimist,” the students are the ones who keep him inspired. By marshaling the talent in our student body and faculty, Sesno, who is always down for a good pun, said there is a lot of “renewable energy” here on campus. 

Though climate anxiety is a common and persistent concern among students across campus, Sesno said he sees the Alliance as an opportunity to ease fears about climate change by providing tangible solutions. 

“Understanding that there are solutions, understanding that there are so many brilliant, committed people who are working on this is one of the antidotes to climate anxiety. There’s always hope,” Sesno said.

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