Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Trish Riley of Cinema Verde Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Penny Bauder

Penny Bauder
Authority Magazine
14 min readFeb 10, 2022

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Follow your life’s passion as it leads to purpose. — I learned in my earliest reporting days that editors and publishers didn’t want to publish stories about environmental concerns. When the beaches were closed because of e-coli contamination, the papers reported the official explanation — too many birds flying along the shorelines, fouling the water. But the truth was that huge municipal pipes dumped raw sewage into the ocean all along the coast. Advertisers — power companies and real estate developers — didn’t want to foul the atmosphere for potential buyers, and 1000 people were moving to Florida each day… further exacerbating the problems facing this fragile and alluring landscape.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”,I had the pleasure of interviewing Trish Riley of Cinema Verde.

Trish Riley is the founding director of Cinema Verde, an environmental film festival of 13 years, now launching as a streaming platform and offering an eye-opening journey through the insightful and captivating work of award-winning and independent environmental filmmakers.

Trish looks back on more than two decades of environmental journalism. Her work has been published in major newspapers, national and international magazines and custom publications. She is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Greening Your Business (with Heather Gadonniex, Alpha Books/Penguin 2009), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Green Living (Alpha Books 2007), amongst others. Riley is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I had the great good fortune to grow up in the peaceful countryside, where I played in the woods all day long. I learned very early to love the forest and all of the fragrant plants and fascinating creatures that coexist in nature. I marveled that native Americans and other earlier civilizations had known what to do with the amazing and abundant plant life surrounding us, and I began making my own herbal salves and tinctures while still a child at home. I still use the same salves today for their unique and powerful qualities and I feel very fortunate to have gathered this knowledge in my life.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Cinema Verde is a forum to broaden the reach of environmental education to help forge a sustainable future. We share and disseminate knowledge through films about environmental concerns and those working to solve such problems. Now in our 13th year as an environmental film and arts festival, we launched as a streaming platform reaching audiences worldwide to inspire change.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

My heart broke when at 18 on a weekend break from college, I visited my childhood home to discover that the forest I’d played in as a child was being destroyed to make way for fancy new suburban homes. As I observed the bulldozers ripping out trees, I was struck by the realization that the developers had no idea the value of what they were ruining, and I resolved to help the world understand the importance of nature. Ironically, at that age I still had no idea of the true importance of the circle of sustainability that we’ve subsequently come to understand. My knowledge was somehow inherent and enhanced by my fortunate childhood experience.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

In some ways I’ve never been satisfied with the status quo — I always think things can be better. At twelve I observed my successful father falling asleep in his chair early each evening and rising up early each morning to go back out and do it all again and I decided that I would not be willing to give my life so completely to any job.

I’ve come to think of myself as a person who can make dreams come true and I’ve noticed there’s always a new dream on the horizon to reach toward.

I was invited to speak at the Green Business Conference in San Francisco in 2009 just after my books Green Living and Greening Your Business had come out. While there, I noticed there were some very interesting sounding environmental films showing at the local cinema and I realized that those films hadn’t made it to my community in Florida, so when I got home I started talking with community members about finding a way to bring them to the local market. That was the birth of the annual film festival Cinema Verde, which is now streaming the work of independent and award-winning environmental filmmakers to audiences worldwide.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Necessity is the mother of invention. Cinema Verde is a passion project of our community. So many people have pitched in their expertise to bring us along, from government officials to lawyers, artists and musicians to publicists and accountants, along with hundreds of university students, sustainable business owners and venue operators plus many environmental organizations working to protect our gorgeous natural paradise here in Florida. Most have given us a sliver of their time and together we’ve created a mosaic of talent that shines across the landscape as Cinema Verde. As the old saying goes, it takes a village.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

In 2017 I was invited to speak to filmmakers about Cinema Verde at an eco film festival in Siberia, Russia and in 2015 I was invited to curate the First International Eco Film Fest in the Philippines. I was invited to camp overnight on an uninhabited island in the Philippines which still stands as one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had the pleasure to enjoy. I believe that connecting with others around the world is our greatest chance at success in creating a sustainable future. The people I’ve had the pleasure to meet have all shared a desire to live peacefully together in a healthy and creative environment. Wars and competition are not desirable components of our sustainable future and I hope we can let these become part of the past. Cooperation trumps competition.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

Our first environmental film and arts festival was so well received in our community, for our second year I wanted to expand to multiple venues, so I scheduled films at a different venue each night over our ten-day festival. It was wildly exhausting setting up anew each day, especially since everyone was volunteering rather than full-time staff and a setup of tech operations. I learned that our community venture would need to grow a bit more to reach the breadth I had in mind, without leaving everyone exhausted from the organizational challenge of new setups every day!

Today we are still a small core team, and as a nonprofit we will always be very grateful for any volunteer, but a core team gives us the structure we need to have processes in place and we are now able to work on a global scale.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

My first job out of college was to create a latch-key program for underprivileged children in a neglected urban area. I recruited volunteers to teach the children skills in the arts because I felt strongly that inspiring their creativity was the one thing that could propel them into better lives for their future. But the program was sponsored by three different religious institutions, and some congregants wanted to see more focus on religious education. As an ecumenical program it was not appropriate to highlight any specific doctrine and I was more comfortable leaving that to the Sunday school teachers. My boss, pastor at one of the churches who went on to a presidential appointment in later years, advised me that if I was going to take a leadership position, I must expect that there would be critics. This has helped strengthen my willingness to take a stand on issues of importance.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

The only way we will get out of the environmental catastrophe we have created is if the heads of industry take responsibility — I would love it if the leaders of the fossil fuel industry would raise their heads and say, “We’ve made a fortune off the backs of society, poisoning their air, soil and water. It’s time for us to behave with integrity toward the rest of the world.” The ‘Precautionary Principle’ is a wonderful model and it should be the rule of thumb worldwide for business as opposed to the business as usual approach that’s been the model forever. We’ve got to move toward sustainability or forget it. What I’d really love would be for the people who are responsible for the damage, the industries that cause problems, to get the message. I would like to see them step up to the plate, take a stance with integrity and say, “Hold on a minute. We’ve been making money hand-over-fist producing our products but now we know it’s a problem and we need to correct that problem.” That would be my highest ideal, and that is what I think is really required for us to be able to turn around on the path that we’re on; the path toward destruction.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

Somehow businesses can be very slow to recognize that they can save money by reusing materials, lowering their thermostats and energy consumption. They seem to be very dedicated to doing business as usual, following the Harvard Business Model that is driven by profits at all costs. It is truly time to realize that there is more to life than just piles of cash. Every individual on the planet has the right to a reasonable life, and access to fresh water, air and soil. No company should be allowed — or want — to trash the environment and then move on or claim bankruptcy without repairing the damage, as often occurs. Communities and governments should not be left holding the bag while the leaders of industry zoom off into space riding on the profits of destroying sustainable life for others.

As part of our mission of environmental education, we showcase sustainable businesses and help people understand why they are so important to our health and our future.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1) Follow your life’s passion as it leads to purpose.

I learned in my earliest reporting days that editors and publishers didn’t want to publish stories about environmental concerns. When the beaches were closed because of e-coli contamination, the papers reported the official explanation — too many birds flying along the shorelines, fouling the water. But the truth was that huge municipal pipes dumped raw sewage into the ocean all along the coast. Advertisers — power companies and real estate developers — didn’t want to foul the atmosphere for potential buyers, and 1000 people were moving to Florida each day… further exacerbating the problems facing this fragile and alluring landscape.

So I snuck environmental information into my stories about kids’ science fair projects turning poop into energy and composting homework papers, and my travel stories always included tips on visiting the parks and learning from rangers about environmental concerns, like how to protect sea grasses when snorkeling or boating Biscayne Bay.

I was driven by the fact that I had learned all of this information about the environment, and I felt a responsibility to share that information with the public — because that is the only way these problems can be solved. We can only fix what we know about and understand.

Today, I look back on the creation of many different articles, books and Cinema Verde as a streaming platform which all came to life because I decided to follow my passion (and concern) for the environment.

2) Artistic freedom is everything. Curation is key.

I found that environmental filmmakers are people of passion. Not only are they explorers of the world and its challenges. They are people of courage by coming up with the next step, which is offering a suggestion for a solution to protect a specific part of our nature or society. As there are countless beautiful things in our world to explore, there are as many problems, such as chemical contamination, air pollution, plastic pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, the way we treat animals, waste disposal, coral die-offs, reliance on fossil fuels, poverty… Our goal is to provide a platform for film as an art form to raise awareness. The curation process follows a strict guideline the goal of which is to inspire a collaborative spirit and commitment to a healthy future.

One interesting thing I’ve noticed over the past few years is that the film submissions are trending more toward artistic expression than documentary these days. I feel like the filmmakers are acknowledging that by now pretty much everyone knows about our environmental problems, so they are using art to highlight and remind us instead of telling us about too much waste or air pollution or whatever. Also we are seeing more solution-oriented films, which is just what we need now!

3) Each and every one of us can inspire change.

We aim for education and inspiration through films and arts that capture the real state of the world. By initiating dialogues, we take the first step necessary for a healthier future… By bringing people and communities together, we can forge successful, sustainable solutions to the problems we face.

4) If you want to create something for the collective good, people will support you.

We have had more than 300 volunteers over the course of 13 years, each contributing their own expertise to build on the work of the volunteers who came before them. People love to work on a mission and vision based project where they can make a difference. Collaborating with environmental organizations that are working to solve the problems presented in our films helps bring volunteers to those groups, too, and showcasing sustainable businesses introduces our audiences to ways they can support these sustainable initiatives. We can all use our purchasing power to vote with our dollars!

5) With technology, you can launch globally from your home office.

Starting from a local film festival in one theater, we now run a platform for streaming environmental films available to a global audience — all from our home base. The workload nowhere got smaller, but we reach the world now instead of a local community.

With technology, anyone can reach a global audience now, and if you want to make a difference, you should take advantage of it. What I’ve learned, however, is that it is also important to find the most sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions when implementing technology-based processes.

People around the world are complaining about the pandemic, and rightly so, as it brings tragedy to millions of families. But I think we can also look at our current circumstances as a rare opportunity to reset the behavior patterns of our civilization. This is a chance to rethink our priorities — is work and supporting the economy really the most important thing we have to live for? Many parents have discovered that being at home with their children has brought them unexpected joy and it is also beneficial to young children who would otherwise spend their toddler years in the care of poorly paid strangers who cannot love and nurture them as a parent would. Others who have toiled at minimum wage jobs now realize that they have more to offer society and more to gain from life by studying to enhance their skills and future prospects.

We have an unprecedented opportunity to change so many things about the way our civilization operates, and Cinema Verde is here to help move the world toward a sustainable future. Let’s not waste this opportunity in our rush to restore crippling patterns — bring on the visionaries to make the most of this break from tradition.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

The future depends entirely on our decisions and actions today.

Protecting our environment is critical — we know that some of the petrochemicals circulating throughout our environment can diminish our brain development and intelligence. We know that physical and emotional trauma can cause lifelong health and mental problems.

Our children are our greatest asset and I’d like to help parents and potential parents understand the gravity of this responsibility and support them as they nurture our leaders of tomorrow.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

”If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it,” William Arthur Ward. I put a beautiful poster with this quote on my wall as a teenager and have lived by this wisdom ever since. I taught my children that thought creates reality so they would know and harness their own power to build the best lives they can.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

The launch of Cinema Verde as a streaming platform fell on Valentine’s Day 2022, and we were excited to feature and include films to our streaming database involving Hollywood’s famous heartthrobs Gerard Butler and Richard Gere. So, let me put it out there that I would love to go on a Valentine’s lunch with Gerard and Richard (cause why not?), to talk about creating a partnership between the gentlemen and our organization, to help further discussions about sustainability and environmental protection in today’s society.

Love Reaches Everywhere — Directed by Sean Bloomfield

Actor Gerard Butler embarks on a life-changing journey to see how his mother’s favorite non-profit organization transforms the lives of children in some of the world’s poorest countries.

Climate Emergency: Feedback Loops Part 1 to Part 5 — Directed by Susan Gray

Fossil fuel emissions from human activity are driving up Earth’s temperature — yet something else is at work. The warming has set in motion nature’s own feedback loops which are raising temperatures even higher. The urgent question is: Are we approaching a point of no return, leading to an uninhabitable Earth, or do we have the vision and will to slow, halt, and reverse them? Subtitled in 23 languages and narrated by Richard Gere.

How can our readers follow you online?

Please join us at www.CinemaVerde.org

With a subscription starting from $5, viewers can support the insightful and captivating work of award-winning and independent environmental filmmakers worldwide. There is also a gift option for those who want to share environmental awareness.

For businesses: A subscription to our environmental film database makes the perfect gift for employees. Get in contact for our subscription offering for teams.

Become a Cinema Verde volunteer or #GreenAmbassador: We are looking to hear from you. Please get in contact via our website: www.CinemaVerde.org!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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Penny Bauder
Authority Magazine

Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts