Meet Bill Latka, Recipient of Milliken Leadership Award 2019

October 4, 2019 |

Milliken Award Reception: 4pm, October 12, 2019, Grand Traverse Commons

Groundwork is extremely pleased to announce that Bill Latka, filmmaker and passionate environmental advocate, is the Milliken Leadership Award recipient for 2019! Bill has been an essential part of northern Michigan’s environmental movement, creating videos for several environmental organizations and being the website designer and chief social media strategist for the Michigan Climate Action Network and Oil and Water Don’t Mix. We will honor Bill at the Milliken Reception, 4pm, October 12, directly preceding Harvest at the Commons dinner, and in the same venue, at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Harvest dinner ticket holders and the public are welcome to attend at no charge.

We sat down with Bill to learn a bit about his environmental journey and especially about how climate change came to be so central to his work.

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Bill, you are involved in a range of environmental advocacy initiatives, but climate change seems to be the issue that makes your heart beat the hardest. Tell us about how that came to be.
It goes back to 2003 or 2004 when I was living in Los Angeles and my colleague and I were able to land a contract to shoot a series of eight shows about climate change, focused especially on solutions, for Discovery Channel. The series was called Final Hour. At the time, climate change was not a big part of the public conversation; it wasn’t in the national media yet in a big way. So we started doing interviews to see what the big plan was to save the planet and we found out there wasn’t one. And when we talked to the scientists we learned they weren’t communicating with one another. They were all in their silos.

An eight-part series on climate change for Discovery Channel sounds like an enormous project.
Yes, it was. We first formed a scientific panel, and by the time we had all the people we needed we had about 150 scientists advising us on the series. We had conversations for over a year as we shaped the stories. We hired a staff of 15 people. We traveled the world—went to the Arctic Circle, went to Africa, to Malawi to look at deforestation. It was millions of dollars and it was the biggest project that Discovery Channel had commissioned up to that time.

A project this expansive, all these connections and conversations, did anything change just as a result of putting this in motion?
Things did come from that, yes. In Malawi, we met with the president and he told us about reforestation efforts there and we knew of money available in the United Nations for reforestion, so we were able to steer him to that program. Another example, we hosted a charet at the University of Vermont about how you could sustainably rebuild Washington, D.C. And we invited people from D.C. government to join the conversation. It turns out the climate change plan for Washington, D.C., started at that charet. (cont’d below)

I don’t remember hearing about this series.
That is because it never got made. A year and a half into the project, Discovery Channel had a change in CEO’s and our main contact at Discovery got fired. Then the new CEO cancelled all the projects he was in charge of, including ours.

Hard to absorb that, I’m guessing.
I had to fire the 15 people. I had to sublet my studio. It was demoralizing. It was horrible.

Why didn’t you pitch other networks? 
We did. We pitched every other network. But by then Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth had come out, and the networks all had already commissioned stuff about climate change. It was all doom and gloom, not solutions-oriented, like ours was. Then the advertisers backed away from the subject. The networks said they didn’t want to be associated with climate change programming because it was too depressing.

But now here you are 15 years later still working on climate change.
Yes, well, that project changed my worldview. I knew I had to commit my life to letting people know about climate change. And it changed my life in other ways too. I moved back to Traverse City with my wife and two daughters. We wanted to live somewhere that would protect us from climate change, and we chose a place surrounded by 21% of the world’s fresh surface water. (cont’d below)

video from their gig at Bell’s Brewery.
You are gonna love this band!

How did you learn about Groundwork?
It was called Michigan Land Use back then, MLUI, and I learned about them when I went to the open space one day to shoot a short video about a TC350 march. And after, I looked into them a little more and I thought, this is a climate change organization. I told them, “You need a video and I will make it for you.” And I did the video and I learned about everything they are involved in—local food and transportation and clean energy. And I loved the people here—everybody is so committed and passionate and genuine—and I thought I will do everything I can to support them.

You’ve done a lot of big commercial work, but you are now devoting so much of your career to working with nonprofits. Explain.
I have worked really hard to do as much good as I can for as many people as I can. I strive to work for nonprofits because they are the most important force in the business world today. This is work that has to be done. It’s about doing good. If not for companies doing good, all we have is more consumption. Business has to realize at some point that it can’t be only about more consumption. So, I see it as critically important. It fills my soul. It gets me excited to help, and I know these organizations need help. I do what I can because I know it’s important.

I don’t have a bigger message than that.

Harvest Tickets Online!

Harvest ticket holders and the general public are invited to attend Bill Latka’s Milliken Award Reception at no charge. There are still some tickets available for Harvest, but the supply is dwindlng. Get yours before they are gone!

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