Q&A with Wildlife Madagascar’s First Member: Rita Robison

Left: Rita with a kangaroo at a park in Western Australia. Middle: Rita and her niece Debra Erickson. Right: Rita and Debra in 1984.

Tell us a bit about yourself. How would someone you know describe you?

A big emphasis in my life is consumer and personal finance issues. I’ve worked for five newspapers as a reporter and columnist. Now, I’m a blogger at Rita R. Robison Consumer and Personal Finance Journalist. I also write a weekly newsletter with 10 money tips called “Helpful Money Tips for You.”

A huge part of my philosophy is doing research to help people figure out how to navigate this complex world. A basic part of personal finance is to determine your goals, make a budget to help you achieve them, set up an emergency fund, and save for purchases and retirement. Gathering information is essential for all these steps. In addition, if you can get your financial life figured out, it helps you get joy. That’s probably one of the biggest things that guides my life. Don’t let things get in the way of experiencing joy.

People would call me persistent. Persistence is a good trait. It helps you get things done. I grew up in apple country in Central Washington. My parents had an apple ranch for a few years, then my dad worked as the field manager for a large apple orchard. The youngest of three girls, I had to figure out how to make it in the professional world. Fortunately, I was able to attend Washington State University (WSU), which opened up a whole new world.

I love going to college, and I have four college degrees. My fourth one is a master’s degree in public administration. After my work as a full-time reporter ended, I was lucky to get a job in state government editing growth management publications. It was a fabulous job. Studying at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, for my master’s degree was fabulous. No tests, no grades. Lots of reading and writing, which I’m good at.

What did/do you love most about your career?

Writing articles to help people with their lives. I’m in the process of writing a book about my journalism career. I’ve gone through my 1,200 print articles and my more than 6,000 blog articles to find the most helpful articles and the ones that were the most difficult to write.

One memorable article was on a product recall for a shop light that had killed people. We’d just purchased one, so I went into the garage to find it. Sure enough, it was the recalled shop light. I took it back for a refund. At the time, I was getting recall notices in the mail from the Consumer Product Safety Commission because I was writing a consumer column for a newspaper. Unfortunately, then and now, very little information is published on recalls, with only the large ones making the daily newspapers and the nightly news. Today, recall information is available on the internet, and I encourage people to sign up to get recall information.

What was a particularly memorable experience during your career?

Getting my dream job working as a consumer action columnist. I did research to find out where on the West Coast I could get a job working for a newspaper answering questions from readers. I found that the two daily newspapers in Anchorage, Alaska, had consumer action columnists, and the turnover was high because living in Alaska is challenging. I accepted a job as a reporter for Senior Voice, a monthly publication for seniors in the state. After working there, I was hired by The Anchorage Times to be “Bud,” short for ombudsman. What a terrific job, just as I’d pictured. I did the job for two years and estimated I helped about 1,000 people during my time as Bud. When people called to talk to Bud, they were surprised Bud wasn’t a guy.

Who or what inspires you?

Ralph Nader and other people working in the public interest inspire me. Some groups that I look to in my writing are the Public Interest Research Group, Public Citizen, the Environmental Working Group, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. They do terrific work helping consumers, although they have small staffs and budgets, and are up against the tremendous power and money that corporations wield.

What book have you read that made a big impression on you?

The books that have made the biggest impression on me are books on consumer economics. In consumer economics classes at WSU, I learned that consumers are one-third of the economy, and they’re as powerful as the other two players in the economy, government and businesses. However, they don’t work together to use their economic dollar votes. Instead, they’re influenced by advertising to spend, spend, spend. In addition, consumers tend to identify with the company they work for rather than their interests as a consumer.

What are your favorite animals?

I love kangaroos. I lived in Sydney, Australia, for two years and saw them in parks and in the Outback on road trips. Koalas are also fabulous, but we were warned at a Sydney park not to get close to them because they’re not as cuddly as they look. When I went back to Australia for a visit recently, I also saw kangaroos in Western Australia. I also like penguins. I saw some on Rottnest Island near Perth. And I love giraffes. I enjoy seeing them at the Safari Park in San Diego when I go to visit.

Why did you become a member of Wildlife Madagascar? What about this organization is meaningful to you?

I’m a big supporter of my niece Debra Erickson, Executive Director of Wildlife Madagascar. When she retired from the San Diego Zoo, and I learned she was going to start a nonprofit to save wildlife. I sent a check with the “To” line blank, because the name Wildlife Madagascar hadn’t been chosen yet.

I’m very proud of Debra and her long and valuable career in wildlife preservation—especially because I became an environmentalist before she was born. As a child growing up in central Washington, I was exposed to pesticides regularly. When Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring came out in 1962, it helped me understand that the questions I had about the use of pesticides in the apple orchards was a problem, a huge problem. My father, a farmer, died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is linked to pesticide exposure.

We need a whole shift in what we’re doing to this planet. You could see it coming for decades—decisions being made by corporations to favor their profits at the expense of the environment. I see Wildlife Madagascar’s mission as getting back to reasonableness. By conserving Madagascar’s forests and wildlife, important changes can be made. In Wildlife Madagascar, I see a powerful approach to providing resources and assistance to local people so they are able to live and grow in more sustainable ways.

Congratulations to Debra and Wildlife Madagascar for launching this fantastic organization. I couldn’t be more proud. And as for persistence—our family says that Debra got a lot of it from me. Persistence is what you need to create a nonprofit to save wildlife. Debra and her team can do it. I support them 100 percent.