Jack Johnson on Staying Local, Environmentalism and Superstardom

Musician Jack Johnson has achieved international superstardom with the help of his wife, Kim, earning enough to donate more than $30 million to causes they support. Find out how the power couple strike a balance.


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Jack has been writing songs for Kim since they met in the cafeteria at the University of California, Santa Barbara, during the first week of their freshman year, in 1993. He has often said that every love song he has written is for her, while all the breakup songs are for friends, since he’s never been through a breakup himself.

 

Jack and Kim married in 2000, while Kim was immersed in graduate school and Jack was about to embark on tour as the opening act for Ben Harper, his first really big musical break. Johnson’s debut album, Brushfire Fairytales, didn’t come out until the following year, but, when it did, it quickly went platinum. Jack’s career was on fire, and in 2002 he whisked Kim from the Santa Barbara high school where she was teaching math to help with the business side of touring. Kim’s role in Jack’s music changed from simple muse to muse-slash-manager.

 

She still plays that role today, sharing her management duties with a close friend of Jack’s from college. “I’m her boss, but then she’s my boss,” Jack says. “The tour wouldn’t happen without me going on tour. So she’s my manager. She’s working for me. But if she needs somebody to replace the ink cartridge, then that’s me. If she needs somebody to run to pick up a supply, I go. So I’m kind of her assistant, even though she’s my manager.”

 

Also in 2002, the Johnsons moved from a cheap apartment in a Santa Barbara duplex to a house they bought on about an acre of land on the North Shore, not far from the house where Jack grew up. Jack immediately set about transforming the two-car garage into a recording studio, and the Johnsons began talking about how to put their unexpected success in the music industry to good use.

 

Helping out in Hawai‘i’s schools seemed natural. Jack loved working with kids as a summer camp counselor and surf instructor during college. Kim, who earned a master’s degree in education, comes from a family of educators. Teaching is in her blood, and she can hold forth on educational theory as naturally as she can hold the attention of a class of fidgety fifth graders. “When you have that teaching bug, and you’re wanting to work with kids, you don’t get that when you’re on tour,” she says. “I needed something to fill my soul.” And so the Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation was born.

 

***

 

Kim with an ‘ĀINA in Schools garden class.

 

As a companion to the recycling program, Kōkua launched Plastic Free Hawai‘i, which gives away reusable water bottles and shopping bags and encourages people to avoid single-use plastics, such as grocery bags and Styrofoam food containers. Kōkua also awards grants to teachers for environmental projects and field trips, organizes family cooking classes and holds workshops, among other things. But the foundation’s flagship initiative is the ‘ĀINA in Schools Program, a complete elementary school curriculum designed to cultivate children’s appreciation for the environment, healthy eating and locally grown food.

 

Kim and students from the ‘ĀINA in Schools garden class.

The ‘ĀINA curriculum, which 15 schools have adopted, ranges from a kindergarten introduction to the life cycles of flowers and butterflies to a sixth-grade lesson on decoding food labels. It includes cooking demonstrations, farm visits and lots of time spent in the school garden. For the fourth grade, there’s an end-of-year harvest party where the students eat a meal prepared with the food they grew.

 

“The main goal is to connect kids to where their food comes from,” says Kim. “Just knowing that connection to the earth is important. Knowing where their food comes from is important.”

 

Every lesson is designed to meet the DOE’s Common Core State Standards, and because they are taught by trained volunteer docents, they actually lighten the workload for teachers. Both Jack and Kim work as docents in their own children’s school. “Some days I wake up and I have an idea of what I might want to do that day, but then Kim will remind me, ‘Oh, we’re doing garden lessons today,’” Jack says. “I might at first think, ‘Oh shoot.’ But every day after I do these kinds of things, it always reminds me that this has come out of the music, and it makes it all feel a little more like a career worth pursuing. It reminds me, Oh, yeah, a lot of good can come out of music.”

 

 

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