Bianca Cseke | The DePaulia
Political science associate professor Valerie Johnson joined SGA for the final session of its Civic Engagement and Social Action Series this week via Facebook Live.
Prior to becoming a professor, Johnson worked throughout different levels of government, including Georgia’s state government, in the county government where Atlanta sits and for the federal government in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Johnson’s interest in working in government stemmed from her desire to create change in the world.
“My initial stint in government was because as a student, a political science major, I always thought that I could change the course of western civilization by working in government,” Johnson said. “Then I found that it wasn’t that easy and so I decided to go back to school and get a Ph.D., I had already at that point had a master’s in political science and the rest is history.”
In 1994, Johnson began teaching at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and worked there for nine years. Johnson later came to DePaul in 2003 and has been teaching political science for 26 years. Johnson teaches political science courses related to race and class including the politics of urban education, black political organizations, and poverty and public policy, to name a few.
“All of my courses deal with some aspect of civic life, if you will,” Johnson said.
When asked about her experience working in government, Johnson said the work was frustrating due to how routine it felt.
“I thought actually that I would have a greater impact on policy development,” she said. “I’ve worked with a couple of legislators. I think that that was probably the best opportunity.”
When she lived in Atlanta in the 1980s, Johnson served as a legislative assistant for Ralph David Abernathy Jr., the son of Ralph David Abernathy Sr., who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Johnson said she enjoyed working on the legislative side of government.
“The legislative aspect was a lot better, more fun, more rewarding than the actual government part,” Johnson said. “When I was working in government for the state of Georgia, I was working in the secretary of state’s office, and so what I did was assist corporations to become incorporated in Georgia and that was routine.”
Afterwards, Johnson worked in the Fulton County Office of Public Relations and Public Affairs — where she also felt her duties were too routine. At the federal level, she worked in policy development and research.
“I worked in the office where the people were mainly economists and political scientists and they did write policy, but it was based on the administration,” Johnson said. “For example, I first started working with HUD during the administration of George H.W. Bush … he was Republican and so the policies that we wrote, they had a sort of conservative bend.”
After Bill Clinton became president in 1992, Johnson said the housing policies written by the department “had a more liberal bend.” She added working in government helped her in her role as a political science professor.
When asked when she knew she wanted to work in government, Johnson explained how she began college as a biology major citing her parents’ desire for her to become a doctor. She explained she decided to switch her biology major after realizing that she would have flunked out of school if she was not able to pursue what she was interested in.
“At first, I was a biology major until I realized that I was going to flunk out if I did not do something I really wanted to do myself,” Johnson said. “And since I was paying the student loans, I had to break it to my parents that if they wanted a medical doctor in the family, that they would have to go back to school because you only get one life and you can’t … grab onto your kid’s life.”
Johnson went on to take many political science classes and said she “loved political science.” She added that she wanted to work in government to create change but had “a naïve understanding of how the system worked.”
“I think because of the family and the time that I grew up, I’ve always viewed my life in terms of being a change agent,” Johnson said. “I’ve always really had a keen sense of my ability to change something and so, in an environment where I’m just a paper pusher or just doing something that is just routine, I’m not going to be happy. And so, I thought that working in government would afford me that opportunity, and unfortunately, I was bored silly.”
Johnson then decided to return to school and earn her PhD to become a professor. Johnson also worked for nonprofits, including working in consulting for the National Urban League and serving as Rev. Jesse Jackson’s national education spokesperson for four years.
“Teaching and working in non-for profit, civil rights organizations have really been the highlight of my life [and] the place where I have felt most effective,” Johnson said.
On election day, Johnson will serve as a non-partisan poll monitor, whose job it is to ensure an individual’s rights are not violated when they go to vote. Johnson cited issues with voting as one of her reasons for wanting to take on this role.
“The conflicts, particularly around voting, have been just so extreme,” Johnson said. “You’ve heard of course about the voter suppression and attempts to dissuade people from voting even on social media. And so, I felt that it was important for me to go through the training and understand all of the rights pertaining to voting to ensure that everyone that I encounter would have their rights met.”
Johnson added that this election in particular influenced her decision to serve as a poll monitor.
“My attitude is this and this is just not for this election but for every election,” Johnson said. “My thing is please vote because our democracy depends on the active engagement of our citizens. And so, if there is a population or a group, racial group, gender, whatever, and they’re not taking part in government and who becomes our representatives, then we can hardly call this a democracy. Democracy requires vigilance.”
Johnson emphasized the importance of voting and explained other ways for individuals to act powerfully.
“I believe in protest,” Johnson said. “As a matter of fact, I always say ‘I love a good protest,’ because I do think that government has its roles in the lives of people but as Fredrick Douglass said … ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand.’ And so, the status quo remains the status quo until people make a demand on government.”
Johnson expressed the importance for individuals to “press your interests” as she believes that everyone is “here for a purpose.”
“We all have a purpose and part of that purpose for all of us is making this world a little bit better than when we got here,” Johnson said. “I always say, ‘I’ve eaten from a lot of trees that I didn’t plant,’ and so I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to plant some trees because at some point you’re out of here and … you might give an account for your life. And so, the question is what have you done … I have hope that our world is converging towards something better than where we are.”
When asked what advice she would give to young people interested in getting civically engaged, Johnson encouraged students to pursue areas that they are passionate about. She suggested that students research organizations working on issues that interest them.
“I don’t believe that change occurs singularly,” Johnson said. “Change always occurs in a group or as a part of an organization, so you have to join with like-minded people and so it may be a Google search to figure out who or what organization is involved in that thing that you’re passionate about.”