Students from the James and Grace Lee Boggs School created a film that explores vital questions about waste in communities. We are proud to present their final product from the 2016-2017 school year, “Trash Life.” The film was created by 1st and 2nd graders, their teacher Kelly Rickert and PIE’s teaching artist Matt Daher with support from PIE researcher, Ever Bussey.  

In PIE classrooms, media-making is not the end goal but one of the vehicles through which we explore essential questions and develop connection, empowering students to use media to shape their worlds. PIE’s in-school projects start with big questions such as, “How do the choices we make about what to do with our trash affect our communities and our world?”

This is the question teaching artist Matthew Daher, classroom teacher Kelly Rickert and a joint class of 1st & 2nd graders set out to address in the film “Trash Life.” In 2017, Daher collaborated with Rikert and “The Painted Turtles” – the collective name of the class at the Boggs School — to explore the trajectory and politics of waste in communities. In fact, the Boggs School is located just blocks away from the incinerator/Detroit Renewable Energy, a waste to energy facility. A conversation about that proximity ignited more inquiry among The Painted Turtles about pollution, trash, recycling, and community.


Through a research and discovery process led by Matt and Kelly, The Painted Turtles explored the practical and ethical questions surrounding trash in the city. They began by examining the fields surrounding the Boggs School and taking photos. They also cleaned up litter and imagined the trajectory of the trash they encountered, which inspired the characters and stories the students created for the film.

The Painted Turtles then visited Recycle Here, a Detroit recycling facility, where they learned about creatively reusing disposable items. They went to the former Chene Street Farmers Market to learn about alternative uses of abandoned spaces. And they also visited the incinerator to observe the facility’s effects on its immediate surroundings. The students listened to interviews with Steven White - the CEO of Detroit Renewable Energy - and local environmental activists Nick Schroeck, Rachel Klegon, and Guy Williams about the controversy surrounding the incinerator. They also watched videos about people living zero waste lifestyles.

“trash Life” film

The Painted Turtles reflected on their research findings and their own conceptualizations about the complex issue of waste in communities. They worked with Kelly and Matt to write the script and repurposed trash from the school to create costumes and props. They performed on camera -- even choreographing dance elements -- and assisted in the filming process.

Bringing it all together in a dynamic work of art, The Painted Turtles created what Matt calls “a wildly entertaining film that communicates complex… information to help audiences make informed choices around what they do with their waste.”

Matt, Kelly and The Painted Turtles presented their work at a community screening at Cinema Detroit in March 2018.