A profile of Emily Johnston, by Sheryl Feldman
“If it were just a connection to nature that moved me,” poet and activist Emily Johnston says, “I might be retreating to nature. It’s the moral stance. The way in which a small group of people are responsible for the devastation of so many lives.”
Emily seems braced for a long haul of resistance as she sits over coffee at a Tully’s on Capitol Hill. She’s a longtime figure in 350 Seattle, not only as communications coordinator but a steadfast organizer, strategist and on-the-street activist.
Her highly visible role does not come naturally to her. More comfortable would be the iconoclastic life she imagined for herself when she dropped out of Smith College to “know what else was possible.” Waitressing and bartending for several years, as it turned out–but also a spell as an activist with NOW before leaving to write a novel. She also worked as an editor and web developer, fixed up a few houses, built a tiny house, and in 2015, published Her Animals, a book of poetry. In spite of her activism, her native habitat appears to be her garden, the arboretum, her thoughts, her words, and the companionship of Mosey, her dog.
“I’d read The End of Nature,” Bill McKibben’s classic on the environmental crisis and “had been thinking about climate change for a long time. “ When he put out the call to go to the White House and get arrested in protest against the Keystone XL pipeline, she called up her activist self for the first time in decades, and decided that though she had little faith in its efficacy, “there was nothing else I could do the next week that had a better chance of making a difference.“ Afterward, she came back to Seattle, and began organizing here—helping to start 350 Seattle about a year and a half later. Still she struggled with a sense of despair.
“The action that heartened me was Shell No,” the protest against an Arctic drilling rig stationed in Puget Sound. “So many people coming together, in such a brilliant and local way—in Elliott Bay and on the Willamette River, we killed one of the most disastrous projects on the planet.” The September after the protests, the Guardian reported that a Shell board member admitted the company had given up its Arctic program partly because of the risk to its reputation. In other words, activism had worked.
As communications coordinator for 350 Seattle, Emily is part of the process of building the case for climate change action. “I want us to be a trustworthy voice” in what can be a “battle against hopelessness and despair.” The voice of 350 needs to be clear and strong; it needs to connect with people; it needs to show that all these efforts really can make a difference; and it needs to do all of these things while being honest about the situation, and the stakes.
Seattle’s in an excellent position to make a difference, she says. “It can be a model for the rest of the country.” Its population is highly resourced, highly educated, and politically progressive. “We’ve got a governor who wants his legacy to be action on climate. If we can’t do this, who can?”