By About Her Culture Team
Danni Washington is like a fabulously beautiful and equally smart, Caribbean American version of Steve Irwin. With over a decade in science communication, ocean advocacy and TV, Danni has dedicated her life to educating all who will listen about her “blue backyard” – the ocean.
For her, life has always been about the ocean. She knew she wanted to be a marine biologist ever since she was six years old. Now she’s the inspiration she never had growing up – she’s officially been titled the first African-American woman to host an American science television show.
An award-winning thought leader, Danni’s impressive TV production portfolio includes working on shows on CBS, Fox, Amazon Prime, Discovery Channel and Facebook Watch.
She’s also heavily invested in giving back. Danni works with several community-based organizations and also runs her own nonprofit, Big Blue & You, which educates youth about marine conservation through arts and media.
We managed to catch up with this super-busy woman with a mission to talk about her pioneering career path. Here’s what she shared with us…
How has your Jamaican roots influenced your ability to be a trailblazer and a “first” in many ways in your field?
Danni: My Jamaican heritage has influenced my journey in various ways. The revolutionary energy that defines the Jamaican spirit is something that resonates deeply. Ever since I was a child, I felt that my quiet rebelliousness was a result of the Caribbean culture I was surrounded by. When I say ‘quiet rebelliousness’ I’m talking about the fiery internal fortitude to go against the status quo and elevate something different, something better. As a Black woman living in the United States, there are many obstacles that are designed to prevent us from achieving our highest potential. My Jamaican identity and the elders/ancestors who came before me continue to fuel my courage. regardless of those societal barriers. From a young age, my love for the ocean and nature in general was undeniable. All I could think about was exploring the watery world that covers 3/4 of our planet. Beyond exploration, I decided to study marine biology at the University of Miami to strengthen my understanding of life in the ocean and forge a new career path in science communications. My island roots definitely helped fortify my love for the sea. Every time I visit Jamaica, I’m reminded of all the reasons I adore the ocean.
You’ve built a career that seamlessly merges what most people think of as opposing fields – you’re a creative and a scientist. How did this unique career unfold for you?
Danni: Science and creativity are one in the same, in my opinion. In general, curiosity, asking questions and pursuing intelligent solutions to those questions, heavily drive both pursuits. As an extremely curious human, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of breaking barriers. Although I’m currently not a practicing research scientist, I consider myself a full time citizen scientist, because I have the privilege of working directly with scientists from various STEM disciplines, and I support their research through my job as a TV Host and science communicator. I’m a lifelong student and continue to find creative ways to encourage more people to be science-minded and use the scientific method as an easy framework to assist with making more informed decisions on a daily basis.
You’re stunning, and definitely not the stereotypical image of a scientist and environmental activist. In a world that steers young women to focus so much on the superficial, what single message would you share with them, if you could?
Danni: First, thank you for the compliment. I truly appreciate it. I’ve always felt driven to challenge the generic stereotype of what a scientist looks like. When I graduated from University of Miami in 2008, I wanted to prove that ANYONE could be a scientist if they pursued their chosen field with their whole heart and mind. No matter your ethnicity, gender identity, age or income, everyone should be given the opportunity to become a scientist.
When I was about 17 years old, I dabbled in fashion modeling, but quickly realized that industry was not my cup of tea, and at that age, it can rapidly crush someone’s self esteem. But, God definitely has a sense of humor, because throughout my career, I’ve been able to apply some of those modeling techniques that I learned to the work I do today as a science communicator. I like to call it ‘meaningful modeling’ which I would personally define as using your external attributes to capture positive attention, and then point that attention to a meaningful cause or message that has a deeper purpose.
I would encourage young women to center themselves through exercise (move your body, sweat and release pent up energy) and do some soul searching/journaling to excavate the ideas that make them feel the most inspired. Mental clarity and focus are some of the best benefits of exercise. Whenever I’m working out, my greatest ideas come to life and I’m able to drown out the negative noise that society consistently bombards us with. Set your own standards and never be afraid of doing something different.
It’s heartbreaking that many children and people of color (even those that live in places like Miami & the Caribbean) aren’t fully exposed to, or indulge in, the ocean. How are you using your platform to address this?
Danni: This pinpoints the heart of what motivates me to continue raising awareness about the ocean. My mom, Michelle, and I co-founded our own nonprofit called Big Blue & You back in 2008 to address this very thing. There’s a discrepancy amongst the POC community around the world, mostly due to lack of access to clean, safe water experiences. Our elders were not allowed to enjoy public swimming pools during Jim Crow and that led to a lack of swimming ability. Being able to swim is an essential part of experiencing the ocean in a positive way. Today, swimming can still be an expensive skill to learn in marginalized communities of color.
Our goal at Big Blue & You is to connect children to the wonders of the ocean using art, science and media as pathways toward understanding the ocean. Through this basic understanding, young people can dissipate 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 countless benefits of exploring the ocean.
You are already a major success, but what do you see as the next frontier for your career?
Danni: I’m honestly the most excited about continuing to travel and explore different parts of the ocean. One of my dreams is to visit the Great Barrier Reef before it is further damaged by the impacts of climate change. After everything we experienced in 2020, I’m even more motivated to see the world and all of its beauty. There is so much left to protect and preserve on this magnificent planet. I’m also interested in continuing to host TV and network content capturing these international adventures and also becoming an executive producer on several new content projects.
I also recently launched my lifestyle brand called Mocha Mermaid, which is building a stronger community of ocean-loving BIPOC from around the world. In the past, I rarely saw illustrations or movies depicting Black or Brown mermaids, and that needs to change. With the upcoming live-action release of Disney’s The Little Mermaid with gorgeous Halle Bailey casted as Ariel, I think we are at the moment where we will see a shift in representation, and I’m here for it!