When James Johnson ’17 was growing up in Detroit he said he wanted to be a lawyer, and those around him told him he would do great things.
“I said I wanted to be a lawyer, but I had no idea why I said it and what that even meant,” says Johnson, who was recruited to play football at Earlham. In three and a half years, Johnson has deepened his commitment to education and knows full well the impact he can have on society.
“I like to consider myself as a person who lives their life in service to others,” says Johnson, an African and African American Studies major. “Being a product of Detroit, a marginalized city, inspired me to want to be of service to others. I want to advocate for the most vulnerable people in our country.
“I am an activist, and I made myself vulnerable by engaging with others and connecting with other people’s struggles on campus, in our country and in the world at large. I found that without a spiritual connection, it is impossible to do this hard work. It wasn’t until I made myself vulnerable that I found success.” On campus, Johnson is involved with the Student Diversity Council and the Diversity Progress Committee.
As a Bonner Scholar, a community service scholarship program, Johnson has tutored students working toward obtaining a Core 40 high school diploma and beginning post-secondary education. He facilitates and leads dialogue on social justice and civic engagement, and volunteered at a homeless shelter during Earlham’s semester abroad program in Ecuador.
“I helped with the clothing ministry and raised funds to support the well-being and personal growth of the citizens there,” he says. He also volunteered with the Fulbright Commission of Ecuador, helping high school graduates find merit-based scholarships, financial aid and educational opportunities. This past summer he returned to Detroit as a Research Intern at the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation to survey food insecurity within the Detroit food system.
“The harsh levels of emissions and contamination in the water and soil are having an adverse affect on food in Detroit and metro Detroit,” Johnson says. “I know there is a lot of injustice in the environmental and public health of Detroit. It only brings its citizens closer to death. The infant mortality rate is high. Detroit has higher than average levels of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, lead contamination, incarcerations, violence, suicide and homicides. Part of me wants to go back and make a change, but I need to hone in and improve my skills, so that’s why I am going to go to law school.”
He is also passionate about the issue of mass incarceration.
“We have 25 percent of the world’s prison population, and we have 5 percent of the world’s population,” Johnson says. “And the incarceration rate moves independent of the crime rate, so we have to ask ourselves why are so many of our most vulnerable people being incarcerated?
“We’re operating backwards, and this is part of a larger struggle. We had slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and now the prison-industrial complex, and all of these systems of dehumanization lead to systemic oppression. I want to move away from the punitive system of justice and move toward restorative justice.”
Johnson acknowledges that his experiences and determination have shaped him.
“I have witnessed burned down schools and mass city blocks of vacant properties as a child and emerging adult in Detroit. I’ve seen the struggle of my family to raise me and maintain themselves in a society and neighborhood that constantly rejected my success. I believe that through service, we can move across social institutions with the common goal of empowerment and upward mobility.”
He also credits his family and Earlham.
“My family nurtured me to be a change agent and work to improve the plight of struggling peoples. There’s room to change; we just have to do the work of changing our community. If I would have stayed in Detroit, my ideas would be different,” he says. “I have the vision and am gaining the knowledge. Now that I’m in college I’ve developed the inquisitiveness and the hunger for knowledge.
“When I was young, people told me that I was going to do great work. For a while I had totally lost sight of that, but they didn’t. And somehow I found my way back.”