Nation and World

When divergent passions meet

Alex Paullin ('14) combines his love for music and conservation to create a better world

by Jan Gillis ('07)


SUMMARY: Alex Paullin's ('14) Madison Experience led him on a canoeing expedition with National Geographic along the Okavango River in southern Africa, where his idea to help spread the word about climate change through music was born.

from the May 2017 digital issue of Madison

Alex Paullin (’14) describes his Madison Experience as atypical. He majored in geographic science and minored in geology, environmental science and environmental studies, all the while pursuing jazz studies.  “I wanted to be a generalist,” says Paullin. “I didn’t know how I was going to incorporate all of these, but I knew I wanted to.”

Though Paullin says he was “caught in the middle of two divergent passions,” he found a way to accomplish his dream. “I don’t think [it would have been possible] without my time at JMU,” he says.

Alex Paullin-canoeing

As a student, Paullin had worked with University Recreation’s Adventure Programs, and shortly after graduation Guy deBrun, the assistant director, told Paullin about an opportunity to work in Lesotho with deBrun’s father. Paullin also received an email from JMU’s geographic science department about opportunities with National Geographic in the same region of Africa.

As a result, the new graduate found himself traversing the Okavango River Basin. With the trip came an epiphany — Paullin realized that he didn’t have to choose between conservation and music.

“I was in a developing part of the world that had a need for sustainable living,” he says. “I saw people who bear the least of the blame for climate change bearing the brunt of the results of climate change.”

Paullin started Conservation Music, a nonprofit organization devoted to environmental outreach in the developing world. “We want to get the message out in a way that is relatable, understandable and actionable to the audience we’re speaking to.”  

Music is the key to sharing the message. “We collaborate with local musicians and integrate the message of environmental sustainability with local traditional and modern sounds that our target audience can identify with,” he says. “Music is universal, and the need to get back in touch with the world we live on is universal.”

Conservation Music continues to grow. “This year we’re making a documentary film,” he says. “Half of the members of my team are Dukes. There’s a feeling of support and shared purpose with Dukes. JMU turns out students who have a drive to change the world.”

Many of the places where Conservation Music is working are arid countries, places where severe drought is followed by storms and floods.

Paullin-village song

“One of my favorite projects was done in a village in Lesotho, where I have a close relationship with the traditional musicians,” says Paullin. The song tells the story of a local man whose land was ravaged by a flood. With hard work, persistence and the help of family and neighbors, the man was able to repair the damage and create an oasis of beauty. “Today he has a forest of trees for firewood, peach trees for food, a well for water for his family and a reed bed for thatching his roof. All of this came out of a disaster,” says Paullin.

Paullin-African voices

The opening line of the song — “If you want to see beautiful things you can take a look in the mirror and look within” — is significant. For Paullin, it encompasses all that he hopes Conservation Music can accomplish. “No matter our situation, rich or poor, we can look within ourselves to find the special aspect of who we are and apply that to becoming part of the solution to the problems we’re facing.”

“My vision is a world where every language and every musical style encourage all to stay accountable to the world we live on.”

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Published: Monday, May 22, 2017

Last Updated: Friday, May 20, 2022

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