Janet Ivey-Duensing – President and Chief Creative Officer at Janet's Planet, Inc.

Photo © Janet's Planet

Growing up in the tiny town of Covington, Tennessee, Janet Ivey did not have access to many of the same educational and cultural opportunities that her peers in more populated towns and cities took for granted. Given that, some might say her career achievements are all the more remarkable.  But Ivey is quick to credit her rural upbringing for fostering the ingenuity and determination that have served her well for over 25 years as a multi-award-winning children’s entertainer and science communicator.

 

Janet has received 12 Regional Emmy Awards and five Gracie Allen Awards for her children’s science series Janet’s Planet, which airs on more than 140 public television stations nationwide.  She is a Buzz Aldrin ShareScience Ambassador and won a STEM-FLORIDA Award for the educational video “Exploring Microgravity,” which she wrote and produced for Space Florida. In 2016, Janet was awarded the Inaugural “Permission to Dream” Award from Rick Tumlinson’s New World’s Institute for her commitment to STEAM education and global space and science outreach.

 

Photo © Janet's Planet

You have done so many impressive things in your career, but you are probably best known for Janet’s Planet.  Tell me how that got started.

   

The genesis of Janet’s Planet began 25 years ago.  I was working for Opryland Theme Park in a show called the Opryland Kids Club.  I had auditioned for the part many times.  I was a good singer and a good actress, but I never had formal dance training. Growing up in small, rural west Tennessee, I would have been there every dance class, but that wasn’t offered in my home town.  In 1992, I got a call saying, “We think we’ve got the perfect thing for you with kids and a big costumed character, a puppet.  Will you come in?”  The day that I walked into that first rehearsal, I felt like I was home and something in me just resonated.

  

Can you explain how your experiences on Opryland Kids Club led to Janet’s Planet?

 

Between 1992 and 1997, I began to have this reputation that if you need good kids for a video shoot or a music video, call Janet; she works with some of the best.  Around 1996, there were rumors that the park was going to close.  I looked around and I thought, “What’s next? Where is my niche?”  I wanted to keep doing something with kids, and the market already had a lot of amazing music for kids, but I wanted to do something that was uniquely me; something that would encourage kids to stand in their inherent intellectual magnificence, and for me that place was space and science.

 

At the time, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Beekman’s World were really the only kids’ science shows.  In 1997, in a very synchronistic moment, a producer from local public television called and said, “I’ve got this ITV [Instructional TV] series that I have to cast and I need some 12-14-year-olds.”  I sent my five best kids and she ended up hiring them all.  She called me back and said, “These kids are amazing!  I want to know you.”

 

The creator of Mother Goose Club, which is a hugely popular property on YouTube, opened the door for me at local public television. I wanted to do a half-hour show and I met with the Vice President at the time, and she said, “We don’t have money for that, but if you can raise a little bit of money, we’ll let you do some interstitials [short segments in between other programming].”

 

I didn’t even know what that meant, but I raised $1,600 and decided to do the Science of the Parthenon, since Nashville is the “Athens of the South” and we have a replica of the Parthenon. We did three spots about the Parthenon in Ancient Greece and a year later we won our first Emmy. The following year, I won two more Emmys for the Tennessee History Maker series. Then more funding came in over time.

 

Public television has been tremendous to me.  We went from being on local Nashville public television to currently about 140 public television stations around the country, including Chicago, Atlanta, New York, L.A. and other big markets carrying Janet’s Planet.  We are on YouTube and are hoping to continue to grow that part of the brand.

 

Photo © Janet's Planet

Where does your passion for space and science come from?

 

When I talk about Janet’s Planet, the concept of the show started in a theme park scenario, but my love of stars and planets happened in the fifth grade.  A beautiful teacher named Ms. Ernestine Yarborough gave us a star party on a Friday night in October in rural Tennessee.  I thought she was the smartest person in the whole wide world that she could name so many constellations and I was just enthralled and entranced looking through her telescope.

 

I remember the unit on the solar system and she assigned me the planet Saturn, and I have an inkling that’s why my logo looks like Saturn. The love of science, for me, happened in that fifth-grade classroom, where she said, “Girls, science is for everybody, not just for the boys.”  She encouraged us to think creatively and use the scientific method. Along the way, I had other great teachers who said, “We know you love music and theater and band, but why don’t you keep taking that algebra class, or physics, or trigonometry, or that chemistry class.”

 

Photo © Janet's Planet

How has Janet’s Planet led to other projects and opportunities?

 

Where it has landed me is not only as a broadcaster/TV presence, but also an online presence, being recognized as an informal educator that turns science on its head and pushes the whole STEAM [science, technology, engineering, art, math] initiative.  We make sure that we partner science with art or that we don’t dismiss art as part of the science equation. What I want to communicate most is the excitement and wonder of the cosmos, but always with that eye back towards Earth, because that’s where the good stuff happens.

 

In 2007 or 2008, a music producer named Steve Ivey [no relation] contacted me and said, “My kids love Janet’s Planet.  We should do a music CD.”  He was writing the music and I was writing the lyrics.  About halfway through the project, we decided to do a video.

 

A year later, I was trying to figure out how to get it out to a broader audience.  I contacted someone with the National Space Society because I thought, “That sounds official -- maybe they’ll know.” Richard Godwin from the National Space Society emailed me back and said they loved the fact that I wanted to do space and science education.  He said, “Head to the International Space Development Conference [the annual conference of the National Space Society] and I think you might find some people who would be interested in what you’re doing.”

 

I ended up going and passing out my music DVD and it landed in the hands of someone from Space Florida.  In November of 2008, Dr. Percy Luney called me, who is the Vice President of Space Education at Space Florida. He said, “We have a mandate from the Stephen Hawking Foundation to take microgravity to Florida classrooms. Our president received your DVD at the International Space Development Conference.  We like how you communicate with the kids and we’re wondering if you would like to fly aboard the ZERO-G plane and produce a half-hour documentary about microgravity.” We finished the project and, again, we won a Regional Emmy. Now, I sit on the Board of Governors for the National Space Society.

 

In 2011, a local company said, “You should put a stage show together and put that in performing arts centers.” This will be the sixth year of our live show and I will have the busiest year in 2017-2018 I’ve ever had.  

 

Photo © Janet's Planet

Can you think of a moment where you knew something you said really made a difference in a child’s life?

 

In 2015, I was asked to be on a Women in Space panel at the International Space Development Conference and I was representing education.  We were talking about innovation and imagination and knowledge, and how we can use creativity to improve our world.  At the end, they asked if there were any last things we would like to say, and – it came to me in that moment – I said, “I really want to communicate to the young ladies in the audience that smart is the most beautiful thing you can be. Especially if you are an artist or a creative – don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t use that same brain to love science.”

 

A 14-year-old girl from India came up to me afterwards and said, “Ma’am, I want to tell you that I never felt beautiful before today.  I am smart, but you made me feel beautiful.”  I never want to take any kind of credit for that, because I was just the conduit for her feeling like that; I was the mechanism by which she came to feel that way.  But it was very powerful that I got to be that person in that moment.

      

Photo © Janet's Planet

Listening to you talk about the process from the early days to where you are now, and reading between the lines a bit, it sounds like the takeaway for how you’ve achieved success is that you’ve been willing to seize every opportunity, even if it was not something you were planning on doing at the time.  Would you agree with that assessment?

 

I have frequently said that I like to say ‘yes.’  What I am proud of is that I have been able to create a brand that hasn’t left me either deeply in debt or somehow trying to pay investors. I don’t mind doing the work myself.  A lot of times, if the credits had rolled, it would have said, “Written by Janet Ivey, produced by Janet Ivey, casting by Janet Ivey.”  Sometimes when I talk to kids, I say, “At some point, you’re going to have to ask yourself, ‘How bad do you want it, and what is the reward?’”  

 

I don’t know that anybody would say to me, “Wow, Janet, I really love your business acumen.” But, for me, it’s always been about my grander mission.  It’s my duty and my calling to encourage kids to stand in their inherent intellectual magnificence. There have been some priceless moments that I wouldn’t trade for anything.  

 

I am a little bit indefatigable.  My mother and dad were fast-paced people and were always “can do.” It was like, “We don’t have the money for that, but what can we do to build it or create it?” Growing up without a lot of financial assets made us resourceful.    

 

At the end of the day, I have felt deeply for the past 25 years, when I walk into a rehearsal hall with kids, that this is my mission. This is what I’m supposed to do. It is that inner calling on my soul that propelled me to keep going, even when it might have been more prudent to go do something else and make more money; but then I would be thinking, “There’s some little kid out there who needs to know that they’re awesome and smart.”  I get to work with kids all over the world and it fulfills that part of me that is a natural nurturer.

 

There were times when I didn’t necessarily have the money to produce things and I would pull some favors from some friends. Just being consistent and persistent with my little dream of using space and science as a launchpad or catalyst to get kids to stand in their magnificence has been very exciting to me.  I can’t believe how many places I’ve gotten to travel around the world and the kids I’ve gotten to teach or to speak in front of.  I have always felt that kids are my audience and I am always my best person in front of them.

 

Photo © Janet's Planet

The mission for Janet Ivey and Janet’s Planet is to encourage young people to stand in their magnificence and to inspire future generations to use their innate intelligence and creativity to create a better future via STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math).  For more information, visit www.JanetsPlanet.org.

 

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