Pathways to Purpose: Kenyetta Johnson, Bernheim Ambassador

By Kristin Faurest

Tell me what nature was to you as a child — where do you first recall being excited about nature, and what kind of place was it?
My first memory with nature is being outside in Chicago where there are a gazillion parks. When we were younger, we had a lot of opportunities at school to go outside, look at leaves, make mud pies. At neighborhood parks there were always water sprinklers next to the park, so we’d take the water to the mud and use the leaves and make our own cooking show. We used to go to the park for cookouts and family reunions – the culture there was that it doesn’t matter if it’s snowing, you still go have cookouts! And you’re really excited and happy about it when it snows. When we moved from Chicago to Georgia, we started living in houses instead of apartment buildings, and we’d always have a house with huge backyards or a creek or pond nearby. We had the luxury of just going outside and being outside.


That shouldn’t be a luxury but for a lot of kids it sure is. How did your parents shape your attitudes towards nature?
My dad always said, “just go outside.” But my mom was very intentional about it. She always wanted to find spaces for us to live that were near nature. She had studied botany and other topics and we’d read her books and learn about alternative – natural – medicine. It was fun to learn things like, “hey, we can take this mint leaf and make tea.” Something reflective she said was, “Nature is limitless, physically, mentally and spiritually.” That was a huge factor in why she told us to get outside: to see what was interesting outdoors and to develop in that way.

 My family moved a lot when we were small. We lived in Chicago, St. Paul and Minneapolis when I was small, then we came back to a different part of Chicago, then we moved around Georgia a lot, then to Louisville. My dad was a chef. My mom said she wanted us to explore different landscapes so as adults we would find what the environment is that makes us most comfortable. We traveled a lot back to cities where we used to live.


Tell me about some of the most exciting places you’ve traveled – and in what specific ways they changed you?
My first big solo trip was to Hawaii, and it really helped my self-confidence in being able to see something I wanted and going for it without worrying what other folks would say. It was a lot of self-realization; just experiencing a new environment always makes me happy and excited.

When I went to Iceland, it was like being in a snow globe right off the ocean! I was learning more about how to interact with others professionally because I went on an internship. I contributed to a book that was published – Cultural Insights of Reykjavik. I didn’t feel like I was qualified to do that, but I realized that yes, you can be a young person and make great contributions to things. It also solidified my desire to work with nature and geography.

When I went to Trinidad and Tobago for field research for a pan-African studies independent research project, it was more cultural and self-reflection. I had a huge conflict with the people I was traveling with and that impacted the experience. I learned a lot about pan-African culture in general and how it contributes to the Americas in the form of architecture, nature, food – all of those things. It helped with my identity.

Then I spent a summer in Nepal and I learned a lot about being American. Every time you travel, you learn how you’re American. In Nepal I realized a lot of small things that I take for granted – it made me more humble and grateful. With the field project that we had there I was literally all alone and had to figure everything out, so it strengthened my critical thinking and research skills for my thesis. Going into the mountains and being alone with my thoughts is great.

When I went to Belize for the international service learning program with the communications department at U of L, I realized, “oh, this is new territory, I have to teach people now.” We had to create a lesson plan from scratch and create a topic.


What kind of things make you curious?
Food. Travel. Learning how other people think and what makes people feel that they can be the best they can, and how I can help them do that. I love languages and art. Maps – I do love maps.


Youve been chosen as the first Bernheim Ambassador. Whats your message for youth of color about the green professions? Why should they be excited about them and consider them a possible career path?
My message to them is that if they want to work in a green or environmental field, they should focus not on what they look like or the obstacles or barriers, but instead what they can contribute to that space and work environment, and how can they grow and help those who are coming after them. They need to just be mindful that if they’re the only one doing that  — well, there always needs to be someone to start the trend – they shouldn’t be afraid if that happens to be them!

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