Barbara Jackson: Local environmentalist tackles global problems
She has worked with supermodels in Paris and consulted with European leaders on Baltic Sea water pollution issues, but Delaware native Barbara Jackson has yet to reach her 30th birthday.
She's calm and confident, wrapped in a loose scarf as she sips a French press coffee at a local cafe during a recent trip to her Lewes hometown.
“I'm grateful to come home and genuinely feel the beauty,” she said. “I have traveled the world, but nothing is better or more beautiful than coming home.”
Jackson grew up on Kings Highway, but her Delaware roots reach beyond her childhood. Her father's heritage is Nanticoke, and Jackson said she thinks that has enhanced her connection to nature.
She remembers running to the canal when she was little and said it was a way to find her center and find some peace.
“Lewes is the perfect place to grow up,” she said. “Nothing beats Lewes.”
While she says Lewes will always be home, after pursuing a business degree at Providence College, Jackson moved to Europe in 2004 to work with the Cannes Film Festival and Paris Fashion Week. Quickly, though, she found another calling for her business and marketing talents.
Jackson got her environmental start in 2013 when she founded Projects For Change, which is intended to bring together public and private sectors for innovative, environmental projects. She said her career-changing epiphany came after attending an international sustainability festival in Sweden that gave her the courage to leave the corporate world to tackle environmental advocacy projects.
“I was ready to give up everything,” she said. “Quitting my corporate job is a way of protecting my future. We are facing global challenges, and there are opportunities to fix them.”
Jackson now uses her marketing and communication skills to bring together national, business and local leaders to address everything from sea level rise to nutrient pollution in the Baltic Sea.
Jackson lives more than 4,000 miles away from the First State, on an island in the Stockholm archipelago with her husband of five years. In her new home, she's surrounded by the beauty of nature and is taking on some of the same battles being fought in Delaware's coastal communities.
“For me right now, it's a lot about water and water pollution,” she said. “We have problems from fertilizers, chemicals, marine litter. … But carbon emissions and changing our energy is No. 1.”
She's passionate about the topic of environmental issues throughout the world, speaking quickly and clearly to share all of the ideas and plans she has in mind.
As she explains the intricacies of water pollution – like the fibers often overlooked in treated wastewater when people wash their fleece sweaters and blankets – and how she hopes to bring those issues to light, she stumbles with her English.
“I'm kind of rusty on my English. I'm so used to speaking Swedish,” she says with a soft giggle and a smile. But she doesn't miss a beat. She knows exactly what she's talking about and what she'll do when she returns to her new home.
Soon after she embarked on a new professional journey, she crossed paths with a Swedish entrepreneur and co-founder of Skype and began running her current project, Race for the Baltic, an initiative of Zennström Philanthropies, working to connect leaders, politicians, industry professionals, organizations and governments to restore the Baltic Sea environment. She's taking cues from local organizations, such as the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays, on how to enhance citizen involvement and develop multistakeholder approaches for problems she describes as universal.
“My thing is bringing people together,” she said. “I'm trying to always make this connection … that this is a global problem.”
She said the environmental challenges she's tackling are very similar to the challenges in the Chesapeake Bay and Inland Bays. It's a lack of communication that divides people, she said, more than a lack of technology.
“We have a lot of technologies. We have a lot of solutions already today. We know what to do,” she said. “It's more about communication and leadership.”
She calls her approach using “soft skills,” bridging the gap between governments, businesses and tourism to develop projects and methods to address pollution in the Baltic Sea. Just like tourism goes hand-in-hand with environmental sustainability in Delaware, the same is true for the nine countries that share a coast along the Baltic Sea.
She said the challenge is encouraging citizen involvement, which she said seems to come easier to Americans.
“I think in the states we have citizens that are much more active and interested in investing their time and money,” she said. “The Eastern Baltic block was a part of the Soviet Union, so just until a couple decades ago, the residents didn't actually have access to the water. So if you never touched it, you wouldn't think to protect it.”
She pointed to her own experiences as a child, going on trips to Cape Henlopen State Park and being actively involved with her environmental surroundings as a type of conditioning that Americans living along the coast grow up with. People in the countries she's now working with didn't always have the luxury of running down to the beach or digging their toes in the sand.
“Having that Native American history and growing up on the land that my ancestors grew up on, I could relate to it in a more obvious way,” she said. “Growing up with that, it's a part of you.”
The challenge for Jackson is communicating the need to protect the environment with all the people of the Baltic Sea region – from the corporate bigwigs and government officials to the every day residents and watermen – who benefit from the beautiful, brackish water of that sea.
“What I'm doing is very purpose-driven,” she said. “We are facing global challenges and that means that there's opportunities to fix them, and it's up to us. No one else is going to do it.”