John Johnson’s path to becoming Whitman College’s new vice president for diversity and inclusion started in first grade.
Johnson grew up in a working-class Black community in Philadelphia, but was bused to another neighborhood for school. The experience was an education unto itself.
“I’d spend all this time at this predominantly white school, and I’m the person who is marginalized; I’m the person who’s alienated in the space,” Johnson says. “I’m the poor Black kid who’s coming into this white middle-class community, and I’m just trying to find my way. And I’m encountering people who don’t even know me, and they hate me.”
When he started his undergraduate studies at Temple University, another predominantly white institution, he was determined to fill the gaps in his education.
“That experience, from first grade through the twelfth grade, taught me in many ways, through a variety of negative experiences, that my intellectual heritage, my history, my culture’s contributions to civilization were not likely going to be included in my curriculum when I entered college,” he says.
He took classes in women’s and ethnic studies, seeking out content that spoke to his experience as a Black man. What he learned seemed so essential, he couldn’t believe it wasn’t required. He developed an interest in psychology, hoping it might help him understand the causes of racism.
“By the time I’d finished my undergrad, and I’d experienced so much of what I could call conditioning, efforts to miseducate me, encouragement to assimilate in order to matriculate, I knew that I needed to do something about it,” Johnson says.
From Experience to Examination
Johnson earned a master’s in educational psychology at Ball State University before beginning a doctorate at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He no longer believed psychology could unveil an answer to racism but remained fascinated with the ways it engaged questions of identity and power. He entered his Ph.D. program with funding, but struggled with attending yet another institution with few Black students.
Johnson sought out community by mentoring undergraduates in the school’s Black Student Union. When a faculty member commented he should be spending less time with the students and more time with his department, he countered by rewriting his research plan—and making the students his research focus.
His new mission was to examine how ethnic student organizations worked to recruit and retain students. He visited eight University of California campuses, interviewing dozens of people, investigating how the institutions supported Black students and building a list of best practices.
From Research to Leadership
Johnson’s research acted as a training ground for the rest of his career. Rather than continue on the academic side, he switched to student affairs, working in positions such as director of the Institute of Black Culture at the University of Florida and coordinator of the African American Center for Academic Excellence at Humboldt State.
These student-focused roles helped Johnson develop an administrative approach that values connection and coordination. He pushes back against siloed thinking that categorizes students as “yours” or “mine” instead of recognizing opportunities to work together.
“We understand our goals as aligned—once we do that, we can streamline things, we can actually save money and we can meet the needs of the students better,” he says.
Whitman is a prime place to build relationships, Johnson says. He has experience with small college towns, predominantly white schools and private institutions, and sees Whitman’s tight-knit community as an advantage that’s aligned with his strengths.
“This work is very difficult, and some schools are more ready for the work than others,” he says. “At Whitman, there’s clear community commitment, clear student commitment, a developing infrastructure and apparatus. There are resources allocated, and the school has a desire to change.”
From Welcome to at Home
Johnson comes to Whitman from California State University, Sacramento, where he served as the director of the centers for diversity and inclusion and most recently as the director of inclusive excellence learning. His time at Sacramento State provided him with opportunities to expand his portfolio and focus on diversity and inclusion issues more broadly. Because his work has consistently taken an intersectional approach, he was able to address issues like ableism, cissexism and Islamophobia directly.
Johnson’s philosophy for improving diversity and inclusion in a community is guided by three questions from African American psychology: Communities must first determine who they are, interrogate if they are who they say they are and, from there, consider if they are everything they ought to be.
“If we talk about being inclusive, are we? If we talk about eliminating bias, let’s see how we’re eliminating bias,” he explains.
Johnson says people often think of equity as being generous or providing a service to people who have been disenfranchised or minoritized—instead of actively trying to address structures of oppression.
“It’s the difference between welcoming you into my house, and talking about what we need to do together to create a home for both of us.”