We Built This: Kent Johnson Wants Black Travelers To Know The World Is Their Oyster

"A lot of times, you don’t know something is available to you until you see somebody who looks like you doing it."

Kent Johnson knew the power of seeing the world when he took his first international trip at age 7. Now, he’s disrupting the travel industry to create space for black people.

The Baltimore native co-founded Black & Abroad, a collective that makes travel more accessible for and catered to black people by offering exposure, experiences and resources. Johnson and Eric Martin launched the website in 2015 when they recognized the lack of black representation in travel marketing and of opportunities within the industry. They created a space where black people feel empowered to travel anywhere in the world while redefining the face of travel. 

But Johnson doesn’t solely focus his mission abroad. He makes room for the diaspora in the states as well with his podcast “Ungentrified.” With an increasing number of black neighborhoods becoming less black and long-term residents being forced out of their communities, Johnson explores current cultural and political events with guests to ensure our voices are heard.

For “We Built This,” Johnson spoke to HuffPost about the power of black people disrupting the travel industry, the roadblocks that prevent many from access and drawing inspiration from Matthew Henson and Victor Hugo Green.

What have you built?

I’ve built a couple of things. I’m the co-founder of a platform that’s dedicated to celebrating, exposing, inspiring black millennials to see the world. I’ve also built a podcast around giving voices to those who may not have them in my community and in doing those two things, I’ve built a pretty happy life for myself.

What was the catalyst for you in building both of these platforms?

Well, for Black & Abroad, the travel company, Google was the thing that pushed me. I would search for destinations and things to do, and I wouldn’t see people that looked like me and it frustrated me to no end. So, I came into it wanting to really change Google results. I wanted to see all kinds of people experiencing the world. I didn’t want it to look just one way, so that was really what pushed me to create Black & Abroad.

For “Ungentrified,” my podcast, I knew a whole bunch of dope people, and I wanted everybody else to know these people too. I wanted to document these really interesting stories and be a space for these stories where they were unfiltered and unburdened by outside influence. So that was why I named it “Ungentrified,” I was unburdened by outside influence, so yeah those were really the two things that drove me to create those platforms.

These platforms you’ve built are meant and seen as a place where black people can hold space in realms in which we haven’t been able to before. First, with “Ungentrified,” can you tell me about that name? What does “Ungentrified” mean?

Once I decided that the podcast was gonna be the way that I made that moment happen for my community, I was trying to think of a word that kinda embodied freedom of thought for black people and gentrification is always a buzzword for us whether it’s gentrification of the mind or of the physical property. These are things that we talk about all the time in some way, shape or form, so I wanted people to know immediately and in one word that this was a space where none of that was gonna happen.

And I felt like that word embodied it perfectly and nobody had the dot com yet, so that was always a reason for picking it, but I thought it was a perfect embodiment of what I was trying to achieve and it would let people know immediately before even clicking play on that first episode that they knew what they were getting into.

Shifting gears to Black & Abroad, what were some of the places that you did travel when you were young, if you did?

Yeah, I did travel a lot as a kid. It was one thing that was very key in my family. It was very set into tradition for us early on that you don’t limit yourself to your four corners of your block. So, the first trip I took as a kid, international trip was to Germany to live with my dad for a year. My mom and my dad weren’t together and my dad was in the Air Force.

So, way back in the day, I actually drove up to New York from Baltimore and flew from here to Germany and got a year of a whole new experience, and I think that was what really kinda kicked off the addiction, I guess you could say. From that moment, I was always gone and then I’ve been lucky enough to live in different states in the country, so I lived in California where Mexico was down the street and had that.

Something that I could see a whole new country or a whole other country from my window when I lived in San Diego, so knowing ... I think the proximity of another country made the rest of the world seem like it was just as close. And the fears around traveling just didn’t set in on me. I’ve never had an issue around that and I think it’s those moments that put me in the position to create something like Black & Abroad, because I think someone in that position needed to be fearless around the idea of black people seeing the world.

A lot of black people don’t get a chance, especially at a young age to see the world or to view the world as their oyster. Did you recognize that when you were younger or did it take some time?

I did recognize that access to travel wasn’t something that was prevalent in my community. Whether it was in conversation with friends, because you realize as you travel more, your conversations change, your ideas change, your perception of how things work changes, so yeah the frustrating part about that is a lot of it deals with access.

So, in high school, if your school was in an area that wasn’t getting resources, it was very likely that study abroad programs weren’t being presented to you there, so you didn’t get the normalcy of travel that other communities may have and that plays into it a lot. I tell a lot of younger people that I meet, like college students, things like that, like the thing I wish I had done in undergrad was to do a study abroad program. That’s the one regret I had.

I blew through undergrad, was working multiple jobs to pay tuition and I wish that I had taken a semester for myself and had that opportunity. So, I always press that on them, because it may not have been pressed on them before. I have been in many situations where an opportunity wasn’t given to me, because of an assumption. And I know that that assumption was based off my skin tone or my address and it shouldn’t be like that.

And those are the little blocks that end up becoming a wall for people and that’s really another kinda tone to what we do with Black & Abroad is to kinda knock those things down, create a normalcy around the fact that yeah, black people are all over the world and having these unique and important moments.

What is the importance of black people seeing that and having the access to the privilege of travel?

So, the importance of black people being able to see that, I mean it’s simple. A lot of times, you don’t know something is available to you until you see somebody who looks like you doing it. When I, many moons ago, one of my other jobs, I taught. I taught middle school English, and I would be very adamant about bringing in books that featured African-American characters because that was the makeup of my classroom.

Because I wanted them to have stories that could resonate with them on all levels. I’m reading about someone who looks like me. They’re having an experience that I could see myself having now, just off of that little thing. And that’s key to, I think, why we’ve had so much success with Black & Abroad is because we didn’t limit it to one black experience. My co-founder, Eric Martin, we’re two guys, so we have a very limited understanding and experience of the black experience.

There are hundreds of thousands of millions of other experiences that make up the black experience and that’s one thing that we don’t normally get in media is a multitude of experiences. There’s one black experience that gets put out in media, and it’s a frustration that I think a lot of people are working to overcome. That’s why you see Donald Glover’s Atlanta doing so well because it gives normalcy to different black experiences and they’re all black.

So, with Black & Abroad, we’re very adamant about doing that. We coulda made it just about our experience, but then that would’ve been very limited and it wouldn’t have had the impact we wanted. We wanted to talk about the single mom who was traveling with her kid for a year and what her experience was like. We wanted to talk about what it’s like to have your hair grabbed in Asia and what that experience feels like.

Wanted to talk about safety for people of color in certain countries in the world. We wanted to have those experiences and really re-use our platform as a crowd sourcing space where everyone from these different backgrounds and different travel moments can come in and share and really express how they’ve seen the world and now we have this new understanding of the black experience just based off of that.

Who are the black history makers, the elders, who helped inspire you to continue to do the work that you do?

The elders and the ancestors or a new term that I learned, the “grandcestors” that really helped me out, Matthew Henson, is one that sticks close to me, because he’s one of the first-known, documented black travelers and explorers, so I always stick to him and always do what would Matthew Henson do? Kinda that cheesy moment, but he sticks out to me. The creator of the Green Book [Victor Hugo Green], where they knew that that kind of information was needed so that black people felt safe traveling up and down the East Coast.

Those are two people who stick out to me as kinda drivers for the work behind Black & Abroad.

What’s next for Black & Abroad? What’s next for you?

So the podcast is expanding. I have a project I’ve done with South Africa that I’m excited that’s gonna be dropping around the creative scene in Johannesburg, so I’m really excited about that. I’m working on taking a script that I wrote a long time ago and putting it into book form and for Black & Abroad, what’s next, so our focus for the last two years has been on identifying destinations in the diaspora to bring a group of travelers there and have them have an experience for the week.

And not just your run-of-the-mill tourist experience, but really local, immersive experiences and one thing that we do differently is we kinda take a real-world approach to how we put the group together and we hand pick the people; so that we have representation from all walks of black life, and we put them in this experience and have them go through it together. We do things like we don’t tell them who they’re traveling with until the day before the trip and we do that intentionally, because we know that in this day and age, whenever you get a little bit of contact information for somebody, you’re on LinkedIn, you’re on Twitter, you’re on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest.

Anywhere you can to find out more about them and you feel like you know people before you’ve actually met them and that changes how you interact with people, so we really look at them as social experiments in places all over the world, but we’ve been very specific just in the initial rollout in being places in the diaspora and we work with local businesses trying to make the dollar or the rand or the peso extend as long as it can within the local communities within those places at least while we’re there.

So, our next trip is, well trips rather for this year, we’ve added Ghana because this year’s the year of return, so we’ll be taking a group there in August and a group there in December for New Year’s.


Photo shoot produced by Christy Havranek. Audio production by Nick Offenberg and Sara Patterson.