Ocean activist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: ‘It’s all about collaboration’
My personal style signifier is medium-sized gold hoops – I’m a Brooklyn girl. I didn’t get my ears pierced until my 30th birthday, so it still feels exciting to wear earrings. My friend, architect Oana Stănescu, recently introduced me to a sustainable brand called Bagatiba, which uses recycled gold. bagatiba.com
As an activist, I... act. That’s the whole thing – I see problems and then figure out what I can do to help. It has taken many forms, from co-leading the March For Science to co-founding Urban Ocean Lab – a policy think-tank for the future of coastal cities given projected climate impacts – to fundraising for local candidates who support strong climate policies to co-founding the All We Can Save Project to support women climate leaders. The important part is the “co”s – it’s all about collaboration. allwecansave.earth/project. urbanoceanlab.org
The last thing I bought and loved was a folding bicycle. I’d wanted one for years so treated myself to a Brompton when I turned 40. It’s proven extremely handy given that I live on the fourth floor. I love that NYC has dramatically expanded bike lanes in the past few years, so it’s now safer and more delightful to cycle around the city.
In my fridge you’ll always find eggs laid by my mom’s free-range heritage chickens – she’s a regenerative farmer in upstate New York – radicchio and dandelion greens, lemons, homemade oat milk and lacto-fermented carrots with ginger.
The last item of clothing I added to my wardrobe is a grey sweatshirt that has the words “Biden For Our Freakin’ Planet” circumscribing a picture of the Earth.
The last music I downloaded was “Be Careful” by Cardi B, with great lines such as, “It’s not a threat, it’s a warning”, and Janelle Monáe’s “I Like That” – “I’m always left of centre and that’s right where I belong. I’m the random minor note you hear in major songs.” They are fierce and joyous, I’ve had them on repeat all year.
I’ve recently discovered naps. Glorious.
The one artist whose work I would collect if I could is Derrick Adams. His Floaters series of black folks hanging out on pool floats is incredible. They are colourful, striking paintings layered with meaning, given the history of white supremacy of segregation of beaches and pools.
My wellbeing gurus are my yoga teacher Maria Cutrona at The Shala – her classes are rigorous and she always seems to say exactly what I need to hear, like “Leave some space between your thoughts” – and my hairstylist, Latoya Moore, who has learned to laugh at my absurd attempts to have conference calls during haircuts and to ignore my misguided styling requests. theshala.com; @curlcutz_latoya
The grooming staple I’m never without is a spray called Cloud Of Protection from By Nieves, which you can use for rooms or on yourself. The tagline on the bottle is “defence against illness, bad vibes and stinkiness” – who wouldn’t want that? It’s super-calming with juniper, eucalyptus, cedar and rose. bynieves.com
The best books I’ve read in the past year are Liz Plank’s For The Love of Men, which discusses the sources and consequences of toxic masculinity and how we could move past it, and Jenna Arnold’s Raising Our Hands, which explores the social and electoral ramifications of the psyches of white American women. They both knocked my socks off, and taught me a lot about gender, whiteness, politics and culture in the US.
I have a collection of second-hand cashmere sweaters, mostly from Consignment Brooklyn and Reformation. I’m so glad it’s the cold season. I also have a collection of pottery made by my dad – vases, sculptures, lamps, mugs, planters. He had a full-blown pottery studio in the basement of the Brooklyn brownstone I grew up in, and when he retired from architecture, he devoted himself to it full-time. Watching him turn a spinning lump of clay into whatever he willed was pure magic. consignmentbrooklyn.com; thereformation.com
The objects I would never part with are two small, abstract paintings of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, by George Rodney. They’ve been on the wall of my bedroom since I was a little kid and I love the greens and blues, the swathe of periwinkle.
The visionary idea I wish I’d come up with is the Green New Deal Resolution. Introduced last year by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward J Markey, it sets out a deeply compelling vision for the shape climate policy should take in the US by deftly integrating science, justice and the economy. The secret is that it’s only 14 pages, double-spaced and large font and written in plain English, so I encourage everyone to take five minutes to read it. congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-resolution/109/text
My most unexpected influence is the artist Reggie Black, who has his own striking form of calligraphy. We met a few years ago and he gave me a sticker he designed that said “Are you using your voice?” – I think about that question a lot. Last year, I commissioned a piece from him that is simply the word “community”, because it’s less about what I can do than what we can do. So it’s quite meaningful seeing that word on my wall every day. Iamreggieblack.com
My style icon is Mara Hoffman. I’ve been really digging her collections lately, coveting her sweaters and sweater dresses for this season and wistfully imagining I was heading somewhere hot so I could wear one of her glorious swimsuits. They are somehow feminine and tomboyish simultaneously, and her commitment to sustainability is remarkable.
If I could make one lasting change in the world, it would be to help everyone find their own bespoke way to contribute to climate solutions. It can be hard as an individual to know how to create meaningful change, so I dream of a sort of matchmaking service to help people best deploy their talents. For now my anthology and podcast are playing a bit of that role. How to Save a Planet is available on Spotify
All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis (Penguin Random House) is edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K Wilkinson