Environmentalist and filmmaker
Born Robert Henry Nixon, c. 1954; son of Robert H.A. (an auto executive) and Agnes (a television show creator; maiden name, Eckhardt) Nixon; married Sarah Thorsby Guinan (a director of a film production company), October 29, 1994; children: Bobby, Maggie, Jack.
Addresses: Office —Earth Conservation Corps, First Street & Potomac Ave. SE, Washington, D.C. 20003. Website —http://www.ecc1.org.
Produced ABC-TV's American Sportsman series, 1970s. Produced first film, Gorillas in the Mist, 1988. Producer and director of films, including: Sea Turtles: Ancient Nomads, 1988; Amazon Diary, 1989; America the Beautiful, 1990; The Last Rivermen, 1992; Endangered Species, 2004. Began hands-on environmental work, taking over leadership of the Earth Conservation Corps, 1992; chairman, Earth Conservation Corps, 2004—.
Awards: Harvard Foundation Award, 2001; Chesapeake Bay Foundation Environmental Educator of the Year, 2001; Saks Fifth Avenue and Washington Life magazine's Men and Women of Substance and Style Awards, 2004.
Aself-taught environmentalist, Bob Nixon spent more than 15 years behind the camera lens producing films and television programs depicting some of the earth's most endangered ecosystems and species. In 1992, he stepped out from behind the camera, taking the reins of the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC), a nonprofit organization that teaches disadvantaged youth job skills by putting them to work cleaning up the environment. Since then, ECC members have attempted to restore the natural balance of the heavily polluted Anacostia River, which runs through the nation's capital. Nixon intended to spend a year on the project, but more than a dozen years later he remains the group's impassioned leader. "I came here because I thought, you know, point out the problem, and the cavalry would arrive and I'd go back to making feature films," he told CBS News correspondent Ed Bradley. "I'm still waiting for the cavalry, you know?"
Nixon was born around 1954. His father, Robert, was an executive with Chrysler and his mother, Agnes, created the famed daytime drama All My Children. Raised in a Philadelphia suburb, Nixon took an early interest in nature. He struggled through school—graduating next to last in his high school class—and believes he is dyslexic. Nixon aspired to be a wildlife photographer and relocated to England to study falconry, which is the ancient art of training raptors to hunt game. Afterward, he trained birds for film and television appearances. Through this work Nixon made connections in the entertainment industry and by 1976 was producing programming for ABC-TV's American Sportsman series.
In 1979, Nixon traveled to Rwanda to produce a documentary about famed zoologist Dian Fossey. Nixon asked the gorilla activist if he could make a movie about her life. Fossey told him yes, so long as he dedicated one year of his life to an environmental project. Fossey was murdered in 1985 and Nixon told her story in the 1988 feature film Gorillas in the Mist. Nixon co-produced the movie, which starred Sigourney Weaver. He also directed 1989's Amazon Diary, which earned an Academy Award nomination for best live-action short film.
Nixon's film career was budding in the early 1990s when he heard about the garbage-choked Anacostia River, which runs through Washington, D.C. Nixon decided that cleaning up the river would be his environmental project in honor of Fossey. Nixon left his sunny Malibu, California, home for Washington, D.C., and secured a $50,000 grant from the Coors Foundation. Next, he persuaded some young adults from an area housing project to help him haul thousands of tires from the foul-smelling water.
When Nixon arrived in 1992, the river's banks were so trash-filled that the water was not even visible from the shoreline in places. There was also a sewage problem. Following heavy rains, raw sewage flooded the river because the drainage channel— carrying both sewage and storm drainage to the wastewater treatment plant—would overflow. Nixon soon discovered that the river was not the only thing endangered. The area's youth faced a grim future, too. In the Anacostia district of Washington, D.C., unemployment runs rampant and nearly 40 percent of the residents live below the poverty line. Lacking opportunity, many youths turn to drug peddling. "Anacostia's always been a haven for the poorest people," Anacostia native David Smith told CBS News. "This is where they dump their trash and dump the people, who I guess the city didn't want to see." The neighborhood is one of the nation's most troubled. Half of Washington's annual 200-plus murders take place there.
Under Nixon's leadership, the ECC program has become so popular that there is a waiting list. About 20 new members are brought aboard each year. Many are high school dropouts with criminal records. The program is simple—the youth agree to spend 1,700 hours working on the murky Anacostia River. In return, they get a nominal bi-weekly stipend and a college scholarship through the federal AmeriCorps program. The ECC program also provides the youth with structure, discipline, and job skills, thus helping to improve their lives as well as that of their community.
One of the ECC's success stories is LaShauntya Moore (sometimes spelled LaShauntaye), who was raised in public housing by a crack-addicted mother. By 20, Moore had two children, was pregnant, and living in a homeless shelter. A relative told her about the program and she joined. By the time Moore turned 25, she was the ECC's program director, was married, had earned her GED and was planning to use her AmeriCorps money for college. "I needed something stable to give me skills to get a good job," she told People. "Bob believed in me when no one else did." While many corps members have gone on to brighter futures, several became victims of the neighborhoods they were trying to escape. Between 1992 and 2005, nine corps members were murdered.
Nixon is the kind of leader who does more than offer direction; he works right alongside the corps members. Washington Business Journal writer Sean Madigan described Nixon as a man with "a compact frame, dusty blond hair, and the rugged features of someone who doesn't spend much time behind a desk." In the years since Nixon took over the ECC, he and the corps members have shoveled tons of garbage, replanted the river's banks with trees, hedges, and wild grasses; removed invasive plants, and built a stone riverwalk trail. The innovative walkway filters contaminates out of the rainwater before it pours into the river. In the mid-1990s, the group reintroduced the bald eagle to the area, building nests and feeding eaglets fish with a rope and pulley system. Pollution had forced the bird out of the area in the 1940s.
The ECC also runs a sister program, called the Salmon Corps, in the Pacific Northwest. This program employs Native American youth to restore salmon habitats along the Columbia River basin. While some onlookers have been surprised at Nixon's accomplishments, like getting former gang members to baby-sit eagle nests, Nixon finds no mystery in the success. "If you give nature half a chance, it's going to come back," he told People 's Richard Jerome. "And if you give a young person half a chance, some great things can happen." Despite his environmental endeavor, Nixon has not completely given up filmmaking. In 2004, the ECC released Endangered Species, a documentary about the corps members and their struggles for success and survival while growing up among the industrial decay and poverty of Anacostia.
People, August 11, 1997, p. 117; August 1, 2005, p. 78.
Washington Post, October 30, 2004, p. B9.
"A Bird's-Eye View," Washington Business Journal, http://washington.bizjournals.com/washington/stories/2004/05/03/story8.html (April 17, 2006).
"Board of Directors: Robert H. Nixon," Earth Conservation Corps, http://www.ecc1.org/boardmembers/nixon_robert.html (April 17, 2006).
"Bob Nixon," Washington Life, http://www. washingtonlife.com/issues/2004-04/substancestyle/nixon.html (April 17, 2006).
"Saving Their Community," CBS News, http:// www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/04/21/60minutes (April 17, 2006).
— Lisa Frick