Talk NERRdy to Me: Julie Binz

Jan 26, 2023

Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our Reserves. This month, NERRA’s roving reporter Nik Charov spoke with Julie Binz, manager at the ACE Basin Reserve in South Carolina. They talked about confounding geography, environmental education, human dimensions, and a certain graduate program every wannabe-NERRd should know.

Nik: Julie Binz, how ya been’s?

Julie: Doing well. How about you?

Nik: I am literally freezing in Maine, while you are merely figuratively freezing in South Carolina, which I learned this morning, is one of two Carolinas! I did not know that. 

Julie: There are two, and they are collectively not known as The Carolinas! That is not a thing.

Nik: I’m assuming—not being a student of geography—that South Carolina is much warmer than North Carolina.

Julie: Slightly.

Nik: Huh. Well, I’m not a scientist. I just talk to them and environmental educators like you. You are the Education Coordinator of the ACE Basin Reserve, right?

Julie: I am the manager now.

Nik: Well, I’m not a journalist either. You were the EC, and now the Manager? … I’m so sorry.

Julie: Now I look at spreadsheets and sign stuff. 

Nik: Welcome to Manager World™! It’s the worst sector. 

Julie: It’s not the worst sector … maybe it’s the toughest. 

Nik: Well, you know, they’re each unique in their unhappiness

Julie: Not the education sector. 

Nik: Which is where you were!

Julie: For ten, long, beautiful years.

Nik: Were you promoted or demoted?

Julie: I was volunteered. 

Nik: Ah, one of those. Umm, let’s talk about education today while you still can. Let’s talk about YOUR education first. How does one end up at the ACE Basin Reserve? … But wait, wait, wait! Can I just say that I love the ACE Basin NERR because it has two acronyms instead of just the usual one?

Julie: There’s no way you want me to say: “Welcome to the Ashepoo Combahee Edisto Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve.” 

Nik: I want to hear that all the time because Ashepoo makes me giggle.

Julie: It makes many children giggle on a daily basis.

Nik: Worth it right there! Did you grow up in the southernmost Carolina?

Julie: I am a transplant from the Great State of New Jersey.

Nik: Nobody calls it that. That’s not a thing.

Julie: I spent my formative years on the Jersey Shore; that’s where my attachment to salt marshes and beaches came from.

Nik: New Jersey does have its bright spots. We’re all looking forward to being at the former site of your university for the Annual Meeting in October. 

Julie: Yes, I went to Stockton College, right next to the Jacques Cousteau Reserve. The college started in a hotel, though I hear it’s a university now. My diploma says college. I went there for marine biology in … I won’t say what year.

Nik: Were you one of those kids running around saying, “I want to be a marine biologist so I can talk with dolphins”?

Julie: Absolutely. All about the dolphins. That’s all I can ever remember wanting to be. Maybe in fifth grade I wanted to be an accountant.

Nik: Well that’s going to serve you well, now that you’re a manager.

Julie: I do love spreadsheets.

Nik: What do you remember about going down the shore? 

Julie: I remember swimming and floating in the ocean for hours and also having to eat my lunch with a towel over my head because the seagulls are quite aggressive in Jersey. 

Nik: Any particular branch of marine biology? Flora, fauna, ummm … benthic … help me, I’m running out of science words.

Julie: During undergrad I interned for the State and helped out with the striped bass program. I didn’t know environmental education existed. I was on the research track, always studying fish. But then I had a quarter-life crisis after graduation, because there aren’t a lot of people to talk to when you’re on a boat catching fish. And I like to talk a lot, to a lot of people. 

Nik: Were you breaking out in hives? 

Julie: I wasn’t happy. And since marine biology was the only thing I ever wanted to do, I didn’t have a Plan B. I dabbled in some environmental advocacy nonprofits, moved out to California for a stint …

Nik: Was that fish-related? Fish-adjacent? 

Julie: Clean water. But environmental advocacy is very fast-paced, which isn’t me. I decided grad school was where I was gonna figure it out. I went to the College of Charleston. They have a wonderful marine science program, but I knew I needed a shift so I got a masters in environmental studies, where you learn policy, natural science, and social science.

Nik: A lot of NERRS people have come out of that program at College of Charleston

Julie: Oh, yeah. Multiple Sarahs. 

Nik: McGuire and Falkowski. Maybe more. 

Julie: Athan Barkoukis at Friends of Rookery Bay, too. It’s a direct feeder to the Reserves, South Carolina DNR, our NOAA lab … It feels like everyone’s a CofC graduate. 

Nik: So many NOAA email signatures seem to say Charleston, maybe more than Silver Spring. It’s quite the base of operations down there. What’s your favorite part about working in Charleston / around Charleston / in the ACE Basin? 

Julie: Charleston is an absolutely amazing place to live. I came here and realized I was never gonna leave. It has such a unique character. I wasn’t into history until I came here. They really keep it alive and respect it, which in some ways makes change hard, but there’s a lot to learn: thousands of years of history of people using the land, taking care of the land, and managing it in certain ways that are just really interesting. You can see evidence and effects of it all over the place. 

Nik: How does the human dimension of “The Past” inform your work? How do you respectfully and completely pull in a complicated history?

Julie: With great community partners. Since ACE Basin spans such a big area, there are many distinct communities here. Some are tiny rural communities, towns, and islands. But then there’s Beaufort and Charleston. Luckily, between me and everyone else at the Reserve, we’ve been able to build and maintain relationships and work with people in those communities, letting them tell their stories, their histories.

Nik: Nuts and bolts, what does “building and maintaining relationships” mean? Are you going out and buying coffee? Are you sitting on a pier fishing for striped bass? 

Julie: Sometimes it’s going to the seafood place at the dock where the shrimpers come in. We bring our boats in, get gas, and take the opportunity to ask them how the shrimpin’s going. Sometimes it’s a bit more formal. I was on a design team for a new public charter school—the Sea Islands Heritage Academy—that’s rooted in Gullah Geechee principles. The school will integrate the history, food ways, and cultural practices of the Gullah Geechee Nation—also a lot of environmental stewardship, hands-on action, career learning, internship, and volunteer opportunities. That was a great opportunity to meet folks on St. Helena Island, which is largely made up of descendants of enslaved people who are now part of Gullah Geechee communities. That was a great opportunity to hear their perspectives on education and how their needs are not met by the typical public school. It was awesome. 

Nik: When I talked to Adam MacKinnon at the Sapelo Island Reserve in Georgia, we referenced Pat Conroy’s The Water is Wide, which is all about education out on the Sea Islands. This has been a challenge for generations. How do island communities keep up with modernity without losing their local lifeways?

Julie: They have been living on these sea islands without a lot of outside support for hundreds of years. What strikes me about St. Helena—but I’m sure this is all across the rural southeast—is that there is such a strong knit community and their social network makes them resilient. They have weathered many severe hurricanes and other disasters. They may not have means to evacuate, but they have each other and that has got them through it.

Nik: Is that a tenet of environmental education that needs to be taught more?

Julie: That’s why I really like the talk lately about human dimensions. A lot of us come from a strong natural science background. We’re thinking of ecosystems. But you can’t not count the human systems. It’s all one. That’s something that struck me in those school design meetings. They don’t consider people and the environment separate. There was never that “the creeks in the marsh would be fine without us.” It’s “we are a part of them, and we always have been.”

Nik: Is a lasting relic of colonialism that there’s always this division between indoor and outdoor, powerful and powerless? Those who actually live and work on the land, and sustain it, know that every action is tied to another action. You can’t live in separation from nature, because nature doesn’t separate.

Julie: But you don’t need to always think about our negative impact, because we can have positive impacts as well. For thousands of years here, you ate the oysters and put the oyster shells back in the water because that creates new oyster beds. But we’ve had to relearn that a whole bunch of times.

Nik: How do you teach this stuff? How do you get this across to the new generation, those who aren’t growing up on the Sea Islands but just come to the ACE Basin on field trips?

Julie: That’s super challenging. Even kids growing up, whose families have been here for generations, may not have a connection to the outdoors. When we take kids out in the marsh or out on the boat, it depends on the group, but sometimes there’s fear of being on the boat, near the water, or in the mud. Sometimes it’s a lot of taking it easy, letting them be there, making them feel safe, and enjoying the experience.

Nik: You’ve been in environmental education for so long: what is the goal? What I’m hearing is, especially for children, to give them a safe and interesting experience that makes them want to come back. That’s a better start than “the facts”?

Julie: Absolutely. The feeling is so much more important and has to come first, to be able to connect with the knowledge. 

Nik: But how do you measure feelings? Switching hats from education coordinator to manager, how do you put that squishy stuff into a performance framework or a mid-year report?

Julie: That’s the Holy Grail of long-term outcomes. Decades in, we still haven’t figured out whether our interaction with a sixth grader changed their lives. Anecdotally, a large majority of younger staff or interns who end up working here will say, “I was on the discovery field trip in fifth grade.” They remember being on the boat in school. I have to believe it did something.

Nik: Listen, I’ve been doing these interviews since 2019 and I don’t think there’s been one person I’ve talked with who hasn’t had some formative, emotional coastal experience in their childhood. Is environmental education just a bigger net we’re casting to get kids who don’t go to the beach?

Julie: We want to give all kids chances to experience the ocean. It will at least allow them to appreciate what the environment is worth, even if they don’t want to step foot in it again. We want to give them enough to vote for the environment later. I’m not under any delusions our program is making every kid a marine biologist.

Nik: How do you build that appreciation, then? Come on, Binz, what’s the secret?

Julie: Just having them be out there and experience it. We also introduce research methods, but the majority of the time is exploration. When kids are younger, the interactions are shorter, but as they get older, we have some multi-day programs like our Seeds to Shoreline program where they can be part of the restoration process. 

Nik: And how does this look through the DEIJ lens? 

Julie: We’ve always focused on our more rural communities, which tend to be lower income. I consider it a measure of success that we have teachers who have been bringing their kids here for 20 years. They think it’s effective and see a difference in their students, which counts for something. For the general public, we partner with community groups, disabled veterans groups, and migrant education groups to do programs for them and their constituents. We’re trying to reach so many different communities and people that it is a challenge. 

Nik: What’s the next big thing for ACE Basin and you, newly in the hot seat? 

Julie: There are a lot of next big things going on, but one thing that is totally a new challenge for me because it’s not education related, is that we are part of the System-wide Planning for Marsh Migration Project. We’re lucky that the ACE Basin has so much protected land already, but we also have two neighboring, quickly growing cities. Most of our staff have also been involved in the South Atlantic Salt Marsh initiative, which is planning to protect one million acres of salt marsh in the Southeast. 

Nik: Marsh migration and large-scale landscape conservation require a generation of work, which requires educating that next generation of voters and stewards too, right?

Julie: Absolutely. To understand why it’s so important and that we need to plan for it now. Oh, and we celebrated 30 years last fall. Us and the other Reserve in South Carolina

Nik: We don’t talk about them.

Julie: One of us was the 19th reserve in the system, and one of us was the 20th… but now I can’t remember which one.

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ReservesACE Basin, South CarolinaTalk NERRdy to Me: Julie Binz