Taking a Toxic Tour of Brooklyn

Jack Gilio focuses on environmental justice

Of the various social justice movements taking place, one that tends to get overlooked, or at least receives less media attention than others, is environmental justice. Jack Gilio is trying to change that, with a documentary film of a toxic tour made as part of his Independent Study.

As a youngster in New Canaan, Connecticut, Gilio enjoyed going on hikes and taking advantage of his surrounding environment, but he grew to realize that many others don’t have such an opportunity. Not only that, those from marginalized populations are often exposed to environmental waste, which impacts their livelihood.

“It is a fact that minority communities are disproportionately exposed to pollution, waste runoff, radioactive burials, oil spills, etc.,” he stated. “Why do these always happen to occur in these neighborhoods, or in rural or urban environments where minority communities are surrounding them? How can these big industrial companies constantly mishandle their waste?”

Gilio, a communication studies major with a minor in English, and a captain on the lacrosse team, set out to learn more and paired it with his other passion—filmmaking. First, he discovered toxic tours, which are non-commercial tours in locales that highlight communities facing contamination, and to Gilio’s surprise, one such tour, “Environmental Justice in Gowanus,” was just a short train ride from his suburban home.

In Brooklyn, there’s an area called Sunset Park, where higher levels of cancer, lung disease, and heart and respiratory issues have been reported and even teenagers are reaching puberty faster than their peers. “This is a real thing. People are potentially almost dying from this. I have to do something about this,” Gilio thought.

During winter break, Gilio, armed simply with an iPhone 7, Gizmo camera stabilizer, and lens kit as his video camera, took the train in daily and saw “this complete other side of Brooklyn,” quickly scouting out some ideal shots for his documentary. “There’s just this expanse of companies that have completely taken over the residential areas, and then there’s this intersection and the other side is all industry. That’s why these things happen because they’re so close together. Around 3 or 4, when the children are leaving school, I look over just a block, two blocks to the left, and there’s a completely shut down intersection because of radioactive decay that’s rising up under the roads,” he described in one vivid example.

A self-taught filmmaker and editor, Gilio produced a scholarly visual documentary of a toxic tour, and he hopes like-minded advocates will showcase it to further the cause. He has identified 10 Brooklyn-area, grass-root environmental groups that the film might be useful to, and he’ll be entering it into film festivals and amateur film contests.

One key to garnering more attention for this movement, which he clearly lays out in the project, is “to change public perception first of what the environment is by defining the term simply as ‘the place where we live, work, and play,’ not this beautiful imagery of a large piece of untouched land,” he said. “There need to be films that focus on rural environments, urban environments that have an inherently-connected human relationship to them.” If Gilio can successfully accomplish that goal, then he believes environmental justice will follow.

[A version of this story appeared in Wooster magazine.]