An epiphany three decades ago inspired Marjorie Mayfield Jackson to turn away from a career in journalism to save a dying river. She co-founded the nonprofit Elizabeth River Project in 1991 and is its executive director. The organization has grown from a one-room office in Norfolk to become an environmental powerhouse with an annual budget of $3 million, more than 20 full-time employees, and thousands of participating homes, businesses and schools working in tandem to improve an urban waterway that touches four South Hampton Roads cities. A river once considered dead now teems with life. And on the horizon, a new three-story, green-built home base to be constructed on the banks of Norfolk’s Knitting Mill Creek. Set on the front lines of sea level rise, its purpose will be to show others just how resilient we can be in the face of the inevitable. The $5 million “Resilience Lab” is expected to open by fall 2022.
Has your journalism background helped in your mission to restore the Elizabeth River?
I covered a lot of things. I was a reporter for a dozen years (at) different papers. So, just how to communicate to the public, how to tell a story absolutely helps with fundraising and getting people inspired to do something for the river. I think it’s really hard to translate science; scientists have a hard time themselves translating it in a way that the public can really get their hands around.
It must help to be able to distill that to something that’s more comprehensible for the average Joe.
Yes. For instance, our top priority is cleaning up the bottom of the river, which scientists and engineers talk about as sediment remediation – some very long, boring words – and they talk about toxic levels and PAHs and parts per million. I knew we had to translate that to some way that school children and legislators could grasp it. The scientists at first told me, “Well, the public will never care. They can’t see that stuff. They won’t understand it.” We went to Ron Primm at Primm Advertising (in Norfolk) and he said, “The goo must go!” We still use that slogan for that initiative.
How long have you lived on Norfolk’s Lafayette River, a tributary of the Elizabeth River?
My husband and I moved there 19 years ago, but I was living on Scotts Creek in Portsmouth when I helped start Elizabeth River Project.
How has that contributed to your appreciation of the river?
Oh, deeply. When I was a reporter at The Virginian-Pilot, I never covered the environment, but when I would get home in the evenings, I’d walk out on my dock and its very beautiful little spot on Scotts Creek. It was very peaceful and beautiful, but the scientists at (Virginia Institute of Marine Science) were coming out with studies about cancer in the fish in the Elizabeth River. I was trying to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. And for me, the frustrating thing about being a reporter was, you cover what everybody else is doing, but you’re really not supposed to get involved yourself. You’re supposed to be this objective, outside person. I wanted to make a difference. I spent a lot of time sitting in my backyard, looking at the river, and one day when I walked out on that dock, I thought, “Oh, I know. What really matters to me is to clean up this river.” So, I told the managing editor at the time, Sandy Rowe, “I’m quitting to clean up the river.” She says, “You are?” – because there wasn’t an organization and people had written off the river as dead at the time. And that very afternoon, I went down to the Circle Restaurant in Portsmouth and got a waitress job. I’d wait tables at night, and in the daytime, I’d try to help organize a nonprofit to do something about the river.
This new Resilience Lab will be the ERP’s new headquarters, correct?
We don’t look at it that way. Our education “headquarters” will remain in Portsmouth and will double in size at Paradise Creek Nature Park. A primary goal of the capital campaign is to expand region-wide. The Resilience Lab establishes a strong presence in Norfolk; we are expanding in Portsmouth and also plan to establish a Chesapeake home port for our Learning Barge.
Why is the Resilience Lab so important?
I mean, everybody knows that here in Hampton Roads, we have this enormous challenge that is coming and is ever increasing about sea level rise. And a lot of smart people and organizations are thinking about how to protect the people. But we feel like we’re one of the few organizations that is trying to protect the environment as well as the people in this change, and how to demonstrate that you can still live, work and play in the floodplain in a way that’s responsible for as long as we can. So, we intentionally selected a site on the waterfront where seas are expected to rise and where in 50 years, we may need to leave it. There are other places that are much less urban where they’re trying to showcase how to do it, but this is in the heart of Norfolk.
What is the significance of the north Colley Avenue selection as a site for the new facility?
Because this is an urban river and an urban problem. Our watershed, as it’s called – the drainage area of the river – is 90 percent developed. So, there’s nowhere to retreat to. Those of us who have our homes and our businesses next to the river now, we need to figure it out. So, we’re going to take an aging, falling apart shoreline and marina, clean it up and transform it into what’s called a living shoreline. Our building will be on stilts and it will be green to recognize that it’s our practices that have put us in this pickle – so energy efficiency, solar power, green walls, green roof and conservation (are all part of the plan). We’re trying to use practices that will be within the reach of the normal person, whether they’re trying to redevelop a business or a home. So, cutting edge, yes, but not so out-there that the average person just goes, “Well, I could never do that.”
The project is part of the ERP’s $9 million “Next Wave” campaign. Where does that stand?
We’ve exceeded the goal and we’re keeping going. It’s well over the $9 million and, you know, there are a lot of other needs for the urban river restoration. So, we have a wish list and we’ll see how far we can get.
Can you provide some details about the new site’s waterfront learning park?
Changing displays, actual ongoing research by our partners, Norfolk State (University), (Old Dominion University), resilience entrepreneurs. And then art, too; we were already planning some pedestals where there’ll be changing exhibits by students (displaying) their interpretation of resilience, as well as what you can do in your yard as a River Star Home, which is our program. We actually provide part of the funding for people to build their own living shorelines, put in your own rain barrels (and) rain gardens.
When do you expect the Resilience Lab to open?
We expect to break ground by fall of this year and have it completed a year later.
It feels like we are relearning how to have a healthy relationship with our waterways.
From my perspective, there’s been a dramatic change in how people perceive the river and how much they care about it. People are enthralled with it. They never tell me it’s dead anymore. They just want to know what they can do to help.
–Interview by Victoria Bourne; condensed and edited for space and clarity.