Danni Washington is like a beautiful and equally smart Caribbean-American version of Steve Irwin. With over a decade in science communication, ocean advocacy, and television, Washington has devoted her life to educating everyone who wants to hear about her “blue backyard”—the ocean.
For her, life has always revolved around the ocean. She knew from the age of six that she wanted to be a marine biologist. Now she’s the inspiration she never had growing up — she’s officially been named the first African American woman to host an American science television show.
An award-winning thought leader, Washington’s impressive television production portfolio includes work on shows on CBS, Fox, Amazon Prime, Discovery Channel and Facebook Watch.
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She has also invested heavily to give back. Washington works with several community-based organizations and also runs her own nonprofit, Big Blue & You, which educates youth about ocean conservation through arts and media.
We managed to catch up with this super busy woman on a mission to talk about her landmark career path. Here’s what she shared with us:
How has your Jamaican heritage influenced your ability to be a pioneer and, in many ways, a “first” in your field?
Washington: My Jamaican heritage influenced my trip in a number of ways. The revolutionary energy that is the Jamaican spirit is something that resonates deeply. Ever since I was a child, I have felt that my silent rebellion was a result of the Caribbean culture that surrounded me. When I say “silent rebellion,” I mean the fiery inner strength to go against the status quo and create something different, something better. As a Black woman living in the United States, there are many obstacles designed to prevent us from reaching our highest potential. My Jamaican identity and the elders/ancestors who came before me continue to feed my courage despite these societal barriers. From a young age my love for the sea and nature in general was undeniable. All I could think about was exploring the aquatic world that covers 3/4 of our planet. Beyond exploration, I decided to study marine biology at the University of Miami to deepen my understanding of ocean life and pursue a new career path in science communication. My island roots definitely helped cement my love for the sea. Every time I visit Jamaica I am reminded of all the reasons I adore the sea.
You have built a career that seamlessly bridges what most people consider to be opposite fields – you are a creative and a scientist. How has this unique career developed for you?
Washington: In my opinion, science and creativity are one and the same. In general, curiosity, asking questions, and striving for intelligent solutions to those questions are both strong drivers of activity. As an extremely curious person, the idea of breaking down barriers has always fascinated me. While not currently a practicing research scientist, I see myself as a full-time citizen scientist as I have the privilege of working directly with scholars across a variety of STEM disciplines and I support their research through my work as a television host and science communicator. I’m a lifelong student and I continue to find creative ways to encourage more people to think scientifically and use the scientific method as a simple framework to make more informed decisions on a daily basis.
You are definitely not the stereotypical image of a scientist and environmental activist. In a world that makes young women focus so much on the surface, what single message would you give them if you could?
Washington: I’ve always felt compelled to challenge the generic stereotype of what a scientist looks like. When I graduated from the University of Miami in 2008, I wanted to prove that ANYONE could be a scientist if they put their heart and mind into their chosen field. Regardless of ethnicity, gender identity, age or income, everyone should have the opportunity to become a scientist.
I tried my hand at modeling when I was about 17, but quickly realized that the industry wasn’t my thing and at that age it can quickly destroy a person’s self-esteem. But God definitely has a sense of humor, because over the course of my career, I’ve been able to apply some of these modeling techniques I’ve learned to my work as a science communicator today. I like to call it “meaningful modeling,” which I personally would define as using your external attributes to attract positive attention, and then directing that attention to a meaningful cause or message that has a deeper purpose.
I would encourage young women to center themselves through exercise (moving the body, sweating and releasing pent-up energy) and keep a soul searching/journal to dig up the ideas that make them feel most inspired. Mental clarity and focus are some of the best benefits of exercise. Whenever I exercise, my biggest ideas come to life and I’m able to drown out the negative noise that society constantly bombards us with. Set your own standards and don’t be afraid to do something different.
It’s heartbreaking that many kids and people of color (even those who live in places like Miami and the Caribbean) aren’t fully exposed or indulging in the ocean. How are you using your platform to address this?
Washington: This brings me to the point, which motivates me to continue raising awareness about the ocean. My mom, Michelle and I started our own non-profit organization called Big Blue & You together in 2008 to address this very issue. There is a disconnect within the POC community around the world, largely due to a lack of access to clean, safe water experiences. Our elders were not allowed to use public pools during Jim Crow and this resulted in a lack of swimming ability. Being able to swim is an essential part of experiencing the ocean in a positive way. Today, learning to swim in marginalized communities of color can still be an expensive skill.
At Big Blue & You, our goal is to connect children to the wonders of the ocean by using arts, science and media as avenues to understanding the ocean. With this basic understanding, young people can allay their fears about the ocean, feel encouraged to learn more about it, and ultimately be inspired to protect it. Water is LIFE and everyone deserves the opportunity to enjoy the myriad benefits of exploring the ocean.
You’re already a huge success, but what do you see as the next frontier for your career?
Washington: Honestly, what I’m most looking forward to is traveling further and exploring different parts of the ocean. One of my dreams is to visit the Great Barrier Reef before it is further damaged by the effects of climate change. After everything we have experienced in 2020, I am even more motivated to see the world in all its beauty. There is still so much to protect and preserve on this magnificent planet. I’m also interested in continuing to host TV and network content capturing these international adventures, as well as becoming executive producer on several new content projects.
I also recently launched my lifestyle brand called Mocha Mermaid which is building a stronger community of BIPOC from around the world who love the ocean. In the past I’ve rarely seen illustrations or films depicting black or brown mermaids and that needs to change. With the upcoming live-action release of Disney’s Little Mermaid starring the gorgeous Halle Bailey as Ariel, I think we’re at the moment where we’re going to see a shift in representation, and I’m here for it !