- Issue: Spring 2019
- Author: Lorin Hancock
- Photographer: Barry Falls
Jordan Williams isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Once a month she collects and studies soil samples as part of a WWF-supported project monitoring the impacts of climate change on local ecosystems. Through the MO DIRT project—Missourians Doing Impact Research Together—Williams, 26, is studying the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the soil and reporting her findings to researchers at the University of Missouri and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Data is then posted to an online portal for anyone to access and analyze, including scientists from WWF’s markets and food team.
Sounds like a brilliant opportunity for a young environmental scientist just starting out in her career, right? But Williams isn’t a scientist. In fact, while she took a few environmental science classes in college, her day job has nothing to do with soil health or climate change. She’s doing all this work in her spare time—cutting into her evenings and weekends—because she thinks it’s a fun way to do some good. “I love data and getting a chance to analyze this information that literally hits so close to home,” Williams says.
MO DIRT supplies the soil testing kits and training. Williams supplies the enthusiasm. What’s more, Williams is using a peer-to-peer platform to recruit other citizen scientists to join her in the dirty work on behalf of WWF.
Williams is a WWF Panda Ambassador, one of some 200 dedicated activists across the country—most of them under 35—who are intent on using their time and talents to help save nature and wildlife.
There’s no perfect frame of reference for WWF’s Panda Ambassador program. It’s an activism program, sure. But it’s a whole lot more: part advocacy program, part leadership training, part fundraising vehicle, and part community outreach and organizing enterprise.
Panda Ambassadors are thinkers and doers who, with guidance and management from WWF, design and execute programs of events to engage their local communities in environmental action. It’s a relatively exclusive program; candidates apply and interview with WWF staff for a limited number of spots. Successful applicants demonstrate commitment to wildlife and nature, an understanding of conservation issues, and a willingness to devote a significant portion of their free time to the cause.
Once accepted, Ambassadors commit to a yearlong tenure that includes at least four major projects, some of their own devising and some that provide local, on-the-ground leadership for key WWF advocacy priorities. They stay in close contact with WWF throughout the year, reporting on their projects, participating in monthly conference calls, and sharing ideas and feedback among themselves.
Their outreach activities run the gamut: planning and hosting educational events in their hometowns and schools, meeting with their representatives on Capitol Hill as part of WWF’s annual Lobby Day, encouraging local businesses to adopt sustainable practices, and writing op-eds on important issues during WWF-led campaigns, just to name a few.
“There’s a lot of freedom in the program for our Panda Ambassadors to tap into their skills and interests,” says Jessica Lazarus, WWF’s activism and outreach senior specialist, who oversees the day-to-day operation of the program. Lazarus collaborates with Ambassadors to foster the development of their project ideas, to help them determine first and next steps, and to marshal WWF resources to support their work.
“It’s a unique program among conservation organizations,” says WWF’s activism and outreach director Sara Thomas, who launched the program in 2015. “The Panda Ambassador program expands opportunities for grassroots activism, allowing people to take action on a local level that wouldn’t be feasible for us otherwise.”
The aim is to use local voices across the US to develop specialized programs that feed directly into WWF’s conservation priorities, helping the organization accomplish its mission more efficiently and effectively. “Panda Ambassadors learn to be community organizers, and their communities develop a local, more intimate connection to WWF. This kind of meaningful connection can help ensure the long-term success of our conservation work,” says Thomas.
The focus is on the depth and quality of the connection. “We’ve created a higher platform of engagement that allows for more profound relationships with our top activists,” explains Thomas. “We also now have a clear path to help keep our new supporters invested. As they interact more with WWF, we can respond with more substantial opportunities.”
What do the Ambassadors get out of all this? A clear mission and method to change the world for the better, and a support system—including access to WWF experts—to sustain them over the long term. And while their activities take many forms, their motivations and inspirations are strikingly similar.
In a word? Hope.
Come as you are, do what you can
Take, for example, Autumn Ashley, a talented 29-year-old illustrator from New York City. Ashley’s stand-out projects employ her artistic skills, like the coloring book pages she created for WWF and other Panda Ambassadors to use in classroom outreach.
“I like to use my art to provide hope to people—just something uplifting, like a small light I can share with the world,” she says.
Ashley is motivated by a desire to give back, by her faith, and by her fellow Ambassadors. “What’s inspiring is the people from many cultures and backgrounds who truly care, and who strive to make a difference in their communities,” says Ashley. “The program is truly a ‘come as you are and do what you can’ initiative.”
Do what you can ... and have fun doing it. For example, while Ashley draws and Williams digs, Ambassador Matheu Martell, 28, throws parties. Martell works in finance in Chicago and is a marathon runner and group fitness instructor on the side—with the kind of energy anyone would envy.
To date, Martell has thrown three parties to raise money for WWF, setting the bar for Ambassador fundraising events and penning a best-practices guide for other Ambassadors. Martell’s parties include photo booths, drink tickets, and silent auctions. “Everybody has fun, and you’re also making money for a great cause,” he says.
“I just feel like taking care of the environment has really blown up on a larger scale,” Martell says. “There’s a long way to go, but things are really changing, and I love being a part of it.”
For Ambassadors, just being a part of the program is often one of the most rewarding aspects. Lazarus notes that a fellowship has developed among program participants. “WWF has become a big part of a lot of these people’s lives,” she says.
In fact, she often hears from Ambassadors who are hungry for even more ways to be in touch with one another—beyond the monthly calls and a private Facebook group where they interact regularly—and she and her team are exploring options. “They appreciate being able to connect with each other, connect with members who have similar interests, and feel a part of the community,” Lazarus adds.
Jordan Williams, like many Ambassadors, credits the program with her optimism for the future. “Knowing there are other people out there who care as much as I do about the environment, it gives me so much hope,” she says. “Having the program available as a backbone, something that keeps us all connected and able to share or talk through ideas, is incredibly helpful. It inspires me to just act—even if it is something small—because every act helps.”
Part of the family
The Panda Ambassador program isn’t for everyone. It requires an entrepreneurial spirit and a strong work ethic to see an idea through to completion. When evaluating applicants, the WWF team ensures that participants have a clear understanding of the time and dedication required. The retention rate has been high: Fewer than a dozen people have left the program, most citing family or personal issues beyond their control. For other issues that come up, Lazarus is on standby to support, answer questions, give advice, and get new Ambassadors on the right track.
Madelyn Davis, a 21-year-old Ambassador attending college in Rhode Island, was intimidated at first. “I had read about what other Panda Ambassadors were doing, and there were all these really impressive things,” she says.
“I wanted to be just like them,” Davis says, but she was at first unsure how she, a first-year college student with limited resources, could make an impact. Then an idea struck: She could take lessons from the Panda Ambassador program itself and apply them on campus. “I decided to use the little community I was a part of at school to begin a club, so that like-minded students could join, and we could raise awareness and build support for WWF’s mission together.” Davis soon recruited a friend to help start the club—she would shortly become an Ambassador, too—and together they found a few more members. Davis set up a booth at her school’s sustainability fair and recruited even more people. Along the way, she transformed from an Ambassador newbie to a successful community leader.
Davis says her first club meeting was a revelation: She realized there were other young people who, like her, cared deeply about the environment; they just needed a little direction to get started. “Being a part of the WWF family has shown me the kind of influence we can have when we work together as a community,” she says.
The Panda Ambassador program has grown from eight members to some 200 in just three years, and Ambassadors have executed hundreds of projects. Each year they smash records for the number of events held, dollars raised, and people reached.
The appeal of the program is also its biggest challenge: It has grown more quickly than expected, even without a dedicated recruitment push, as people find out about it through WWF materials and internet searches. “Obviously we hoped that would happen,” says Lazarus, who has scaled up the program quickly in order to keep up with demand.
As the program continues to grow, the WWF team is actively working to build a membership pool that reflects the full spectrum of diversity in the US, including ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic diversity. (Right now there are noticeable gaps in membership from the South and the Upper Midwest.)
Thomas adds that cultivating the voices of younger generations is at the heart of the program. “Intentionally and smartly involving young people in our work isn’t just about inclusivity,” she explains. “It’s about recognizing the measurable impacts and firsthand perspective young people offer to advancing the health of the planet.” After all, the young people of today must join the fight to answer the challenges of tomorrow.
The next generation of environmental activists has arrived. And it looks like we’re in good hands.
Meet some resourceful people who are making a difference—all under the age of 40.
TALIA GARRIDO, 21
Talia Garrido, a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, focused her creativity on a Halloween event for pre-K and kindergarten students at a local daycare center. Children attended the event dressed as their favorite animals, and Garrido told interactive stories and talked about the importance of nature. “I really wanted to connect with young children at some point in the program,” Garrido says. “I asked them what they thought they could do to protect animals and had so much fun engaging with them.”
CARLO TREVISO, 35
In March 2018, Carlo Treviso attended WWF’s annual Lobby Day event in Washington, DC. Shortly after, he joined the Panda Ambassador program and he hasn’t wasted any time since. He quickly became involved in We Are Still In (WASI), a coalition of Americans committed to addressing climate change and meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. He appealed to his mayor and engaged the parent company of the ad agency he works for, asking both to join WASI. He’s also a Partner in Conservation whose financial contributions help make WWF’s work possible. “I express my passion for conservation through political action. The Panda Ambassador team has provided me with the support and resources I need to pursue conservation advocacy projects at the local political level in my district,” Treviso says.
CHRISTOPHER PHAM, 31
Lobbying for nature
Out of all the projects Christopher Pham has completed as a Panda Ambassador, the most rewarding was being a participant in WWF’s Lobby Day. As part of the two-day program, Pham went to Washington, DC, and trained with WWF staff, then met with his representatives at the Capitol to talk about issues threatening the environment. “It’s an incredible experience to be able to meet with the leaders of our country and have them listen to what matters to you as a real person,” says Pham. “And while we may not always agree on certain issues, it really put into perspective how important just standing up and voicing your opinion is.”