Landmark Stories, the Arizona Experiment Station’s award-winning documentary team, traveled to Austin, Texas this March to present at the 2023 UArizona SXSW Wonder House. The Wonder House, an immersive installation at the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW), featured the sights, sounds, and flavors of the Sonoran Desert and brought UArizona visionary minds to one of the largest conferences in the world.
Senior producer Sandra Westdahl, public health postdoctoral researcher Denise Moreno Ramírez, and creative designer Elena Lopez discussed how filmmakers and scientists can work collaboratively with communities to bring science and its impacts to broader audiences.
"This was a great opportunity to support the UA Wonder House while putting our work and our team in front of a national audience of technology and entertainment opinion leaders," said Dave Bogner, Supervisor of Landmark Stories.
Landmark Stories is supported by the Arizona Experiment Station, which was established by the Hatch Act of 1887 with the mission to foster innovation, support science-based solutions, and disseminate scientific information.
The award-winning documentary team is housed within the University of Arizona’s Division of Agriculture, Life & Veterinary Sciences and Cooperative Extension. They are dedicated to sharing cinematic, personal, and untold stories about scientists, their research, and the communities they serve.
During their appearance at the UArizona Wonder House, Landmark Stories presented a 10-minute preview of their forthcoming documentary on Moreno Ramírez’s work with communities impacted by environmental contamination.
In the early 1980s, high levels of trichloroethylene (TCE), a cancer-causing solvent, and other chemicals were found in the groundwater in south Tucson. Public outrage reached a boiling point as increased incidences of cancer, birth defects and autoimmune disease were revealed through community activism and news reports.
Moreno Ramírez worked directly with the community in south Tucson to record and analyze people's experiences of the impacts of the contamination. “I found that individuals confronted with pollution deal with it through knowledge-making, lived experiences, and government interventions,” Moreno Ramírez said. “I also found that oral histories collected from individuals at these Superfund sites contain environmental observations that can supplement missing scientific data about the site or health outcomes.”
In 2005, Moreno Ramírez established the Community Engagement Core for the University of Arizona Superfund Research Center and the Dean Carter Binational Center for Environmental Health Sciences. The centers have a long history of community-engaged research, ranging from transferable training modules for Latina community health workers in Arizona, to a pollution prevention program targeting small and home-based businesses.
As part of her doctoral dissertation for the Department of Environmental Science, Moreno Ramírez established Voices Unheard: Arizona’s Environmental History, a project in which she linked the science with a community-based oral history project that preserved the personal histories of 22 individuals living and working near two Superfund sites in Arizona. In her project, Moreno Ramírez delineated a method of community-engaged oral history as a means for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other Superfund Centers to improve community involvement tools within site assessments.
At the SXSW event, Moreno Ramírez talked about her own experience with water contamination and research within her hometown of Nogales, which she explained had no lasting benefits beyond that of the study’s initial investigation.
“What I experienced was termed ‘helicopter research’ and, for individuals like me, it’s pretty common, and for many communities that are facing toxic pollution, it is very common. It’s basically when researchers come into a community, they do their research, and then they leave the community, and then nothing changes,” Moreno Ramírez said. “So that experience really inspired me to become an environmental scientist. Not only that, but it also inspired me to change the research system.”
Moreno Ramírez’s community-engaged research inspired Landmark Stories’ producer Sandra Westdahl to incorporate the same approach in her filmmaking.
“When community members are a part of the filmmaking process, from start to finish, they get to have a say in how their own story is being told and how their community is being portrayed. This is especially important when working with communities that are impacted by environmental injustices,” Westdahl said.
Oftentimes individuals living on these sites are dealing with historical trauma. To build trust and provide context to these more complex stories, it’s particularly important to have a cultural and historical understanding of the community that you are working with, she said.
“Getting to know Denise and learning from her has been eye-opening on so many levels. The experiences and deep knowledge she has both as a scientist and community member are invaluable," Westdahl said. "I’m a better filmmaker and person for it.”
Landmark Stories’ appearance at the UArizona Wonder House enabled the team to share the significance of Moreno Ramírez’s qualitative research with an audience outside of Arizona and discuss the importance of collaborating with communities in both the research and filmmaking process.