Kim and Jack Johnson Inspire and Divulge as They Receive 2015’s Distinguished Alumni Award


Sam Goldman
Opinions Editor

“I probably shouldn’t tell this story, but that line in ‘Bubble Toes’—‘I was eating lunch at the DLG’—it was actually Ortega,” said alumni Jack Johnson, during a night of conversation, music, and film at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

More than any other, this was probably the revelation that surprised the eager crowd in Corwin Pavilion the most. Though Kim and Jack Johnson’s first milestone together may have been at the humble tables of that dining common over 20 years ago, their latest touchstone was this past Friday, April 24, when they received the 2015 Distinguished Alumni Award as part of the weekend’s All-Gaucho Reunion. 

Despite the couple’s fame revolving primarily around Jack’s music, it’s the tireless and continuous environmental and educational work they do that resulted in Friday’s Better Together: An Evening of Conversation, Film & Music. From drastically reducing the environmental impact of their musical tours and concerts to teaching kids in Hawaii the fundamentals of local, sustainable food systems, the Johnsons’ charitable and non-profit work has been as influential as Jack’s discography.

The latest component of their considerable body of social and environmental change is the Edible Campus Project right here at UCSB. This project plans to convert underutilized places on campus into sources of fresh food meant to tackle local food insecurity. With support and leadership from the Associated Students Department of Public Worms, the AS Food Bank, UCSB Sustainability, and the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, the project consists of an on-campus citrus tree grove—the first seeds of which, as announced by the Johnsons’ chancellor from the ‘90s, Henry Yang, were planted last Friday—and a student-run farm meant to provide fresh, sustainable produce and learning opportunities regarding food production. 

After the Johnsons received their award, the crowd of current students and alumni were treated to a short film produced by a friend of Kim and Jack. The film highlighted the social and environmental work that underpinned the couple’s recent From Here to Now to You tour—much of which was facilitated by their All At Once social action network. The buses that took them everywhere, from Colorado to Oregon to Los Angeles, converted cooking oil into biodiesel for fuel. A concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl replaced innumerable plastic cups with reusable steel bottles, and each stop between 2008 and 2013 was made into a fundraiser for the non-profits that helped turn the concerts into environmentally responsible and educational events. On top of all of that, Kim and Jack have founded the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, which seeks to affect change in local communities through art, music, and environmental education, and the Kokua Hawaii Foundation, which supports environmental education in Jack’s home state. 

According to the couple, it’s these opportunities to produce positive change in communities that inspire them to continue touring longer than they otherwise would. “One of the reasons we decided to keep touring,” Jack said, “was this network of non-profit groups that we’ve gotten to help be a part of building and meeting all these groups when we travel. Their stories are all so motivating and inspirational.”

When bandmate and college friend Zach Gill asked the couple during a Q&A following the film how they manage to juggle the commitments of stardom with all their charitable work and family life, the Johnsons revealed one simple ingredient that they had been weaving throughout all the evening’s light-hearted discussions: “Just keeping the family around the whole time.”

Kim’s father, when he’s around, is the tour’s photographer, and her cousin is the crew’s web designer and developer. A room backstage at concerts is always dedicated to their (and their family and friends’) children for play and schoolwork. Even those who aren’t blood relatives but help out when the Johnsons are traveling the country become a sort of family, they said.

Family and relationships—and their moments, trivialities, and idiosyncrasies—don’t just help bolster their jam-packed lifestyle, but also provide considerable inspiration for Jack’s music, revealed by the impromptu anecdotes that peppered the evening’s talk. “Angel” (Kim’s admitted favorite love song by her husband) was written when he forgot to get her a Christmas present one year, while the popular “Banana Pancakes” was mostly written “in five minutes” as Jack tried to get his wife’s attention when trying to run a new song by her. College life was influential as well: “Inaudible Melodies” is an amalgamation of notes from a film studies class (and originally meant to convince a professor to grant him an extension on a paper). 

After the Q&A, amid a flood of requests, Jack and Gill pulled out a guitar and accordion and jammed, playing, among others, the blue “Flake,” the cheerful “Shot Reverse Shot,” the reflective “Do You Remember,” and even Animal Liberation Orchestra’s charming “Girl, I Wanna Lay You Down,” before finishing the evening fittingly with “Better Together.” 

As Jack would reiterate to the crowd, however, it’s he and Kim’s being a couple that got them there to Corwin Pavilion that evening—a blend of his love and respect for the environment with her background and passion for education kicked off the most well-known courtships to have unfolded at UCSB. If there’s anything Kim and Jack Johnson have shown us over the years, it’s that social change happens better when we’re together.