6 Facts About Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, our 2024 Benefit Breakfast Keynote Speaker

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Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, and writer known for her enthusiasm and optimism for climate solutions. This year, Fresh Energy will host Ayana as our featured speaker at our annual Benefit Breakfast on October 9, 2024, an event known for convening diverse, leading voices in the clean energy and climate space.

Ayana co-edited the bestselling climate anthology “All We Can Save,” featuring writings by 60 women at the forefront of the climate movement with essays, poetry, and art to share and celebrate our path toward a cleaner future. Her forthcoming book, “What If We Get It Right?: Visions of Climate Futures” will be out on September 17 and shares thought-provoking essays and vibrant conversations at the nexus of science, policy, culture, and justice. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Scientific American.

Ayana co-authored the Blue New Deal, a roadmap for including the ocean in climate policy. She previously led the Caribbean’s first successful island-wide ocean zoning effort and also developed U.S. federal ocean policy at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She serves on the board of directors for Patagonia and GreenWave, on the advisory boards of Environmental Voter Project and Scientific American, and the steering committee for the Ocean Justice Forum.

We’re thrilled to host Ayana as the featured speaker of our 2024 Benefit Breakfast on October 9 at the Saint Paul RiverCentre and virtual livestream. Keep reading to learn six interesting facts about Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson!

Ayana has had a lifelong passion for the ocean and marine biology

Ayana decided to become a marine biologist at the age of five. She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University in environmental science and public policy and her doctoral degree from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in marine biology with a dissertation on the ecology, socio-economics, and policy of sustainably managing coral reefs in communities that depend on them for their livelihood. She even invented a new fish trap that reduces the amount of unwanted fish caught in commercial fishing traps, called bycatch, which earned her an award from National Geographic and has helped to better conserve global fisheries without impacting fishers’ profits.

Ayana developed a Blue New Deal to incorporate oceans in U.S. climate policy

Ayana’s passion for marine biology started with science — but it quickly transformed into advocating for policy solutions, too. That led Ayana to co-author federal climate policy with Senator Elizabeth Warren to restore and protect coastal ecosystems, invest in renewable offshore energy, and create family-sustaining jobs in a policy known as the Blue New Deal.

Ayana believes that ocean conservation isn’t merely about fish, it’s about people — the economies and cultures of coastal communities around the world are tied to the health of the oceans. Rising ocean temperatures, overfishing, plastic pollution, and more all contribute to unhealthy oceans — but oceans themselves play an important role in effective climate solutions, too.

Ayana provided great climate advocacy advice to Billie Eilish

Three years ago, Ayana and pop superstar Billie Eilish sat down to discuss climate change, and much of the discussion focused on how everyday people can effectively advocate for climate solutions to do what’s right. Ayana’s advice for what people can do to implement climate solutions is to find the overlap of what you’re good at, what climate work needs to be done, and what brings you joy. By focusing on these three things, Ayana says, people can be most useful and fulfilled in creating a better future for our earth. Eilish went on to launch a six-day climate action event and documentary that brought together youth activists, musicians, and designers to discuss climate solutions and a radical hope for the future, earning her a spot on Time’s list of the 100 most influential climate leaders in 2023.

Ayana co-founded the Urban Ocean Lab and The All We Can Save Project

Ayana is a co-founder of the Urban Ocean Lab, a non-profit think tank for the future of coastal cities. With more than 65 million Americans living in coastal cities facing rising seas and storms, the organization helps to implement equitable, practical policy solutions to build climate-ready coastal cities in the U.S.

Ayana also co-founded The All We Can Save Project to coincide with the release of the book of the same name to better nurture leadership within the climate community. The project identifies a leadership crisis at the heart of the climate crisis, recognizing that communities need effective leaders in order to build an engaging climate movement. The group uses narrative change, community building, and deep learning to help build a more effective climate community.

Meet Ayana’s favorite fish, the lawn mower of coral reefs

Over 500 fish species live on Caribbean coral reefs, but parrotfish are the ones Ayana can’t get out of her head. Parrotfish play a crucial role in coral reefs’ health because they feed on the algae that grows on them, which has become overabundant due to nutrient pollution from human sewage and fertilizer runoff. Parrotfish act like lawn mowers, trimming back the overgrowth of algae on the reefs, nibbling up chunks of reef in the process. Afterward, they excrete fine white sand from the coral they ingest that creates picturesque beaches–in fact, just one parrotfish can excrete over 380 kilograms of white sand each year!

Parrotfish are a favorite fish for many ocean lovers due to their bright, vibrant colors. However, parrotfish depend on healthy coral reefs that are threatened by climate change; 90% of large fish and 80% of Caribbean coral reefs have already disappeared. Humans are degrading coral reefs, but we also know the solutions we must implement to mitigate climate change. The most important thing to focus on, Ayana says, is building community around climate solutions. Learn more by watching Ayana’s TED talk about her love for parrotfish, coral reefs, and climate change below.

Listen to Ayana’s recent interview with The New York Times

Ayana was recently a guest on the New York Times’ podcast “The Interview”, where she shared her vision for taking on the climate crisis. Tune in to her interview to learn more about her optimistic approach to policy solutions, the importance of community, and specific climate actions we can start taking now to make a difference.

We hope you will join us in person on October 9 at the Saint Paul RiverCentre for the “Fair of the Future” all-electric showroom and an inspiring program featuring Ayana and special guests. There will be an engaging discussion about how we are making our clean energy future a reality and the crucial role that organizations like Fresh Energy are already playing. Learn more and register here.