While working on the movie Gorillas in the Mist with Dian Fossey in 1979, Nixon said she became a hero to him by devoting 15 years of her life to working with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. "She is actually one of the main reasons I am here, because she always encouraged me," Nixon said. "Her motto is 'Conservation begins with the boots on your feet. It's not talking about conservation, it's acting.'"
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This helped inspire Nixon to action while he was making America the Beautiful, a film hosted by then-President George Bush. "The Earth Corps was thought-up in the Bush White House, so I wanted to put it in the film -- but there was nothing to film," Nixon said. He decided to take one year off from his film career to make the Earth Corps a reality.
"I had spent a lot of time traveling around the world, and I wanted to take a hand in contributing in America," Nixon said. "What better place to do a year of national service than the nation's capital? It was a city that I am in love with, and it had really serious problems that people weren't paying any attention to."
The Bush Administration's plan for the Earth Corps envisioned a private, non-profit version of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which created jobs during the Great Depression. It would have employed poor, inner city youths in environmental restoration projects.
When the Earth Corps failed to materialize, Nixon said "I was determined to keep plugging away. I am just very stubborn. I guess it's hard for a lot of people to go from the concept stage to the action stage, but that's what I do all the time -- you think something up, you raise the money, and you go find the bushmen you want to see."
Instead of doing a lot of studies, we just found the worst natural habitat in the nation's capital
Nixon arrived in Washington and checked into a Holiday Inn. Through the Anacostia Partnership, he was introduced to residents of Valley Green, a public housing project in Anacostia that some called "Death Valley" because it had deteriorated into a violent, open-air drug zone. Many of the units had been abandoned to squatters and criminals.
"It had this reputation as a sort of infamous place, but it was really quite a remarkable group of people living there," Nixon said. Working with Valley Green Resident Council president Jacqueline Massey, he recruited nine persons and launched the Earth Conservation Corps in April, 1992 with a $50,000 grant from the Adolph Coors foundation. The ECC was established on the same day that the Rodney King riots started in Los Angeles.
"We started with a squad of ten, simply because that is the size of my film crews -- so that is what I am used to working with," Nixon said. "Then, instead of doing a lot of studies, we just found the worst natural habitat in the nation's capital."
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