Taking root

Interview with Leslie Wiener, co-founder of Green Youth Collective

By Duong Nguyen on December 10,2014 11:12 AM

Taking root

Leslie Wiener is a professional documentary filmmaker from the US. Born in 1951 she completed a Master’s degree in communications and documentary filmmaking before moving to France in 1983. She has since produced and directed a number of international documentaries in both countries.

Growing up in the 60s she has long been interested in Vietnam and became closely involved in the anti-war movement when she was living in New York City. She came to Vietnam for the first in 1994 to do a Lonely Planet travelogue, fell in love with the country and its people and came back often. In 2007 she moved to HCMC and for the last few years has dedicated much of her time to working and supporting children affected by HIV/AIDS at a local charity called Smile Group. Early last year, together with three others, she co-founded Green Youth Collective, a social enterprise with a vision of encouraging sustainable careers for socially-vulnerable youths in the city.

Children attend a programme of the Green Youth Collective. Photo courtesy of Leslie Wiener

Children attend a programme of the Green Youth Collective. Photo courtesy of Leslie Wiener

She spoke with The Guide about her life and her new initiative.

When was the first time you came to Vietnam and why?

It feels like it was just yesterday but it was in 1994 when I first came to the country. Before that I grew up with the war in Vietnam. In the 60s the whole war was on television in my living room and was something very powerful in my childhood and has stuck with me. I was working on a TV series for Lonely Planet and when the producer asked me which country I would like to visit, I immediately said ‘Vietnam’. After that I did a few more films about Vietnam and then I got involved with the Smile Group.

What did you do with the Smile Group?

Smile Group aims to help AIDS-affected people, especially children, to fully live their lives with respect and support from the community. We helped the children with their school work and gave lessons in swimming, yoga, dance and life skills. I also organised some filmmaking workshops for them. One of the children back then was really interested in film making and you could tell she had an eye for it. She has just been awarded a full scholarship, including tuition fees and lodging, to study film making at RMIT University.

What films have you made about Vietnam?

I have made five documentary films about the country. One of them is ‘Children of Peace’, a series of films on the rapid economic development as seen through the eyes of ten children in different regions of Vietnam. Another one is a lengthy documentary, ‘A Case Against Agent Orange’, which tells the story of the lawsuit in US courts brought by the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange against powerful chemical companies such as Monsanto and Dow Chemical.

What is Green Youth Collective hoping to achieve?

We would like to educate and empower disadvantaged youth through vocational training in urban gardening, educational awareness programmes, community workshops, and learning to grow organic food at home. The direct beneficiaries are youths between 16-25 years old, from low income families in HCMC with a special focus on school drop-outs or youth with disabilities.

Are you a keen gardener then?

Not at all, plants die when they see me (laughs). I am more interested in the social, humanitarian aspect of the project. Professionally I am a filmmaker but I am a social worker at heart. Having a degree in psychology I believe gardening is really good for our mental health. I think we all agree that we have to change the way live with nature and it has to start with young kids, and my interest always goes towards children in poor communities.

What was your inspiration in starting Green Youth Collective?

I live near Nhieu Loc Canal in Phu Nhuan District, which used to stink and was polluted and disgusting. There was no sewage system and people just dumped their garbage right into the canal. I lived just north of the canal and every day when I came home from work I would ride along the canal to get to my house. It really was an awful place. But over the past few years the whole area has been transformed. The city has cleaned up the canal and planted gardens all along it. Every day I would see dozens of gardeners planting there and I was amazed how life has changed thanks to that.

I also started looking at high-rise buildings in the city and thought that all of these offices need to hire a company to take care of their plants. If we can train youths who have limited options for the future to become interested and learn about roof and vertical gardening as well as plant maintenance, in three or four years that will open up careers for them as there is great demand for that. So I started thinking and talking to people, and the idea was we would offer vocational training programmes so that less-advantaged youth can become green workers. There are so many things that someone who has not got a degree can do - they can assemble, install and maintain green roofs, vertical and container gardens, and be carpenters who make plant containers and structures for the green walls, etc.

But Green Youth Collective is not only about vocational training …

We are also committed to empowering people with the knowledge to grow their own healthy food so that they know what they are growing and what they are eating. In the city kids often lack a connection with nature. If you ask them where the vegetables come from, they might say ‘the supermarket’. Some of them may never have seen a cow before. It is important to get children to understand the Earth, to know that you are a part of something bigger, part of a natural system, and I do not think you can teach them in a philosophical way. The only way is to put their hands in the dirt. They grow their own stuff and they love it. It is sustainability but on a very basic level.

All Comments (0)

Other news

Life’s backdrop­­­

11PM, 15 November

In her two years living and working in Vietnam, painter Barbara Pellizzari Anchisi has brought a new look and impression of Vietnam to both local and foreign audiences with her sophisticated artwork.

  • VnEconomy - Nhịp sống kinh tế Việt Nam và thế giới

Vietnam EconomicTimes © 2014. All right reserved

An electronic media of Vietnam Economic Times - Thoi bao Kinh te Viet Nam.

Other publications of the contents this website as well as their reproductions must be approved in writing by Vietnam Economic Times.

Editor-in-Chief: Professor Dao Nguyen Cat

Licence No 04/GP-PTTH&TTDT on April 23,2014

Head Office: 98 Hoang Quoc Viet, Cau Giay District, Hanoi

Tel: (84-24) 375 2050 / Fax: (84-24) 3755 2058

Email: info.theguide@tbkt.vn ; editortheguide@gmail.com