‘Green Jean’ Ponzi Invites a Radical Rethinking of Negativity at TedxGatewayArch

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Jean Ponzi would like to talk to you about negativity.

As green resources manager of the EarthWays Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden, Ponzi is often known by her nickname “Green Jean”—and she’s been a fundamental institution of eco-friendly education and thought in St. Louis for more than, so the moniker is more than earned.

As an educator and spokesperson, she’s perfected her approach to reaching the public on matters of the environment: “You give people the best information you can, and encourage them to make the best decision they can and to keep learning, and next time re-evaluate that decision—and it could be a different decision. You do not tell people what to do,” she explains.

In steering clear of the sanctimonious, Ponzi is prone to describing environmentalism in approachable, easy-to-digest terms we all understand. “Sustainability is like good manners,” she says, “for one species, on a planet that is populated by so many other kinds of life forms that are all interdependent.” Thinking of sustainability this way feels familiar, and maybe even comforting, like a lesson from a beloved grade school teacher about practicing good oral hygiene or covering our mouths when we sneeze. Upbeat, encouraging, educational.

So it’s surprising that Ponzi’s upcoming talk at the TEDxGatewayArch event “Crash Course,” on Sept. 12 at The Pageant in The Delmar Loop, centers on the topic of negativity.

Image courtesy of D Dufer Studios.

Or so it would seem at first blush. As it turns out, negativity itself isn’t what we think it is—at least, that’s what Ponzi hopes to tackle with her talk. Entitled “Earth Needs Negativity,” Ponzi’s 18-minute slot at “Crash Course” will pick apart the binaries that seem to define so much of modern life—male versus female, big versus small, good versus bad.

“Earth has negativity, in very whole and healthy ways,” she explains. “It’s us that need to understand and integrate negativity, and the wholeness and well-being and usefulness of negativity, into our lives. We need to get off the hook of dualistic thinking and linear thinking, and, when we’re operating in the space of ‘two,’ like in any kind of duality or binary or polarity, understand that they’re complements. What may seem like a polarity really has the inherent capability to work together in a complementary and a holistic way.” For Ponzi, there’s an environmental angle—of course—but also related social considerations to this proposed shift in philosophy. “Our whole economic system is based on ‘more is the ideal, growth is the ideal.’ But when you translate that into situations of human health at the cellular level, growth unchecked? That’s cancer.”

For years now, Ponzi has found herself interested in ideas of complements, of appreciating concepts like “less” and “empty” for what they are, as opposed to criticizing them for not being “more” and “full.” And as a woman who came of age in the feminist movement of the ’70s, there’s a natural leap to be made toward the ways in which those “less desirable” adjectives are often engendered as feminine. “So many of the characteristics, the functionalities that are defined as negative are also characteristics and functionalities that are ascribed to female beings,” she notes.

"Green Jean" Ponzi Invites a Radical Rethinking of Negativity At TedxGatewayArch

Image courtesy of D Dufer Studios.

At the root of this thinking is an idea of interconnectivity—which is a big part of what sparked her love for the environment in the first place. “It was the most interesting thing I’d ever discovered,” she recalls about her first brush with basic ecology, “and it included everything—it was all about relationships, which is one of the most fascinating things to me. The drama of relationships.”

In some ways, it’s this fascination with relationships that has defined her career, even more than environmentalism—for example, Ponzi’s KDHX radio show Earthworms,” which has aired since 1988, predates her position at the Missouri Botanical Garden and appealed to her, in part, because of the relationships it allowed her to explore. “I’ve had thousands of conversations—and what a privilege that is!—with people from all over the world who are doing their parts to contribute to a healthy environment, to human savvy as one species on this planet, and I have shared that with listeners,” she says. “‘Earthworms’ is rooting around at the roots of it all.”

In some ways, this TEDxGatewayArch talk brings her full circle. [‘Earthworms’] came about because KDHX was recruiting women and minorities into radio, and I was a woman and I could talk,” she explains. And while calling her ‘a woman who can talk’ may be as much of an understatement as calling someone who has devoted her entire career to ecological education ‘Green Jean,’ it seems fitting that her next engagement is delivering a talk among other thought leaders at a TEDx event.

General admission and VIP tickets are available online for the TEDxGatewayArch “Crash Course,” which will feature five 18-minute talks as well as sets from musicians.

TEDx events are independently run, with a goal of sharing ideas within communities—and in St. Louis, all of those on stage must have local connections. Featured entertainers and speakers at The Pageant on Sept. 12 include Wally Siewert, director of civic engagement for FOCUS St. Louis; Yvonne Osei, a visual and performance artist and curator in residence at COCA; Jeremiah Johnson Band, playing a mix of Southern rock, country and blues; and an African youth drum-and-dance troupe with Geoffrey Soyiantet, founder, president and executive director of Vitendo4Africa.

Featured image courtesy of Bueltmann Photography.

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