In recognition of Black History Month 2022, we hear from four Black women with close ocean ties as they share their most hope-filled vision for the future of our planet 22 years from now.

Carolyn Finney · Photo: Nicholas Nichols

Foreword by artist and scholar-in-residence at the Franklin Environmental Center at Middlebury College, Carolyn Finney

The whole world is an ocean.

These words—written by poet, independent scholar, and author of Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, Alexis Pauline Gumbs—remind me of the first time I saw the ocean.

I think I was six or seven years old when I felt the cool salt water of the Atlantic between my toes. I understood nothing about the dynamics and life force the ocean possessed, but there was something familiar, necessary, and inevitable that I felt utterly unable to resist.

I’m not alone. If there is any truth in the phrase, “To know a thing is to love a thing,” then the Black voices highlighted here confirm it.

African Americans have been intimately involved with the ocean since the founding of the United States. Whether it was confronting the mystery, fear, and cold embrace forced upon us during the Middle Passage, fishing and sailing the seas during the 19th century, or fighting for the right to swim in the ocean and lay in the sun on our southern beaches during Jim Crow segregation, our relationship to the ocean as Black people—as human beings—cannot be denied.

Like tides controlled by the moon, we are at the mercy of a life force that calls us through whale song, crashing surfs, and a seagull’s cry, reminding us we are never really alone. For as the ocean breathes, so do we. Let us continue to bring vision, emergent possibilities, and revolutionary ways to love the ocean anew.

Hear from Kristal Ambrose, Shellby Johnson, Danni Washington, and Amani Webber-Schultz

Kristal Ambrose

Founder & Director, Bahamas Plastic Movement

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Hi, my name is Kristal Ambrose, also known as “Kristal Ocean,” and I’m the founder and director of the Bahamas Plastic Movement. My most hope-filled vision for the future of our planet 22 years from now is a universal and divine connection between every individual on this planet and our Earth systems. I hope that we are able to reclaim the shared history of our ancestors who lived in accordance with the land and the sea. I hope we realize that without the “Big Blue,” there’s no me or you. We protect what we love, and we love through connection, and I believe this is the cure for apathy. But we must act now, before it’s too late.

Shellby Johnson

Marine Conservationist & Science Communicator

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Twenty-two years is a blip in Earth’s lifetime of 4.5 billion years. But as we know, this can be a significant amount of time in person’s life. In 22 years from now, I hope that the combination of all our blips spent on this blue planet will have left our oceans in a state of rejuvenation and moved them away from a state of deterioration. To realize this, we will have to continue to work on ourselves and how we view the ecosystem services given to us by our oceans, as they are far from infinite and more fragile than many realize. And we’ll have to continue to expand what voices are heard and highlighted in the field of marine conservation, of which Black voices are growing and becoming increasingly more important. So, let’s make these next 22 years count—because we only get one planet, and we only get one life.

Danni Washington

TV Personality, Science Communicator, & Ocean Advocate

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My hope-filled vision of the future is a future where all children have access to the ocean. Regardless of their background, skin color, or economic status, every single child on this planet deserves the opportunity to explore the wonders of the ocean. Now, it doesn’t have to just be in person—it can also be virtual—but there are so many opportunities for kids to understand the world around them, and I believe that having access to the ocean like this will help build empathy for the ocean, but also empathy for each other.

Amani Webber-Schultz

Co-founder, Minorities in Shark Sciences

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In 22 years, I hope to see a planet with oceans whose resources are plentiful and used to the benefit of everyone. This would take nations addressing and changing their use of ocean resources. This would take people listening to how others need to use the ocean to survive, and everyone coming together to create policies that benefit everyone and alienate no-one. I believe that 22 years is more than enough time to realize this dream and that as a planet, we’re already taking steps toward it.

A Brief History of the Contributions of African Americans to Our Ocean

Throughout history, there have been so many Black individuals and communities whose work in ocean conservation we can and must celebrate. These five African Americans provide a snapshot of just some who have made vital contributions to protect our ocean.

Ernest Everett Just, 1883 – 1941

Biologist, author, and pioneer in the marine sciences, Dr. Just pursued his research in the United States and abroad during Jim Crow segregation, was awarded the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in biology, and was the first to receive the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Joan Murell Evans, 1933 – 2011

Inspired by Jacque Cousteau, Evans became an educator and marine biologist specializing in corals. She received multiple degrees in various subjects because there was no degree in marine biology where she attended university. Undaunted, Evans created a degree that allowed her to pursue ocean work. She ultimately described a new genus and three new species of button corals.

Captain William D. “Bill” Pinckney, 1935 – present

Called to the sea, Pinckney became a sailor, author, and educator who completed a solo trip around the globe in 1990 and retraced the Middle Passage routes. His story inspired a PBS special, a book, and kudos from the White House. His love of the ocean offers children and adults alike a way to reconsider our relationship to the ocean.

Evan B. Forde, 1952 – present

As an oceanographer, Forde was “the first African American scientist to complete research dives in a submersible” in 1979.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, 1980 – present

A young, gifted marine biologist, this Harvard graduate is the co-founder of the nonprofit think tank Urban Ocean Lab and the climate initiative The All We Can Save Project. As a science communicator, she is the co-creator of the podcast How to Save a Planet.

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