Chris Nixon

W.I.L.D. Ambassador, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens

Jacksonville, FL, United StatesAge: 18

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I currently work for the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, and I am a proud part of the Education Department’s award-winning Wildlife Immersion and Leadership Development (W.I.L.D.) Program. W.I.L.D. supports local communities by advocating for youth, fostering leadership development, and promoting cultural representation within environmental education and in the workplace. As a second-year participant and employee, I serve as a W.I.L.D. Ambassador. In this role, I mentor first-year W.I.L.D. Stewards and deliver free, educational outreach using live animals, which I also train.

Most notably, I am the leader and co-creator of the W.I.L.D. Garden Project, which promotes the well-being of both plant and human participants. Within this project, I use gardening and plant conservation to promote positive mental health practices in teens, particularly those like myself who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Outside of work, I participate in the dual-enrollment program at Robert E. Lee High School and Florida State College in Jacksonville.

What inspired you to become a champion for the environment and environmental education?

I wish I could say that becoming a champion of the environment was something that I chose, but I didn’t. It chose me, and I am extremely proud that it did.

I first heard about the W.I.L.D. Program through a good friend who had fun and grew as a leader while working for the program. I wanted to do the same. At that time, when I thought of a zoo, I would think of working with animals, not plants. However, the plants really are the hidden gems. During my first year in the program, I experienced a very rough patch mentally, emotionally, and physically. I found myself spending hours, then entire shifts, then days on end working in the garden. There was something about pulling weeds, potting seeds, and even seeing the leaves wither that was relieving. After seeing how much my mind stabilized and outlook changed, I had to bring my team in on it. Eventually, seeing how motivated they were to improve themselves, through the garden, became a big part of what motivated me to continue the work. If anyone that learns from my practices can get even one-tenth of what I get from the garden, I know they can achieve and maintain positive mental health. This became my personal mission, to help use plant conservation to promote personal conservation. If it worked for me, why shouldn’t I help see if it can work for you?

What advice would you give to the next generation of leaders that are looking to bring about positive change in their communities through EE?

As a constantly evolving and newly emerging leader, the best advice I can give is that everyone has a story to tell, and everyone’s story has the ability to improve someone or something’s life. Environmental education is fluid–it can fit in any box and even help in reaching unrelated goals. Therefore, I encourage other young people to share their stories and find ways that help us achieve success mentally, physically, environmentally, and socially. As one of my mentors, Chris, says, the difference between a stranger and a friend is a connection, and you establish that connection through a conversation. Through conversations with future friends and allies, we can change the world.

I am fortunate that along my journey to success, I have been able to use my story to both promote health in people and advocate for conservation of the environment. It is my hope that other young leaders can do the same. Sharing our stories (no matter how seemingly unrelated), making those connections, and championing change will help us all—plants, animals, and humans alike—to live our most fruitful lives.

If you had to live in one place for the rest of your life, where would it be?

Definitely Atlanta, Georgia, where I was fortunate to recently attend a young leader’s entrepreneurship camp. Visiting the city for the first time was life-changing, so much so that I am looking into attending one of Atlanta’s many great universities.

After exploring the city, and particularly after doing more research back home, I knew that this was the city for me. Socially, the place is booming, and there was so much to do and see. Economically, it is one of the best places for young people, especially African-Americans, to spark successful and profitable careers. Culturally, the city is rich in history and representation. And environmentally, Atlanta has many one-of-a-kind green spaces and many like-minded green organizations that both champion environmental education and support young people.

What pro-environmental behavior do you think would make a big impact if everyone in the world started doing it?

Recently we participated in Plastic Free July at work, and let me tell you, it was hard. The idea was to refrain from using any single-use plastic, which includes water bottles, plastic utensils, and particularly plastic straws. The challenge included no plastic both at work and home. It was especially hard with a boss that is super into not using straws or plastic bottles—he really wants to save those sea turtles.

Needless to say, we didn’t go completely plastic free. However, after 31 days of trying, our team of 30 teenagers became more conscious of our use of single-use plastics, and some even continue to replace single-use plastics with reusable alternatives in their daily lives. For our team, the main culprit was the silverware for our lunches. If the entire world did one month plastic free, whether or not some pick up the habit for good, I believe we would all become more conscious of the excessive amount of plastic we use, which does unnecessary and sometimes irreversible damage to our environment. The reduction of plastics in the ocean and landfills would be staggering. At the very least, we would all gain an important perspective, which is always the first step in successful behavior change.