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May 22, 2020

Amber Johnson headshot.Each year, during Women’s History Month, University of Detroit Mercy’s Department of Student Life recognizes an employee with its Phenomenal Woman Award. This year, Student Life recognized Amber Johnson, director of the TRiO Program.

The award is usually presented at an event at which the recipient gives a speech. Because the event was, like so many other things, canceled, we are reprinting Johnson’s address here.

How Can I Help? Reflection and Call to Action

First, I would like to say thank you to the Office of Student Life and Student Program Board for providing me the opportunity to be recognized as Detroit Mercy’s Phenomenal Woman 2020 and extending the invitation to share a reflection about the things that contribute to my motivation and drive.

In an attempt to share my thoughts and feelings in a creative way, I ended up with a reflection and a call to action. I hope that it resonates with someone in some way, especially during this difficult time.

As I’m sure some of you are aware, our education system has had a myriad of experiences in just the last year. As an educational community, we’ve witnessed many successes and innovative groundbreaking changes:

  • The Department of Education forgave approximately $150 million of debt for almost 15,000 students who attended for-profit schools that are no longer in business.
  • More than 20 states now offer some form of tuition-free college programs for students.
  • The NCAA now allows college athletes to earn endorsement and sponsorship benefits.
  • Gradeless transcripts have even been developed and used in some college admissions processes.

However, the last year hasn’t been all good for the education community. We’ve experienced hardships and news coverage describing:

  • The COVID-19 disruption of “traditional” student educational experiences.
  • Illegal caps that were placed on the number of students with disabilities who could receive special education services in some school districts.
  • An overwhelming number of mishandled sexual assault issues resulting from inadequate Title IX training in some U.S. school districts.
  • Some of you may have even gotten wind of a story involving a private school teacher who, in two separate fifth-grade social studies, classes lined all of the African-American students up against the wall, placed “pretend” chains or shackles around each of their necks, wrists and ankles and proceeded to conduct a simulated slave auction, urging the white students to bid on their black peers.

All these things come to mind when I reflect on what truly drives me in my current role in higher education. Ultimately, I’ve found over the years that I’m fueled not only by helping students succeed, but by the inequities found worldwide in education. Initially, I had no idea where to start to explain this, but then I thought of a pretty good comparison involving a current television show that I absolutely love!

I’m not sure how many of you will be familiar, but there is a show on NBC which premiered in fall 2019, called “New Amsterdam.” This show revolves around, Max Goodwin, a brilliant and charming medical director at one of America's oldest public hospitals. His main goal is providing exceptional care to his patients and, in many instances, his team. Goodwin is known for always asking “How can I help?” He doesn’t take no for an answer, he disrupts the status quo by emphasizing and addressing the inequities in healthcare.

I’m not providing a shameless plug for you to watch the show.

This television show reminds me a lot of our education system. In some instances, we may be understaffed, we may even feel underappreciated at times, and we may not have all the money in the world, but there are things that only we can offer to students as an institution with Jesuit and Mercy values. We have committed to assisting our exceptional students hone their skills, help them to make meaning of their lives and help them make the world a better place than the way they found it. Our students take these fundamental experiences and they act. So, right now, especially during this unprecedented time of crisis, I encourage you to ask yourself, “how can I help?” And, more important, would those around you say that you are not only helping, but providing them with “exceptional care?” Have you ever even stopped to ask yourself that?

We live in a society where many of us rely on Twitter for breaking news, Netflix for the most accurate depictions and portrayals of history and educational issues, and Instagram and Snapchat for instances of affection and empathy. We live in communities where simulated slave auctions are taking place. We live in a world where social justice and transformational thought is not the natural state of mind for most individuals.

Based on the examples I mentioned earlier, it is evident that our education system is flawed. Education is believed to be the variable that can enrich the world and create opportunities not only for equality, but equity. Yet at times it is used as a divisive tool to perpetuate narratives of value, suggesting that certain subjects, certain information, and certain lives are more valuable than others. But, I believe that it is our responsibility as individuals who promote the values and traditions of the Jesuit and Mercy education systems to dispel these untruths and be advocates for social justice and social change. It is our responsibility to fill in the gaps and provide opportunities for those around us. It is our responsibility to fight complacency with our missions. And, maybe most importantly, it is our responsibility to work in the margins and to find God in all things, but especially in our work with others.

If whenever possible we can disrupt any instances in which we are maintaining the status quo, if we can get our heads, hearts and hands involved, and get comfortable with making others uncomfortable for the good of others, we are bound to transform our work, invoke social change and, as St. Ignatius said, put those around us in a position to “Go forth and set the world on fire.”

As I couple these thoughts with a recent service immersion trip to Selma, Ala., where I had the opportunity to hear from several great activists who were active during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the fact sinks in that I didn’t get to this position just because I have the right educational credentials—I got to this position because others sacrificed for me. They asked the difficult questions, like “how can I help?” and how can I provide exceptional care to those around me. They spoke their truth, respected others, and weren’t afraid to work for a common good and a cause that supported not only themselves, but others.

Each generation is responsible for reclaiming its own freedoms. Now, it’s my turn—our turn—to sacrifice, to ask the difficult questions, and to act. This is what drives me daily and I’m more grateful than words could ever express for the experiences I’ve had in life. Now, think about what drives you and how you can provide exceptional care to those around you.

Nelson Mandela offered that, “Education is the most powerful weapon which one can use to change the world." I dare each of you to be the change, provide exceptional care and to incorporate a how-can-I-help mindset into your transformational everyday work and life.

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