In a world facing urgent environmental threats, the need for action is clear. Amidst these pressing challenges, we need organizations that embody resilience and determination, actively addressing environmental injustices within their communities. Working Films is proud to present the Rural Cinema 2024 cohort, comprised of organizations doing just that: Alabama Rivers Alliance and Coosa Riverkeeper (Alabama), Local Environmental Action Demanded (Oklahoma), NC Disaster Resilience and Response Network  (North Carolina), Peace Garden Project (North Carolina),  SOWEGA Rising (Georgia), and West Virginia Rivers Coalition (West Virginia).

Rural Cinema is a training institute and community engagement program that supports community leaders in rural areas and small towns across the United States in using documentary films to advance their local efforts and mobilize people to action on critical issues facing their area. This year’s cohort will participate in Rural Cinema’s virtual training institute covering Working Films’ Eight Elements of Putting Films to Work, a curriculum focused on best practices for using documentary film for change and environmental justice. At the end of the training and through individualized consultation with the Working Films team, each community changemaker will organize multiple screening events over the course of the year. Each organization in the cohort will receive $7,500 in monetary support and EPIC Outdoor Cinema solar-powered film screening equipment, including a projector, screens, speakers, and solar battery.

Meet the year’s 2024 Rural Cinema cohort:

Alabama Rivers Alliance + Coosa Riverkeeper

The Alabama Rivers Alliance (ARA)  is a statewide coalition of diverse organizations dedicated to safeguarding and rejuvenating all of Alabama’s waterways. Through collaboration, community empowerment, and advocacy for effective water policies, ARA aims to protect the state’s water resources. Their strategic plan prioritizes influencing environmental policies, partnering with communities and allies to strengthen collective advocacy, and ensuring the safety, equity, resilience, and ecological health of Alabama’s water infrastructure. ARA is seeking a grant in partnership with Coosa Riverkeeper, whose mission is to preserve, advocate for, and restore the Coosa River and its surroundings, particularly in rural areas where much of the watershed flows through.

Kelly Marshalls joined the Alabama Rivers Alliance in 2015, bringing significant experience and success in public relations, marketing and event planning. As ARA’s Deputy Director, she manages the external and internal communication strategies, plans events great and small, and manages the Southern Exposure Documentary Film Series program.

She has championed and celebrated Alabama’s wealth of talent, cultural history, and natural beauty for more years than she cares to admit. Before joining ARA, she managed the communications strategies for Birmingham Artwalk, Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival (now Sidewalk Film Festival), Birmingham Arts & Music Festival and other events in Alabama. In addition to her non-profit and event experience, Kelly also developed comms strategies for a variety of companies including Barenbrug Seed Company, Simply Fashion, Village Tavern, and many more.

As Director of Community Engagement, Abby Brown ensures the people of the Coosa River watershed are engaged in Coosa Riverkeeper programs and are informed and educated about the threats to the Coosa and public health. She manages all education and outreach initiatives to increase organizational reach through collecting accurate information on the health of our waters, engaging the public to be good stewards of our water resources, and ensuring ample operating funds are generated for the organization.

Abby joined Coosa Riverkeeper in 2020 as Development Coordinator through AmeriCorps VISTA, working to improve communications, donor retention, and increasing capacity through various funding sources. After one year of AmeriCorps service, Abby became a full-time employee of Coosa Riverkeeper as Outreach Manager, leading all outreach efforts for Coosa Riverkeeper programs while supporting fundraising efforts including donor engagement, communications, and events. Abby graduated cum laude from Birmingham-Southern College in 2020 with a B.S. in both Biology and Urban Environmental Science.

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Local Environmental Action Demanded

L.E.A.D. (Local Environmental Action Demanded) is a grassroots environmental justice organization led by Indigenous people. They focus on safeguarding the health and well-being of residents in Ottawa County and neighboring areas in northeastern Oklahoma, which comprises the territories of various Indigenous nations. The region faces numerous environmental challenges including the Tar Creek Superfund Site, benzene contamination from a former tire plant, poultry waste, and flooding from dam-related issues. L.E.A.D. aims to amplify the voices of those affected by environmental pollution and seek justice for them. Their initiatives include toxic tours, educational programs, surveys, conferences, community events, advocacy campaigns, and support for emerging environmental justice groups. They employ outreach, education, advocacy, and legal action to advocate for community-driven solutions and environmental justice.

Loren Waters (Cherokee Nation and Kiowa Tribe) centers her work on environmental knowledge, culture revitalization, and Indigenous futurity through storytelling. In addition to being an award-winning filmmaker, she assists with grant making and community organizing in partnership with the L.E.A.D. Agency.

Moriah Bailey Stephenson is the Education and engagement Coordinator for Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD Agency). She is driven by a commitment to realizing more equitable environmental futures for all living beings and has been actively involved in fighting the harms of resource extraction for ten years. Alongside her environmental justice work, she has training in music education and loves working with young people to explore environmental activism and connections to places through music, the arts, oral history, outdoor exploration, and storytelling.


NC Disaster Resilience and Response Network

The NC Disaster Resilience and Response Network coordinates rural-focused and grassroots initiatives to aid disaster recovery groups statewide. It’s a diverse coalition of local, regional, and statewide organizations working together to address environmental injustices and legacy pollution in affected communities. Through partnerships and direct community engagement, the network advocates for systemic changes to ensure equitable response, recovery, and resilience for all North Carolinians. They serve as a hub for public health information, connecting vulnerable individuals with resources and fostering collective action towards a fairer and more sustainable society.

Jessica Hulick (she/her) is a Queer Mom of two incredible children and community and political organizer. Beginning in 1995, she has worked on countless campaigns and community initiatives, focused mainly on LGBTQ issues, anti-racism work, reproductive health, gun violence prevention, education, and mental health advocacy. Jessica is a first-generation college graduate, holding a Master’s Degree in Applied Sociology from UNCG and an undergraduate degree from UNCW. She also earned a certificate in Nonprofit Management from Duke University in 2017. She loves camping, hiking, being near any body of water, raising chickens and goats, gardening, crafting, and thrifting.

Since 2020, Anita Cunningham has served as the Director of the NC Disaster Survival and Resiliency School, spearheading efforts to bolster disaster organizing in communities affected by disasters and climate change statewide. Additionally, she actively supports initiatives at the intersection of energy and environmental justice. In Robeson County, she’s deeply involved in environmental justice efforts, collaborating with community and county leaders to combat issues like the wood pellet industry and legacy pollution. Anita’s advocacy extends to her membership in various coalitions such as the Southern Forest Conservation Coalition, Eastern NC Cleaner and Greener Coalition, and the Impacted Communities Against Wood Pellets Coalition, where she advocates for people’s power, forest conservation, and environmental justice. Her passion for justice in the South drives her to empower BIPOC communities locally for systemic change while advocating for cleaner and greener energy sources. Her dedication stems from her love for the planet and her desire to ensure a better future for her family, including her two children and three grandchildren, motivating her to stand in solidarity with like-minded partners across the region.

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SOWEGA Rising aims to enhance the quality of life, well-being, and political influence of marginalized residents in Southwest Georgia. Their initiatives include focusing on climate, utilities, and environmental (CUE) justice. They educate the community about the impact of CUE justice on their daily lives, particularly regarding high utility costs that pose significant economic challenges, especially for those already living in or below poverty levels. Through organizing training and advocacy efforts, they empower individuals to address these issues with local leaders and develop solutions and policies. SOWEGA Rising also collaboratively produced a Utilities Justice report and established a Utilities Justice Fellowship to educate, inspire, and empower citizens to enact positive change within their community.

Sherrell Byrd is the co-founder and executive director of SOWEGA Rising, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization focused on issues at the center of racism and poverty southwest Georgia. SOWEGA Rising’s mission is to mobilize people and resources to improve the well-being, quality of life and political power of marginalized Southwest Georgians. Sherrell leads a team of organizers who tackle crisis level issues that disproportionately impact rural  communities and communities of color including but not limited to: climate, utilities and environmental justice; housing justice, historical and cultural preservation, environmental racism and economic injustice. SOWEGA Rising partnered with 9 to 5 Georgia in 2022 to produce a Utilities Justice Report and again in 2023 to produce the mini-documentary Life Uninhabitable: Deconstructing the Housing Crisis in Rural Georgia. 

Corey B. Morgan is the Climate and Energy Justice Manager at 9to5 National Association for Working Women, Georgia Chapter. Centering his work in the Southwest Georgia region, he has been organizing in grassroots capacities since 2017, often finding himself advocating on issues of voting rights and racial and economic justice. He seeks to achieve a goal of building a statewide environmental justice ecosystem that helps push public policies that are rooted in equity  and justice for all people free from any form of discrimination and bias. Corey B. Morgan is also a member of the Camilla City Council and a board member for SOWEGA Rising.


Peace Garden Project

The Peace Garden Project aims to tackle issues of justice by focusing on environmental and food justice. Through education and community involvement, they empower individuals to understand the interconnectedness of environmental issues with broader social problems and encourage collective action for change. They promote growing food as a means to address both individual and communal health and economic empowerment. They recently initiated the Outer Banks Environmental Film Festival to further their environmental education and community engagement efforts, reaching audiences not only in Eastern North Carolina but also across the United States and 23 other countries. While their work spans locations like New York and North Carolina, their current focus is on Manteo, North Carolina. Led by Black, Indigenous, and Latinx individuals, their organization’s leadership and volunteers represent diverse backgrounds, including immigrants, first-generation Americans, and people from various socio-economic statuses. They prioritize accountability through ongoing conversations and surveys with the communities they serve.

Michelle Lewis, who descends from African and Indigenous peoples, is a native of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She is the founder and Executive Director of the Peace Garden Project. In 2023, Michelle organized the inaugural Outer Banks Environmental Film Festival. Her love of the environment started early; she has even worked as a United States Park Ranger. Michelle believes that people working together can change the world and is committed to creating and maintaining spaces for all people to be engaged in environmental work. She has presented at national conferences and has served on local, national, and international boards of directors for NGOs. Michelle holds a joint master’s degree in Religion and the Environment from Yale School of the Environment and Yale Divinity School, and she completed her doctoral work at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

Josie Walker is a native of Eastern North Carolina and is the co-founder of the Black Seed Saving Collective. She is a certified garden educator and horticulturalist who believes in food sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and the power of plants to solve myriad problems. She has presented at national conferences and co-created a series of garden instructional videos. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Urban and Community Horticulture from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University as well as a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In addition to being a member of the Outer Banks Environmental Film Festival Steering Committee, Josie serves on the board of directors for the North Carolina Botanical Garden Foundation.


West Virginia Rivers Coalition

The West Virginia Rivers Coalition is committed to preserving and restoring West Virginia’s rivers and streams for diverse ecosystems and economies. They engage in policy advocacy, industrial oversight, safe water initiatives, public lands protection, climate action, just transition, and watershed advocacy to advance environmental justice. They advocate for water quality policies, monitor industrial impacts, safeguard drinking water, preserve public lands, educate on climate change, support fair transitions, and improve regional watersheds.

Maria Russo, raised on a Shenandoah Junction farm, holds a Bachelor’s Degrees in Public Policy and Latin American Studies from Brown University. Her career spans restorative drug policy, criminal justice campaigns, and lobbying for environmental legislation in West Virginia. As Clean Water Campaign Coordinator at WV Rivers, Maria merges policy advocacy with community engagement for a sustainable future. In her downtime, Maria is often walking barefoot through the woods, listening to live music, or floating down the river with friends.

Maggie Stange grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but she got to West Virginia as soon as she could. With a deep commitment to working for people and our collective future, Maggie brings over a decade of organizing, communications, and fundraising expertise to WV Rivers. Maggie manages communications and advocacy, amplifying the impact of WV Rivers’ projects. In her free time, you can find her exploring all the exceptional streams, creeks, rivers, and lakes West Virginia has to offer with her rescue Corgi, Ozzy.


For regular updates on the Rural Cinema 2024 cohort, follow Working Films on Twitter and Instagram.

Applications for Rural Cinema 2025 will open in late Winter 2024.

Rural Cinema is made possible with generous support from the Kendeda Fund, Perspective, Putnam Foundation, and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation. 

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