Meet Danni Washington, a passionate advocate for our oceans. After many field opportunities in far-flung locales, she decided to team her love for marine biology with her skill for communication, and became inspired to create a program to teach kids about marine conservation. She then co-founded an organization to do just that. Here, Danni talks about how she’s creating a new job path in the marine biology field, how she overcame the bias against women of color in the science world, and why she believes that today’s youth will be the agents of much change in the future.
Twitter/Instagram handle: @danniwashington
Location: Bicoastal: Los Angeles, CA + Miami, FL
School: University of Miami, Bachelor of Science in Marine Science & Biology
Secretly Obsessed With: Flash tattoos and Hello Kitty
On My Nightstand: A stack of different books (including my Bible and “A Return to Love” by Marianne Williamson), Nag Champa incense plus a framed print of "Mother of the Sea" by Ioyan Mani (favorite painting ever!)
Last Thing You Read: the New York Times bestseller “Blue Mind,” written by my dear friend, mentor and marine biologist, Dr. Wallace J. Nichols
How did you get started?
Thanks to supportive parents and growing up in a coastal city like Miami, I had the privilege of enjoying the ocean starting at a very young age. My curiosity about the Big Blue, the living things that inhabit it and understanding how people are connected to the sea has fascinated me since I first stepped foot into the water. In high school, I attended a marine science magnet program at South Broward High which truly set the course toward pursuing my passion for the ocean. While at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science, I had the opportunity to gain lots of field experience tagging sharks, monitoring local marine mammal populations and participating in field courses in places like the Bahamas, Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands. Thanks to the support of many important mentors, I was exposed to a wide variety of career options in marine science.
By the time college graduation rolled around, I realized that I had a natural gift of communication. I loved translating complex marine science concepts into terms that were fun and understandable for kids and adults alike to learn. I decided to pursue a career in marine science outreach and education. Serendipitously, a couple months after graduation, I won the ROXY Follow Your Heart Contest that awarded me $10,000 to pursue my dream of educating kids about the ocean. With this funding, my mom and I co-founded the Big Blue & You, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization which inspires and educates youth about marine conservation through arts and media. Since then, I've also served as a video host and on-screen personality for several science education media projects, including Untamed Science, Ocean GEMS, and Teens 4 Oceans. I even worked on a special project with the La Selva Biological Field Station, discussing humanity's impact on Planet Earth with Jaden Smith during the promotion of his feature film, “After Earth.”
What does your daily routine look like?
Routine? What routine? Just kidding...sort of. My schedule changes every week, which is actually how I like it. The only aspects that I work hard to keep consistent are the following: time to exercise (yoga, hiking and cruising on my bike are usually my top choices), morning meditation and getting in the ocean at least once a week. I've always enjoyed making my own schedule because it helps me stay on my toes. I LOVE road trips and traveling whenever I'm able for work and/or play.
My family jokes around with me by asking, "Where in the world is Danni now?" But I have to admit that sometimes it gets exhausting. When I burn out, I jump in some type of water (beach, pool or bathtub) then lay in bed to watch a few movies on Netflix. I've come to terms with the fact that I'm inherently a nomad and destined to explore the world for as long as possible.
What key elements played into your success?
Perseverance, discernment to recognize meaningful opportunities and building solid, genuine relationships with people I encounter on my journey are the elements that have kept my momentum going. Whether or not someone works in my field, the simple beauty of human connection gives me joy, and usually leads to incredible opportunities. This basic idea continues to ring true in my life, time and time again. On the deepest level, I truly believe that love is the key to everything. As long as you keep pouring love into everything you do on this planet, success is inevitable.
What’s the best piece of advice you received?
“Wisdom is supreme — so get wisdom. And whatever else you get, get understanding.” - Proverbs
What struggles did you face getting to this point?
When I was six years old, I declared to my parents that I wanted to be a marine biologist. As I grew older, I realized that I didn't see many women of color in the marine science or in the science field in general. On different occasions, I was told that I would never make money working in marine biology and that "black people" just don't go into careers like that. It forced me to embrace my dream on a deeper level because I wanted to become a role model for young girls who were in similar shoes. I'm grateful for those naysayers because they've been a big part of my motivation.
At the same time, most people will say to me, "I love what you do but what exactly do you do?" This always makes me laugh because it confirms that I'm trailblazing a non-traditional career in this field. And to some, I could be considered a perpetual generalist. I love learning about our world, the way it works and sharing it with those around me through any medium. But when you're a generalist, you tend to leap from one thing to another and leaving some things unfinished, which is frustrating.
I'm constantly working to discern when I should make time to finish certain projects before I start moving onto the next. The struggle is REAL, but not insurmountable. By giving myself time to prioritize and room to be creative, I feel grounded in my chosen path. And in case you're wondering about the answer to that question I mentioned earlier, today I consider myself a science communicator, an avid ocean advocate and video host because I share knowledge about the ocean and other scientific concepts via digital media and have a degree in marine biology.
Who was the biggest influence in your professional life?
It has definitely been my mom, Michelle Swaby-Smith. When I was 12 years old, she quit her corporate job as a single mom and ventured into starting her own production and event planning business. She hasn't stopped since. My mom is a strong, brilliant businesswoman who has managed to build her career from the ground up, all while maintaining grace, kindness and integrity in everything she does.
We co-founded the Big Blue & You together as a passion project, and continue to partner in various ways. Our relationship is constantly evolving and expanding. She is my biggest fan, and I feel comforted by the fact that we always have each other's back, no matter what. Our latest business venture, Mocha Mermaid, is an ocean-minded lifestyle brand for young women who dare to live a true mermaid life. In my eyes, a mermaid is a girl who is indelibly connected to the sea, beautiful, confident, enchanting and intelligent. It’s a fact that many kids living in urban communities lack access to the ocean and large bodies of clean water (i.e. public pools). Most don't even know how to swim. Mocha Mermaid is a creative invitation for our young audience to become curious about the place that covers 3/4 of our planet and have blast while doing it!
What accomplishment are you most proud of? When do you feel most successful?
I'm most proud of the fact that I've been able to travel to some of the most exotic places around the world, including Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Galapagos Islands, Peru, Australia, Ecuador, Jamaica and hopefully many more to come. I feel so free when I'm in a new place, meeting new people and exploring a culture different than what I know. Plus, being a certified scuba diver is a huge asset for exploring the coastlines of some of those new places.
I'm also proud to have been a TEDx Speaker in Santa Monica. I feel most successful when I'm able to step onto a stage (literal or theoretical) and speak my truth to those who are willing to listen. Whether I'm speaking in front of thousands or just a few, I believe in the power of being your most authentic self wherever life takes you.
What initially drew you to marine biology? What's your favorite thing about it?
My favorite thing about marine biology you never know what you're going to see when you dive under the surface. The sea constantly inspires a sense of mystery and wonder within me. Most people don't realize that the ocean provides over 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe, maintains a stable climate and is home to the greatest biodiversity on the planet, meaning most of our planet's living species are under the waves.
I'll never forget an encounter I had with a giant manta ray off the coast of Ecuador while traveling on an Ocean GEMS expedition. With the largest brain of any fish species, manta rays are considered to be one of the most intelligent animals in the ocean. It was beyond magical as I swam parallel to an animal with an 18-foot wing span. It was simply breathtaking, and I'm forever grateful for the experience. Whenever I think about that manta, I'm even more motivated to keep moving forward as a voice for the sea.
You've done lots of work on media-related educational programs for students, and currently you work on joining youth with marine science mentors. Why did you decide to target the student-age demographic?
I believe all children begin life in this world with an innocent, yet valid understanding of justice. When they see injustice, especially in the environment, most want to take action, no matter how old they are. That same passionate vigor I felt as a kid inspires me to use whatever medium I can to empower today's young people to make a difference. As an individual who has been profoundly impacted by mentors, there is no greater honor than to pay it forward and be a mentor. As this new generation grows up in the digital age, it just makes sense to use the platforms that they can relate to.
We need all hands on deck for the ocean. It is our life source on this planet. Humans cannot survive here without the Big Blue. As one of my biggest heroes, Dr. Sylvia Earle, says, "No water. No life. No Blue. No Green." It is our responsibility to take care of our only home, and I believe we really can turn things around. We simply need a shift in collective consciousness, and I know that youth will be the ones to stimulate that change.
What advice would you give to girls looking to enter your industry/space?
While you're in high school, study hard and get amazing grades so you can attend your top choice university and get lots of scholarship funding. Once you get to undergrad, explore your options and participate in internships when you're not studying or resting. Figure out what type of experience best fits your personality. Are you someone who enjoys doing lab research and crunching data? Or are you passionate about doing field research or community outreach?
Find at least three mentors who are doing the job you could see yourself doing. Ask questions and learn as much as you can from each mentor. Once you've had a variety of experiences, honestly ask yourself what you loved the most. You'll have your choice of marine science careers within academia, non-governmental agencies, education, government agencies, outreach, policy and science communications. The possibilities are endless. You just have to go out and get it!