Navigating Ocean Conservation as a Woman of Color

2010-2011 AAUW American Fellow Ayana Johnson at work on the ocean

2010-2011 AAUW American Fellow Ayana Johnson at work on the ocean

March 25, 2016

When asked what first led her to marine biology, 2010–11 AAUW American Fellow Ayana Elizabeth Johnson remembers her first visit to the ocean. “When I was 5 we took a trip to Florida Keys, where we went to the aquarium and I went on a glass-bottom boat ride that really blew my mind.”

Her fascination with the sea never left. She studied environmental science and public policy at Harvard and earned her doctorate from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She then moved to Washington, D.C., to begin her work in ocean conservation, where her career took her from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Waitt Foundation, where she awarded grants to fund ocean conservation projects. She then rose to executive director of the Waitt Institute and led the Blue Halo Initiative, which partnered with governments and community members in Barbuda, Montserrat, and Curacao to implement more sustainable plans for each island to use and conserve the ocean. Today, Johnson works as an independent consultant with nonprofits, foundations, and businesses that specialize in ocean conservation.

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Being a leader and a woman of color in a white, male-dominated field has not come without its bumps in the road. The gender and racial barriers in her field of choice have not escaped her: She has learned to deal with the shock that some people reveal when they discover that the individual in charge of their project is not only a woman, but a woman of color. But, she says, she refuses to allow these stereotypes to stop her from doing her job; she has a take-charge attitude and is a strong leader.

Indeed, Johnson says her biggest challenge has come not from other people’s judgment, but her own high bar. “I have huge goals and aspirations for myself, and I want to continue to fulfill them to the best of my ability,” she says. Whenever she is faced with a new project, she makes sure to invest all her energy and skills into making it successful.

One important piece of advice she offers to women who are facing gender and racial bias at work is to learn to be comfortable with identifying their needs and wants in their professional lives. “Speak your mind, be open and direct, and ask for what you think you deserve,” she says. She notes that unconscious biases take place all the time, but the only way to dismantle them is to address them head on. A crucial step in accomplishing that is not only for women to stand up for themselves but also to “stick up for one another. Support those who may not be able to speak up for themselves.”

Ayana Johnson at work on her ocean conservation project in Barbuda.

Ayana Johnson at work on her ocean conservation project in Barbuda.

When asked what the most important aspect of being a woman leader in her field is, she quickly answered, “mentorship.” Her primary goal is to save the ocean, and she would love to see her field become more diverse. For her part, that means using her professional platform to mentor the young women who will be the leaders in our next generation and introduce them to the world of marine biology. The best way to kick-start that introduction? Simply “build their connection to the sea.” Perhaps even bring girls to the aquarium, where she once was mesmerized as a girl.

As she continues to expand her conservation efforts and create new projects, Johnson’s hope for her future research is to “understand the perspectives of other individuals who use the oceans” and “help make the use of natural resources more sustainable.” She would like to find simple solutions that everyone can use because, as she emphasizes, “Marine conservation is not just about counting and saving the fish. It’s about people.”

This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grant Intern Jordan Brunson.


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