Annie Crawley didn’t grow up near an ocean. The Chicago native had Lake Michigan just a few miles from her home in the city’s working-class Northwest side, but the first time she put on a scuba suit, in her early 20s, something shifted inside her.
Today the ocean is Crawley’s life. Given what she calls her humble background, “I would have never dreamed I would have done this,” she says.
Crawley has spent much of 2016 visiting classrooms throughout the Seattle area. Introducing herself to schoolchildren as “Ocean Annie,” she brings awareness to the environmental plight that’s choking the life out of our oceans.
“What we’re doing is we’re raising awareness of ocean pollution and the call to action is to refuse single-use plastics,” she says.
She cites, for example, how Americans go through 500 million disposable straws every day.
“Students are encouraged to rethink their relationship with plastic, refuse single use plastic and get their friends involved by sharing what they learned,” she says.
I found out about Crawley’s program, and her “Our Ocean and You” campaign, when my first-grade son came home from school one day with a flyer about Beach Camp at Sunset Bay, where she serves as director. Since she and I know each other as graduate school colleagues, I reached out to find out more about how her passions feed into one another—not in her life, but as a content strategy.
“I wear many hats and often have to choose what I limit myself to sharing,” she wrote in an email. “I am an artist, underwater photographer, filmmaker, author, songwriter, owner of a scuba camp, public speaker, and director of Beach Camp at Sunset Bay.”
As a professional photographer, Crawley has produced an award-winning book, Plastic Ahoy! Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, about the state of the world’s oceans. As an activist, she has produced a strategy that educates kids in ways that a standard textbook cannot. That strategy, she says, is robust enough to change on the fly.
“Within the first couple minutes of my presentation I can judge the audience as to how much of it is an interactive presentation or how much of it will be me talking,” she says. “No two schools are ever alike.”
No matter the school, however, much of her hour-long narrative includes screen time.
“Video helps engage,” she says. “I cannot do what I do without showing video for a school-age audience.”
Of course, Crawley involves storytelling as well. Sometimes she shows pictures of herself as a 7-year-old girl sharing a little round plastic pools with a half-dozen other kids as a way to explain her own journey to the sea. Kids, she says, can relate to her activism when she shows how she got there.
“By the time that they get to this picture of me in the swimming pool…I ask them to think about their swimming pool and where they are as a swimmer,” she says. “Then I show them a picture of the coral reefs and sharks, and that this is my swimming pool.”
From there, Crawley gives context about the oceans—that it makes up 98 percent of the world’s water supply, about the importance of ocean life, in particular the microscopic phytoplankton that are just as important to producing oxygen as trees.
“If there’s one takeaway that I stress, that I hope all the kids remember, is that every breath we take connects us to the ocean,” she says.
But Crawley’s story doesn’t stop with the ocean; she always intertwines a layer of dreams and unbound thinking.
“I believe your imagination is that of the visionary,” she says, “that everything that was ever created was once imagined.”
While Crawley originally set about promoting her campaign through social media, she quickly realized that because the minimum age to use most channels is 13, she needed to rethink that tactic.
“When working with youth, you need to create tools they can use that is both offline and online,” she says. “The importance of building a network through students is what is necessary.”
Next she seeks to amplify her message: “When other people start telling the story and becoming a part of the movement, you will gain momentum and become unstoppable,” she says.
Crawley only gets an hour with these kids, so every minute of talk, pictures, and video counts. Her pitch for the camp—entirely secondary to ocean awareness, she says—comes near the end with a quick couple of minutes or a 30-second video.
And from there, she says, “I always end it with a journey to the garbage patch,” the miles-long floating dump in the Pacific gyre. “I share with people the plastic that’s going into the ocean,” and that’s where she offers her call to action: “Without a healthy ocean, life on our planet cannot exist. Without a healthy ocean, we are not healthy. People are polluting our ocean. Plastic is a people problem and only people can be the solution.”
Joel Magalnick is the founder of The Refined Story, a content marketing and strategy firm and holds a Master of Communications in Digital Media degree from the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership program.