‘Step by Step’ project aims to start conversations across Kansas about climate change, starting at Haskell

photo by: Contributed

Filmmakers Jim Jewell, left, and Stephen Lerner, right, are pictured at the Borrego Springs Film Festival in southern California in this 2020 file photo, where they were screening their documentary "Strangers in Town." The pair has worked on documentary films like this one together in the past and is collaborating again on a new project related to climate change, "Step by Step."

A problem as big and complicated as climate change is difficult to confront, but two Lawrence residents are starting earnest conversations about the topic throughout Kansas.

Filmmaker and clinical psychologist Stephen Lerner and fellow filmmaker Jim Jewell have teamed up for several documentary films in the past, and now they’re joining forces once again for a project called “Step by Step.”

Starting in early June, they plan to criss-cross the state, appearing in various communities to host conversations with locals about their worries, their ideas and the actionable steps they might take to mitigate the effects of climate change.

They’ll start that statewide tour in Lawrence on the Haskell Indian Nations University campus, with Haskell professor Daniel Wildcat playing a key role. Wildcat has an extensive background in studying climate issues and how they relate to Indigenous populations, Lerner told the Journal-World Monday, and he will be central to the first event. The filmmakers even plan to use a condensed video of Wildcat’s message at all of their future events around the state.

photo by: Contributed

Daniel Wildcat

“One thing I can certainly say is Jim and I are very proud to start this project off at Haskell,” Lerner said. “Being there with Dan Wildcat and others with Haskell, it’s going to be a success if we get a decent-sized crowd over there.”

“Step by Step” will kick off the event at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 9, at Haskell, starting with a bonfire ceremony outside Haskell Auditorium, 155 E. Indian Ave. Organizers ask that those interested in attending the free event register to attend.


The project is funded by a grant from Humanities Kansas and sponsored by a nonprofit, The Climate + Energy Project. The grant requires that they host at least six events, Lerner said, but it’s likely they’ll end up doing more. So far, they have appearances confirmed near Dodge City and in Garden City, plus at the annual meeting of the Kansas Rural Center, a Wichita-based nonprofit.

Jewell said that at those events they’ll also plan to invite anyone who might want to appear on camera to share their thoughts on the experience, adding to a collection of open mic-style videos compiled from appearances around the state. Then, those comments will be edited together and shown in the next city on the “Step by Step” tour, so one group is speaking directly to another group, in a sense.

“Part of this is just kind of seeing who comes and what the conversations are, so we can modulate based on that audience, as opposed to our preconceived notions,” Jewell said.

Lerner said the project originated from an initial idea of making some short films called “climate hacks,” which could show people some smaller things they could do to take action on their feelings of climate anxiety.

photo by: Courtesy of Stephen Lerner

Stephen Lerner

“But it quickly morphed from that to a project to create public conversations across the state about climate change and related issues,” Lerner said. “Research suggests that the significant majority of people are worried about the climate, but very few people talk about it. And even fewer do much in the way of being active about it.”

Lerner said that people feeling overwhelmed about the issue wouldn’t by itself cause any sort of groundswell of action; there has to be more activity. That notion is where the name “Step by Step” comes from, he said. It also shares a title with a Pete Seeger song. Lerner said its lyrics were taken directly from a union constitution from the 19th century and speak to the power of collective action.


The concept for “Step by Step” especially hit home for Lerner in one interaction he recalls having with his 5-year-old granddaughter. While playing in the pool, she expressed her own worries about the climate crisis, telling Lerner that she had to “clean up the water and the air.” Later, Lerner said he would attribute that to the “drumbeat of doom-filled news” that had infiltrated her play.

“What are we doing for our children and our grandchildren if we don’t try to do what we can?” Lerner said. “Everybody can do something different, but lots of people aren’t doing anything.”

Short videos that align with that early idea are still a part of the equation, like one that explains the positive environmental impact of simply washing clothing in cold water, for example. Other short videos might focus more on personal anecdotes, Lerner said, like one Kansan who talked with the filmmakers about his hopes and worries for his child in the future.

“To measure something like this in terms of ‘is it successful?’– you can’t measure it by the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” Lerner said. “But you can measure, I think, if you get the feeling from these events that people leave the events feeling motivated to do more. We’re not going to be standing up there presenting climate facts; that’s available everywhere. What’s not available is an opportunity for people to talk and feel like part of a community.”

It wasn’t live as of Thursday, but those interested in learning more about “Step by Step” and viewing other climate resources will also be able to visit their website, stepbystepkansas.com, in the near future.


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