Where Are They Now? Justin Zakoren

Former Coastal Education Specialist Justin Zakoren. Submitted photo.
Former Coastal Education Specialist Justin Zakoren. Submitted photo.

In the spring of 2014, I had the pleasure of joining the team at the NEC as a Coastal Education Specialist. In this role, I developed and delivered an environmental education program primarily comprised of watershed science and plastic pollution education outreach to K-12 schools across Humboldt County. Funded by a grant from the California Coastal Commission, the ultimate goal of these outreach efforts was to promote pro-environmental behavior and volunteerism in students and schools in communities along the coast and higher up in watersheds. Specifically, this program worked to address the persistent problem of non-point source pollution and to support participation along the North Coast in the Coastal Cleanup Day, coordinated by the NEC. The opportunity to work for the NEC changed my life and the course of my career in environmental education.

With the end of the grant funding, I said farewell to the NEC and moved to Denver, Colorado with my wife, who had accepted an animal care position at the Denver Zoo. I grew up in Humboldt County, and leaving the region’s rivers, surf, and hiking was bittersweet. In Denver, I continued down the path of environmental education by taking on an instructor position with Thorne Nature Center, located in spectacular Boulder, Colorado. In many ways, working with Thorne Nature Center was the best remedy for any homesickness I felt from the move. Taking advantage of the abundance of spectacular parks and open spaces along the Front Range, Thorne’s mission is to build Earth stewardship by connecting youth to nature through joyful, hands-on, place-based environmental education experiences. In my time with Thorne, I created inquiry-based lesson plans, exercised student-centered practices, and provided inspiring nature experiences for students to achieve the combined goals of free nature play, ecological learning, and community building.

When my time with Thorne came to end, I said goodbye to the Boulder Flatirons and turned to take on an exciting new role with Jefferson County Public School District as the district’s first Resource Conservation Advocate. Working out of the district’s Energy Management Department, I was responsible for the development, implementation, and administration of conservation programs and competitions throughout the district. The overall aim of this work was to reduce district water and energy usage—with 155 schools and approximately 87,000 students, Jeffco Schools is the second largest district in Colorado and has a yearly energy cost of around $11 million.

My conservation programming efforts were geared towards addressing the behavioral, or human, side of energy use. I developed a district-wide energy saving competition, trained teachers and students in energy auditing, supported student “Green Teams,” created supporting materials and resources for these student-led school conservation efforts, and advocated conservation education as an essential and integral part of the district’s overall mission. By the end of 2017, schools participating in energy conservation efforts had saved over 236,000 KwH of electricity (roughly the quivalent of 400 barrels of oil that didn’t have to be consumed), and saving the district approximately $60,000 in energy costs. My work with Jeffco Schools was incredibly gratifying, but when an unexpected opportunity to work with a national environmental education nonprofit fell in my lap, I jumped at the chance.

Today, I am happy to serve in the role as the Program Manager for Earth Force here along the Front Range of Colorado. Earth Force is an inspiring organization that has developed a project-based learning approach that engages young people as active citizens who improve the environment and their communities. In my role with Earth Force, I provide middle school educators with the training and support they need to engage and empower students to solve environmental problems in their communities. Using Earth Force’s six-step Community Action and Problem Solving Process, educators facilitate student-driven community investigations where students identify a local environmental problem, research that problem, learn about strategies to address it, and then take action.

A key part of this journey for the students is in engaging with community stakeholders and experts, and speaking to power. To give an idea of what students can do using our process, past projects have resulted in: a city ordinance banning polystyrene to-go packaging, another city requiring trash haulers to expand recycling services to multi-family housing, the establishment of community gardens, the construction of outdoor learning classrooms, stormwater stenciling, campus flood mitigation measures, the creation of rain gardens, and much more.

In a way, I’ve come full circle to the work during my time with the NEC and the service and stewardship it continues to provide along the North Coast, and beyond. The NEC is a stalwart advocate and model for the powerful impact community members, young and old, can have in addressing complex and entrenched environmental issues in their community, by working together toward a common cause. No matter how far removed, Humboldt will always by my home, and it is a comfort to me to know that the NEC and the good people who support it continue to advocate, organize, and take action to preserve the rich and irreplaceable natural heritage of the North Coast and its watersheds.

Thank you, NEC!