Meet the founder of Sharks4kids
Read time: 10 Minutes
Jillian Morris is one of these ocean enthusiasts that share an epic love story with the water: from love at first sight to happily ever after. The second you see her you can tell she is a kind, inspiring and luminous person. Growing up in a small town near a lake in Maine, US, she spent a lot of time snorkelling and cultivating a curiosity for marine biology. Aged eight, she sees her first shark and thinks “This is it! I want to be in the ocean, I want to learn more, I want to study them”. Later, she will study marine biology and shark conservation, become a certified scuba instructor and work as an underwater photographer and videographer. Presently, she lives with her husband in Bimini, Bahamas with “sharks in our backyard”. She is the founder and president of Sharks4Kids, an organisation that provides free shark education resources and materials to foster a new generation of ocean advocates. Sharks4Kids’ webinars and online classes have reached over 128, 000 children all over the world and a month ago they published their second book “Shark Super Powers” at Uclan Publishing.
Jillian’s journey was not without twists, turns and bumps in the road. She was consistently reminded that she was the only woman on the boat, literally and figuratively. She was told “you won’t make any money”; “are you sure women do that?”; “I don’t know if that's a job for women” and she even received comments regarding her ability to carry scuba equipment. Even by other women, which she finds sad: as far as women’s movements had come at the time, sisterhood still had a long way to go. Representation was scarce: when people brought animals to school or on TV documentaries it was always men and it wasn't until her mother bought her an old National Geographic at a yard sale that Jillian saw a woman doing what she wanted to do: the marine biologist and explorer Silvia Earle. Positive role models encouraged her to persevere in a male-dominated field. She recalls her parents being very supportive, having “a mother who has always sort of done things her own way and not listened to what people told her”. She remembers looking up to them and thinking that if they didn’t listen, neither should she.
It's hard to not let that get in your head. You just have to push back and say: right, I have goals I want to accomplish and yeah, I’m the only girl on the boat. I'm okay with that.
She not only overcame this adversity but she actively works to shift the balance and pave the road for women and girls to have an easier journey. This starts with speaking of her experience and changing the narrative: “Most of our sharks for kids ambassadors are women, I did that on purpose. I want little girls in a classroom to go ‘oh, I’m like her, I can do this’’. Working with girl scout groups and girls programs, she wants to “Put women in front of them that are scientists -not even marine scientists, scientists in general, for kids to be able to relate to.” Her experience has given her a voice and an understanding of how impactful it is for women to encourage each other and build each other up. Having had to shut-out the discouraging remarks of her peers to get to where she is, Jillian is committed to using her platform to offset that negativity with support and empowerment for other women and girls, sending the message that:
You can push through this if this is what you want to do and you're passionate about it. Don’t listen, just find a way to do it and stick with that
Does she have any practical advice for someone wanting to join the field? “My biggest piece of advice is: internships and volunteering. Degrees aren’t enough anymore, you really need hands-on experience in the field”. To get some volunteering experience in the field of marine biology she lists trying your local dive shop, local aquariums, conservation organisations, university research labs, local rescue centers and beach cleanups: “There might be something in your own backyard that you can get involved in and that's a great place to start”. To get into underwater film and photography: “grab a camera and go out there and shoot, take photos and videos''. Since Jillian has worked in different fields, is there one most in need of motivated newcomers? “I really think that we need to see more women, certainly more diversity of women in science fields, not just marine science but science in general” she explains, referring also to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) programs for women and girls.
As she progressed throughout her career she realised that her science and media experience combined could provide an innovative resource. Sharks4Kids started with her best friend and her husband, she got the idea and said: “Guys, you’re going to do this with me”. They embarked on this journey together and figured out the details along the way. Since Sharks4Kids started, she has been dedicated to it full-time and the organisation has grown over the years. No day is the same. On some days she will be doing classroom visits or virtual lessons, on others she will be out swimming and photographing her favourite animal. A lot of her time is also spent like many of us, behind a screen. Tasks like applying for grants and doing website updates are an integral part of running a successful organisation: “I’m very lucky I do spend a lot of time in those waters with sharks but I also spend a lot of time on computers taking that stuff and transforming it into educational projects”.
Sharks4Kids provide online and in-person classes, educational resources much more. Their second book “Shark superpowers” surfs the wave of popular comic book adaptations to get kids excited about the often misportrayed animal. Children can learn about “sharks that glow” and expand their knowledge on species they might already be familiar with. The organisation has also been developing webinars to highlight different ocean professionals. This aspect of the organisation is very well suited to current COVID-19-related challenges around in-person educational activities. It helped parents with homeschooling and provided a platform for a lot of scientists and conservationists, who might otherwise not have a way to share their work.
As much as Sharks4Kids’ content is appreciated by many of all ages, their advocacy efforts are focused on the younger generations. Given that there are already plenty of conservation organisations targeted at adults, the organisation adopts the idea that it is easier to teach someone correctly than to change their mind later. By providing these resources early on, sharks for kids aims to coach young minds in the hope they will become protective voices in the future “You are creating that new generation of global citizens, ocean advocates, sharks advocate, so when they get older and they start to vote and they start to buy things, that has been ingrained in them”. Jillian explains that before she started the organisation, every time she went into a classroom, children inspired her:
Kids reminded me that we have hope, we can do something. At the same time I was always shocked at how many five year olds would be like: ‘Sharks are scary! They are monsters!’ - They’ve seen jaws... How, at five years old, are you so afraid of something already?
Indeed the representation of sharks, be it in a movie or documentary, is linked to public support for shark conservation. I told Jillian I found a video of one of her online classrooms: it includes a short clip during which the shark is held against the boat. They are doing a workup: a procedure that can include measuring, taking a tissue sample and tagging the shark. She explains the goal is to show in detail what actually happens during shark research. From her experience working in the media, Jillian understands the power images can hold; from her background in science she strives to inform and give accurate facts. Taken out of context, this image may raise some eyebrows, even though it is actually a really important part of shark conservation. Therefore Sharks4Kids provides a resource to “help people understand the WHY” and by helping adults and children to apply this knowledge to the content they are exposed to. Ultimately it goes into a broader goal: “It is really important for them to be informed because this research leads to conservation and you need the general public to support that”.
One of the goals of Women4Oceans is to stimulate and boost ocean conservancy. Through this network, individuals can connect and perhaps find novel ways to cooperate. Given Jillian’s role as a scientist and educator I was keen to hear her perspective on the issue of the climate crisis. Does she think there is one salient issue that needs to be addressed? “I think we all have a responsibility to become more sustainable consumers'' she begins. Connecting the dots between where the products we buy come from and where they go once we dispose of them is crucial in order to pressure companies into answering new demands. In order to do this she emphasises that it starts with growing a sense of interconnectedness, understanding that “it’s all linked”. Why has this shift not yet occurred and changed the course of the climate breakdown? It’s not black and white or one size fits all, she explains. While she is able to go to the store and make a choice, not everyone has options. Conservation success stories happen when the whole community is involved at a grassroots level and beyond picking products in a supermarket, having options means different things to different people. Changing a law can have repercussions on the local fisherman’s source of income or the local school’s funding, creating an array of challenges. Therefore beyond individual change, we need to work together and help each other to ensure that “people are still able to provide for their families, support themselves and then also support the planet”. Jillian remains hopeful and resolute in her vision of this challenge: our options may look different, but we all have the ability to positively impact the planet:
These are global issues but if we start at home we can build a strong local community that can then expand and come together. When all people are involved in conservation, success stories are possible
Shout-out to... When asked if she would like to promote another organisation or colleague’s work, she gives a shout out to the Bahamas National Trust which Sharks4kids often collaborates with and The Bahamas Plastic Movement which has gained traction worldwide because beaches get cluttered with single use plastics washing up from all over the world. She also reminds everyone to dive with a local operator and contribute to the local economy while travelling.
Zoe Winck is the communications volunteer for Women4oceans. With a degree in Politics, they are passionate about sustainability transitions and always on the look out for the best thrift spot.