How an outstretched hand launched a career in conservation
These days, we all could use a little good news — so we’re presenting a few of this year’s Grist 50 Fixers, in depth. For a quick dose of hope and optimism, meet 2020 Fixer Corina Newsome.
As a child, Corina Newsome always loved animals, but she had no idea she could spend her life working with them, studying them, and making a difference in conservation and environmental issues. Newsome, who was recently named to the 2020 Grist 50, is a former zookeeper and current master’s student at Georgia Southern University. She tells us about the fortuitous event that changed the direction of her life. Her words have been edited and condensed for clarity.
“I was 18, and I’d never been to the zoo!”
I grew up in Germantown, in Philadelphia. There was not a whole lot of wildlife, but I had a lot of books, I had a wildlife encyclopedia, and National Geographic magazines — hundreds of them. My favorite pastime was paging through those books and transporting myself to different parts of the world, seeing the wildlife in my mind. Also, both my parents were very outdoorsy, and my mom would take me way out of the city to go on hikes.
In a strange turn of events, a zookeeper at the Philadelphia Zoo, a black woman, reached out to me and asked if I wanted to go behind the scenes with her. I was 18, and I’d never been to the zoo! That was a transformative experience, and it kickstarted the zookeeper-wildlife conservation career for me. I was a zookeeper for about three and a half years, and it was the most fun thing I ever did with my time. I also did public outreach, animal shows, and educational programs around Nashville.
Just that one behind-the-scenes experience with a black woman changed the trajectory of my career, so I thought: What if we could have a program that gave those one-day experiences to students of color in the Nashville area who were impoverished, like I was growing up? In 2017 I created the Pathway to Animal Care Careers program that targeted high schools where 70 percent or more of the students are on free or reduced-price lunches. Each student spent a day with me, feeding and cleaning and taking tours of different areas of the zoo.
I found myself wanting to participate more in the science that undergirds conservation, for birds in particular. Now I’m studying the seaside sparrow, which is adapted to a very extreme environment. To watch these fragile and vulnerable creatures hatch out of the egg, survive, and grow blows my mind every time.
I’m also on the steering committee for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, which mobilizes Christian communities to act on climate change, through civic engagement and trying to influence policy. It also engages college-age students, who can apply for a stipend to institute a green or sustainability initiative on their campus.
When it comes to climate action, or any kind of social activism, the reason I’m doing it is central to my faith. In the Christian faith, there’s a huge emphasis on stewarding the natural world, and on loving your neighbor. Climate is a social-justice issue, because the people who least caused the problem, and are least able to cope with it, are those having to overcome the largest hurdles.
Meet all the rest of the fixers, doers, problem-solvers, and visionaries on this year’s Grist 50 list.