Moving resources beyond Swarthmore

Although Professor of Sociology/Anthropology and Black Studies Nina Johnson is engaged with issues like race, equality, and justice … she does not consider herself an “activist.”

“I don’t know what that term means,” Johnson says. “I think that the way I tend to think about all aspects of my life is that, as a human being, I have time, I have talents, and I have resources, and for me, it’s about using all of those to structure my life around the things that I care about, and for me, I care about justice.”

In order to enact her commitment to justice, Johnson, who teaches “Introduction to Race and Ethnicity at Swarthmore,” supports a specific approach to teaching policy — a consideration of vulnerability.

“Part of how I think about policy has to do with how we tend to the most vulnerable,” she says. “I think, if we build out from that kind of agenda, we’ll tackle everything eventually, and part of that is making sure that we don’t believe there’s a way that human beings don’t deserve food or clothing or shelter. We have to think about the fact that we’re all a part of the human family, and we should provide for one another as best we can with all the resources we have.”

As part of her belief in providing for one another, Johnson is a supporter of policies that are redistributive.

“[Redistributive policy] is a term most people would shy away from, but I think that is the only way to kind of move this project of justice forward.”

Johnson teaches an “inside-out” exchange program course called “Urban Crime and Punishment” at the Chester State Correctional Institution, and says she does so simply because she wants to teach the “best and brightest students.”

“Some of the best and brightest people are incarcerated, and if we’re going to see education as a right, then we can’t wait for everyone to walk onto this campus — we’ve got to take education to where everyone is,” Johnson says.

Johnson’s work regarding incarceration is not limited to teaching at Chester. She is also works at a think tank at Graterford Prison, facilitates trainings for teaching inside prisons, and researches mass incarceration. Johnson does not see mass incarceration as a criminal justice or criminal legal project; instead, she views it as an ongoing issue of personhood.

“I see it as a project of equality, a continuing struggle for how we decide who deserves to live or die. It’s less housed in the criminal legal system than it is a fight for us to treat each other humanely,” she says.

When it comes to student-involvement, Johnson gets a lot of questions about how to best get involved.

“When students say there are things that anger me, or I’m upset about, or I have to do something, often students feel like they have to come up with a great idea,” Johnson says.

Johnson believes that equating getting involved to creating an idea of one’s own is a misguided mindset.

“The great thing is, lots of people have already had great ideas, and part of justice means that we listen to those who are doing the work, and that we don’t have to go into a community and come with an idea — that people in communities already have ideas, and that part of our job is to listen and to support that work, particularly when we have certain levels of class, race, gender, sexuality privilege, and that means that we don’t just sit around and talk about that privilege, but we leverage it to move resources from one place to another,” she said.

For Johnson, the most important thing is about aligning every aspect of her life in a way that honors her commitment to justice.

“Justice can look like any number of things, from a macro level of how I do my research, how I do my work, what kind of things I focus on, what kind of questions I ask, thinking about where my research is going to go, how it will be received, and how it can be used to drive a particular policy agenda,” Johnson says.

However, she believes justice plays a role in actions on a smaller scale as well.

“Then, I think about how I treat people, how I treat the earth,” Johnson says, “how I move in the world, the kinds of things that I purchase, how can I align as many aspects of how I move in the world with the things that I believe in.”

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