Growing up around her grandparents in Old Fourth Ward — a historic Atlanta neighborhood with deep ties to the civil rights movement — Asha Stuart found herself drawn to issues of race and equity at a young age. Her family, she says, was the embodiment of social justice.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that, today, Stuart’s work as a freelance documentary filmmaker and photographer is driven by the same passion: shedding light on the lives of people who are living in marginalized communities and facing racial, economic, and gender inequality, social exclusion, or environmental racism.
This year, as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow, Stuart is producing a documentary film that will investigate environmental injustice faced by African American communities in the deep south. This project is rooted in the same values that have guided Stuart throughout her career: Whether she’s covering climate migration in Bangladesh or gender based violence in southern Africa, she has a deep commitment to understanding the nuances around complex issues and a desire to report them empathetically.
It is a style that Stuart credits largely to her time as a cultural anthropology major at the University of Cincinnati. “It gave me the ability to be with people longer, investigate deeper, and break outside the practices of parachute journalism,” she said. In a 2015 internship with CNN’s documentary film unit, she learned to pitch a story, develop the vision for a video journalism project, and even bounce back from rejection. A couple years later, she received a grant from National Geographic Explorers, a program that offers training and support to young science storytellers, and that’s when she got her “big break.”
On her first international reporting trip as an Explorer, Stuart traveled to India to cover the Siddi tribe, a group whose heritage can be traced back to the Bantu tribes of East Africa. The Siddis have historically been marginalized because of their darker skin. Stuart felt she could relate to the community’s struggle, and she was compelled to capture their history and cultural diversity in a video documentary for National Geographic.
“I know what it feels like to be Black in America — consistently feeling like you’re out of place,” said Stuart. “In India, Black people feel the same way. It’s like that connection of being from the African diaspora.”
Stuart’s documentary, “Inside a Lost African Tribe Living in India Today,” has over 2 million views on YouTube and was selected to be a part of the National Geographic Short Film Showcase, which highlights exceptional short video pieces from around the world. Following the success of this documentary, Stuart has gone on to cover both national and international stories for Time, Politico, PBS, and CIRCA, among other outlets.
In her upcoming documentary, Stuart will explore how African American communities in Alabama, South Carolina, and Louisiana continue to be adversely impacted by policies from the Jim Crow era, including housing policies that led to Black communities disproportionately being situated near refineries, chemical plants, and superfund sites. Today, Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” has some of the highest death rates due to cancer and other respiratory diseases.
To Stuart, environmental injustice is one of the most important stories of our time — an issue that will impact history. Some of the communities that are being documented in Stuart’s work will be displaced in the coming decades, she says. “There’s a whole migration that’s happening in Cancer Alley…. I mean, it’s wiping out the whole community, and it is our duty as journalists to reflect the significance of the current moment.”
Stuart’s documentary project is informed not only by years of reporting on marginalized communities around the world, but by her personal experiences as an African American woman in the U.S. Over the course of her career, she has found herself turning down many opportunities because of the pressure to portray marginalized communities as stereotypically poor, welfare dependent, or criminal.
Today, Stuart is a strong advocate of minority-led projects and is leading by example with her all -Black production team. To her, it’s critical that African Americans have a platform to tell their own stories, with their own unique voice and perspective. “If not us,” she said, “then who?”