Fellow Story

Ayana Johnson: Meet the black woman saving the earth's oceans one initiative at a time

Fellow(s): Ayana Johnson

Editor's note: The following first appeared on the ESSENCE website. Please visit the full story to hear the podcast with Fellow Ayana Johnson.

In the latest episode of UnBossed podcast, ESSENCE Work and Money Editor Marquita Harris brings listeners to the heart of the ocean with marine biologist and activist Ayana E. Johnson. 

As the founder of Ocean Collectiv, Johnson understands the correlation between maritime conservation and social justice. When we protect mother nature, we protect our communities. She’s dedicated her life’s work to not only ocean preservation but advocating for policy that protects one of the earth’s most prized possessions. 

Johnson realized that she wanted to be a marine biologist at just 5-years-old, while learning to swim in Key West, Florida.

“I didn’t even know how to swim, but I would just stand in the shallow end being like, ‘this is where I live now. Who’s bringing me snacks?’” she said. “I eventually learned to swim and learned to snorkel and went on a glass-bottom boat ride.”

She remembers seeing coral reefs for the first time and being mesmerized. 

“It was just this whole new universe, whole new world with like these aliens that lived down there, that breathed water and I just wanted to know everything about it,” she said. 

She told UnBossed listeners that she also felt motivated to preserve the earth’s oceans because of how closely tied the seas are to Caribbean cultures.

“I think that losing ocean ecosystems and species means we’re losing the coastal cultures,” she said. “What is the Caribbean without a fish fry? And going fishing with your granddad,” said Johnson, whose dad is actually from Jamaica. 

Today, she serves as an adjunct professor at New York University, the founder and CEO of Ocean Collectiv and co-founder of the Blue Halo Initiative, a Carribean ocean zoning project.

By pure chance, Johnson has assembled a superstar team of all women experts to tackle issues surrounding ocean preservation. The women are all in fields ranging from experts at National Geographic to robotics.

Through her many initiatives, Johnson has established herself as a leading expert on marine biology and environmental justice. Considering the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) world’s lack of diversity, particularly when it comes to Black women, Johnson’s success as a scientist isn’t an achievement to be taken lightly.

To other Black girls interested in pursuing the fight for ocean preservation and environmental justice in general she said, 

“I really strongly believe that one of the reasons that the environmental movement has not succeeded to the extent that it needs to so far is that it’s been dominated visibly by White people.”

“We all have a sphere of influence and a network,” she said. “Whether you’re a seven year old harassing your family into recycling, or your someone with a huge social media following. Or you’re the person buying the groceries for your household, or for your church events. I think we underestimate the potential for the ripple effects of that.”

“That really does matter.” Listen to the rest of Dr. Johnson’s inspiring episode above!