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CROWN: August 2021 - Getting to Know Director Johnson

By Simon Miners, Communications Intern

This month, in place of the "Letter from the Director", we're sharing a special "Interview with the Director." Communications Intern Simon Miners spoke with Director Johnson at length about his life, his vision for the department and the goals he'll help us achieve to realize that vision.

For John Johnson, it has been a long road on his way to becoming the Executive Director of MDCR. Shaped by the experiences of his past and a drive to be an important part of the fight for social justice and civil rights, the newly appointed director opened up to expand upon his own life, as well as his vision and insights for MDCR.

Johnson was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. Growing up, Johnson was a churchgoer on Sundays. He recalls a moment that helped influence him to get into social justice. When his father drove him to and from church on Sundays, they would listen to the only black radio station in Buffalo. It was there where he heard the words of Elijah Muhammad, who was then the head of the Nation of Islam. "Muhammad would talk about social justice and the conditions of African-Americans."

Johnson attended Howard University for his undergraduate degree, a place that he feels shaped his career in social justice. Following his time at Howard, he attended law school at Valparaiso University. For him, going from Howard University to Valparaiso was a complete 180. He went from a historically black university in Washington D.C. to "a lily-white school in Northern Indiana." Those contrasting experiences gave him a new perspective on civil rights.

Johnson earned money throughout school by writing for college newspapers; in fact, his minor was originally in journalism. He interned back in his hometown for the Buffalo Evening News following graduation from Howard, but it was an incident after his time there when his drive for journalism was "extinguished."

After receiving an undergraduate degree, Johnson was searching for work in journalism as he thought that was his career path. Following struggles to find work, a newspaper in Wilmington, Delaware called asking him to come down for an interview.

Johnson recalled vividly, "About an hour after the interview, somebody called me back and said, 'The boss just told me we hired a black guy, so never mind.'" That moment woke him up to a painful reality.  "This certainly slapped me."

When asked about his inspirations to work in the field of civil and human rights, Johnson credited Howard University for helping him fully realize his desire to work in the public interest and in social justice. At Howard, he was introduced to human rights on a global scale, specifically the fight for civil rights in South Africa. He identified the mind-expanding educational experienced he received at Howard as "transformational".

In addition to his educational experience, he cites his involvement with the NAACP, working primarily as a manager since 1981, and the impact on his life of the people he has met as playing an important role is shaping him into the person he is today.

Director Johnson applied to serve in the role of MDCR Director three times prior to his appointment. When asked why he has sought the role, Johnson was succinct. "Being the Director of MDCR is the top civil rights law enforcement role in the state. If you're in civil rights, you have to aspire to be at the top and be the absolute best that you can be."

Now that he is in the role that he has aspired to for years, the ball is now rolling as he seeks to have a positive impact on MDCR, whether it be the people the department helps or the staff who do the day-to-day work of defending, protecting and promoting civil rights - people who Johnson cannot praise enough.

"The staff and their commitment to the mission and the department is a huge strength that I have noticed here. Along with the Commission made up of eight people who have a passion for civil rights and policy, that is certainly in the best interests of the citizens of Michigan."

With the committed MDCR staff, Director Johnson hopes to utilize their passion and skill to re-establish MDCR as the primary civil rights agency in the state. "The diversity of the staff is a strength of the department, the collaboration and cooperation among different parts of the department can and will open up better opportunities in the future for improvement."

He outlined a number of goals for the department, including:

  • Reintroducing MDCR to other civil rights and human rights groups and looking for opportunities to collaborate.
  • Looking at individual complaints and identifying potential systemic issues.
  • Improving staff working conditions.
  • Enhancing MDCR's image.
  • Improving the climate that exists in Michigan regarding race, gender, and religion.
  • Making sure the engagement, education, and enforcement divisions are all treated with equal importance.

It is evident that MDCR is under the tutelage of a person who has dedicated decades of his life to social justice and civil rights, and someone who has the experience needed to make a positive impact as MDCR Director. While he is aware of the work that needs to be done, he realizes the importance of everybody having a voice. "I'm going to listen to the staff for the next couple of months. I want to get a better sense of individual and collective issues. Then I will present a more comprehensive plan going forward."

Director Johnson seeks honesty and transparency and wants that displayed from the top. He added, "In regard to decisions that are made, we will not only make an effort to announce our decisions but also to explain why. It is important to entertain and listen to concerns and questions."

Director Johnson stated that he has a vision for the department and where it needs to go, but as this is a collective of hard-working individuals, "I need the staff to be a part of the mission. We can do this in a collaborative fashion together."