Environmental Educator


At a Glance: International Programs Manager at the Environmental Education Exchange, a non-profit organization In Tucson, Arizona that helps clients develop environmental education programs. http://eelinked.naaee.net.

Q. Your bio seems to describe two or three different people! You have undergrad and Master's degrees in Communications and Media Arts, and a PhD in Natural Resources with a focus on Environmental Learning. Your job description covers a lot of territory too. How would you describe what you do in a sentence or two?

A. Basically, I help people who teach about the environment to do a better job.

To elaborate a little, my job involves everything from conducting brainstorming sessions, training workshops, and networking events to developing and evaluating curricula and other programs, to creating a bilingual e-newsletter for environmental educators in the U.S. and Mexico. Having a multi-faceted job works for me; I really like being able to do different things.

Q. Did you spend a lot of time outside when you were growing up in Mexico?

A. To some extent, but not as much as I would have liked. I never really had an environmental mentor or someone to spend time with me outdoors and teach me about things. I did have a place, though—I loved to go to a nearby preserve in the Sierra Madre Mountains. I'd go there to hike, and I liked the sense of adventure, of not quite knowing what was around the next corner.

Q. How did you get into working with environmental educators?

A. It was kind of an accident. When I was working on my Master's in Media Arts, I was concentrating on film, and my final project was to make a documentary. My brother-in-law was working on wetlands restoration in the Colorado River Delta, and he suggested I do my documentary on that. So I did, and it was an amazing experience.

After that, I decided to become an environmental communicator—either a media producer or an environmental writer. But when I was a grad student, I got a job coordinating a bilingual environmental education conference. It was just an amazing group of people, and I fell in love! Now, working in environmental ed, I still get to do media work sometimes. It's a great fit for me.

Q. As a bilingual person, have you ever had any embarrassing “lost in translation” moments?

A. It’s funny you should ask. I’ve done translation work for years, but I always find something new that I have no idea how to translate! Beyond translating, I’ve sometimes had issues with my accent. One story they still talk about in my office is about the time I went to a first-grade class to give a presentation about water conservation. I mentioned the fact that we have a lot of wells in Tucson, and a little kid raised his hand and said, “Excuse me—do we really have whales in Tucson?” I didn’t know he meant the big animal that lives in the sea, so I said, “Yes, we have hundreds of them! That’s how we get our water from underground.” The little boy said, “Really? I’ve never seen a whale around here.” The teacher had to step in and clear things up.

Q. You’ve said that humor, laughter, and play are powerful educational tools, and you’ve done training sessions with environmental educators in how to use humor with their audiences. But what’s so funny about environmental problems like climate change?

A. I think that even serious issues can be given an element of humor as a way of coping with them. In Mexico, we have Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead. Basically it’s a holiday where we have a lot of fun with the subject of death, and that’s one way we deal with it. So it’s a part of the culture I grew up with to be sort of irreverent and to have fun with serious topics. Some people may say, well if you make fun of environmental problems, people won’t think they’re real. But I feel that if you make jokes about them, you’re going to call attention to them in a non-threatening and non-politicized way.  You’re also going to deconstruct them and take away their power to scare you. It’s easier to tackle a problem once you do that.

Q. What would you say to people who don’t see the value in environmental education, or who see it as just another subject to fit into a too-busy teaching schedule?

A. I would say that environmental ed should be part of a holistic approach to education.  We shouldn’t think of it as something that we don’t have time for, or as something that we can’t fit in because we have to do other subjects instead. We can use the environment and the outdoors as a classroom, because nature and environmental topics are a great way to teach so many different subjects and skills, from math and science and geography to social skills like decision making.

Q. You describe yourself as a pragmatic optimist. Do you have any words of wisdom for eco-conscious people who are more on the glass-half-empty end of the spectrum?

A. Well, I do believe the world’s a mess; I’m a realist that way. But I also believe that humanity is evolving and getting better. I recently read an article that talked about striving for purpose in life instead of striving for happiness, and I think that’s it for me. If we focus on purpose, the glass-half-full part is that there are so many opportunities to find your purpose in life and try to make things better. If things were perfect and we lived in a utopia, the only purpose we would have would be to try and maintain it that way. To me, that would be pretty boring.

Q. Do you think the fact that you’re a Dad influences your attitude about optimism and hope?

A. Yes, I believe that if I didn’t have my two children, it would be easier for me to fall into despair. I feel that I have an obligation and responsibility to my kids to see the world optimistically, because they’re at an age where they see the world mainly through their parents’ eyes. It wouldn’t be fair to them to project an attitude that says, “Yeah, things are a mess, so what’s the use.”

Q. What does a busy Dad like you do in your copious free time?

A. Mainly, be a Dad! I do like hiking, and cooking. Watching movies is a big hobby for me, and I really enjoy writing screenplays. I think of stories all the time, so when I have an hour or two on an airplane or something, I work on that.

Q. A man of many talents! We’ll start looking for your name in the credits on the big screen!

A. You never know!

Pepe is the current president of NAAEE’s Board of Directors.



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