Interview with Jean Ponzi
Jean Ponzi (Photo from LinkedIn profile)
A few weeks ago, while I was in St. Louis, Missouri for a family function, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jean Ponzi; who works for the Missouri Botanical Garden as the Green Resources Manager. She also hosts and produces an environmental talk show, Earthworms, on KDHX. We had a lovely chat just inside the lobby of the Missouri Botanical Gardens EarthWays Center.
Amy Mank: How did you get involved with “Green Stuff” and the “Sustainability Space” as it is now referred to?
Jean Ponzi: I grew up in a little farming community outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I would wander around in the woods and the fields, but I wouldn’t touch anything, because I was kind of a princess and not allowed to get dirty. I was talking to my imaginary friends and having little imaginary relationships, but I was out in the natural world all the time.
Relationships are one of the most interesting things to me and ecology is all about relationships and connections. So, when I was in my 20’s and 30’s I was pursuing media communication, sort of, intermittently, because I wasn’t married, I didn’t have a family, I didn’t have a home or a lot of those kinds of obligations that sometimes you have at that time in your life. During that time the Missouri Botanical Garden was my personal sanctuary. I could show up here every day at 4:30, wave at the guards, and dance around, hug the trees, and be in nature. I could do that really safely as a young woman because you have to pay to get in, so there weren’t any weirdos lurking among the trees like there would have been in a more open-ended public space.
So, one thing led to another and I was doing some video production for the Education Division here at the Botanical Garden, in the summer of 1983 or 1984, when a part-time job opened up working for an environmental education program called Eco-Act. So, my job was airing out tents, folding up sleeping bags, shopping for snacks, and supervising the high school students teaching in the elementary classroom. I was learning ecology right along with the students. That was just the most fascinating thing I had ever encountered. I hadn’t wanted to pick a niche before that because, what if it was too narrow and I grew bored, then I would have to start all over again; so it was like okay, this is it.
The last job transition I had was in 1995. I had a full-time job as the Program Director of KDHX radio in St. Louis where I’ve been doing an environmental talk show for 26 years now and was ready to be done with the Program Director position. I thought I would check out the environmental side of things and the job that I have now opened up and here I am 20 years later, with 26 years of environmental work in St. Louis and having the opportunity, through doing the radio show once a week as a volunteer, to interact with people from all over who are environmental leaders and bring those interactions to whoever happens to be listening in the form of conversation. That has been the most amazing professional development opportunity for me of all time.
Mank: You have a very relaxed style and maintain a positive focus on the radio. How did that develop?
Ponzi: Well, that positive focus is my choice and it is a practice, sometimes it’s a whopping hard practice. I never practiced the piano, I did not practice meditation, and I am a sucky practitioner of everything except a positive focus. So, one thing is reasonable, I think, as a human being.
Mank: What are your thoughts on how far environmentalism has come versus how much further we still have to go?
Ponzi: We have the extreme acceleration of carbon accumulation in the atmosphere, extreme degradation of habitat, extreme acceleration of species loss, and explosion of human population; but on the other hand, there’s an explosion in human communication and capability to take action that is unprecedented.
I want to give people exposure to things that are working in the style of a conversation. I want to focus on positive things, solutions, and networking between entities so that everyone can succeed more effectively. Even though I’m working with some really challenging, crazy global issues there are always points of transformation, and those points of transformation are where you can have the most effectiveness. That’s what I’m interested in. That’s what I do.
KDHX is about to make a big shift with our talk shows and move them primarily into podcast form which is a little bit traumatic for me because I love being on the radio, but clips of my interviews will still be on the air as interstitials amid the musical broadcasts. I’m anticipating moving into the world of podcast communications because it is a way to reach a whole new audience and a generation that, I’m thinking, is going to appreciate what I have to offer.
The hive mind of human kind has developed a communication system that allows us to address situations and learn from one another in a way that we never could before.
Popular culture of “green” is a plus. The popularity, understanding, and the integration of sustainability into popular culture was just starting in the 1970’s when I was in high school, with the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). There are, though, places in the industrialized world that are light years ahead in terms of working out what their resilient response is going to be to climate change. There are a lot of shifting forces and human beings can go either way. That’s an interesting thing about our species that I don’t think beetles really have to deal with.
We cannot be stuck in either/or though. We have to at least look at things from a three point perspective- human, natural, and capital resources. When you go up from a dualistic viewpoint to at least a three point viewpoint, you have, in effect, a three-legged stool that you can sit on and it will hold you up. I incorporate more core thinking about sustainability in all of my messaging now. That’s been really fun for me to synthesize those viewpoints.
Mank: Is going to be even more of a generational shift?
Ponzi: A generation of people, like yourself and my young friends Liza and Carlie, are going to places in the world where, when I was their age, there was war. Now there’s young women in their 20’s going there together with their backpacks and having a great experience. That kind of transformation and in that kind of a time frame is encouraging to me. We don’t have to wait for geological time for these kind of transformations to take place. Having people go around and meet other parts of the world with curiosity and appreciation as opposed to with curiosity and superiority; that’s a cool thing.
Mank: I have a lot of hope for the future as my generation comes up.
Mank: What has been your greatest achievement so far?
Ponzi: I think it has to do with longevity, persistence, and focusing on this subject matter, in this structure, as long as I have. It’s being a consistent, respected voice for perspectives on environmental subject matter and environmental engagement and maintaining a positive focus. Another thing that is very important to me, that is now part of my messaging all the time, is get out of your human space and get into the nature space, and be in connection with the planet that we live on and form relationships. It’s about open-mindedness and open-heartedness and being able to be connected to the source of all that is and experience that in different focuses. That’s big for human beings.
Tweetable: Get out of your human space and get into the nature space. ~ Jean Ponzi