New documentary about an audacious social venture in Wyoming that combines high-tech local food production and meaningful employment for people with disabilities.
By Jennifer Tennican
If you’d told me that one of the highlights of my year would be Skyping with a 14-year-old from a hotel room, I wouldn’t have believed you. The virtual conversation was with a young viewer from New Jersey who had just watched Hearts of Glass at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival. I was a coast away at the Ashland Independent Film Festival getting ready for our Oregon premiere. This passionate teen was moved by the sense of community that permeates the story. She also loved getting to know the many characters of all abilities behind Vertical Harvest of Jackson Hole (VH), the innovative hydroponic greenhouse at the heart of the film.
I had a smile as wide as the Teton Mountain Range on my face for the rest of the day.
Why I made it
Hearts of Glass represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share a story of possibilities unfolding in my own backyard. The journey of this unique and ambitious agricultural startup and the people involved with it shows that innovation and inclusion can go hand-in-hand, benefiting citizens with disabilities and the community at large. I wanted to share a big inspirational concept coming from my small town in rural Wyoming.
VH is a “for-profit with a non-profit soul,” according to co-founder and architect Nona Yehia. The business fulfills two critical community needs: year-round produce for a mountain town with a four-month growing season and meaningful, competitively-paid employment for people with disabilities.
Who is responding
Our festival run started in early January and it has been an amazing ride. We’ve screened at disability focused festivals like ReelAbilities, conservation and social justice focused ones like Wild & Scenic, and those with a general focus like Ashland. It’s exciting to see how our film resonates with people with diverse and timely interests ranging from social entrepreneurship and sustainable local food production to innovation and inclusion.
We’ve also had the opportunity to do keynotes at influential national conferences focused on disability advocacy and employment. Our presentations at annual gatherings for the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation, TASH, the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities, the American Network of Community Options and Resources and the National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disability Service engaged a variety of stakeholders, including self-advocates, family members, employers and service providers.
What is powerful
I believe in the power of storytelling to transport and transcend. This is as close to being part of a high-tech agricultural startup and social experiment as many of us will ever get. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking. It’s set in a jaw-dropping location with extreme weather and intense seasonal demand. The film exposes viewers to nuanced portraits of people with disabilities. It is challenging and broadening people’s perceptions of abilities, the benefits of meaningful employment and the power of inclusion. By the end of the film, you may have new ideas about how food can be grown, where and when it can be grown, and who can grow it.
Hearts of Glass is proving to be an engaging and effective tool for raising awareness about the capabilities of people with disabilities and highlighting a universal desire to be part of and contribute to a community. Broadly, the film encourages creative approaches to addressing social and environmental issues. Specifically, it is serving as a catalyst for critical conversations about supported employment, inclusion and best practices.
How to see it
Over the course of 2019 and into 2020, the film will be the centerpiece of a national grassroots screening campaign engaging families, advocates, support providers and leaders in supported employment and community inclusion. In 2020, Hearts of Glass will also reach a broad audience through national PBS broadcast.
You can watch a special preview of Hearts of Glass and learn how you can bring the film to your community by visiting HeartsOfGlassFilm.com/DIVERSEability
Jennifer Tennican began her documentary career in the late 1990s working on NOVA science programs for WGBH with independent producers in the Boston area. Since moving to Wyoming in 2002, she has focused on local projects and storytelling. Her films explore identity, inclusion and community, and although they are rooted in Jackson Hole, they resonate far beyond the mountain west. Tennican’s work has been seen nationally on PBS.