Angela M. Johnson, PhD.

SOS Community Services’ Board Member

“If not you, then who? Progress is not easy. There is a push and pull.  We are setting the stage for the next generation.”

This Black History Month, we celebrate Angela M. Johnson, PhD, member of the board of directors at SOS Community Services. Angela is an active member of the community, also serving as the co-chair of the research committee of the National Black Breastfeeding Caucus, the community service chair at the Ann Arbor Chapter Jack and Jill of America, Inc., (current lead teen advisor and former community service chair), Champions for Change Fellow at NEW Center, member of Parkridge Community Center SummerFest Planning Committee, former co-chair Washtenaw County Breastfeeding Coalition, former member, board of directors of Black Mothers Breastfeeding Association, and former member, board of directors at Washtenaw Area Council for Children.

 Angela M. Johnson, PhD. Interview

1.)  Hi Angela. Thanks for interviewing. Why don’t you start by telling us a little about your life’s work?

I started college as a computer science major, but I quickly found out that I was more interested in people than machines! I earned a Bachelor of Arts from Amherst College (Amherst, Mass.) with a major in Psychology and Black Studies. Then I completed a Masters in Sociology from Michigan State University (MSU) while gaining experience at the MSU Center for Urban Affairs, Community Economic Development Program. After earning my Masters, I worked for the State of Michigan across various departments.  First Office of Juvenile Justice, then Children’s Protective Services, later Dept. Labor and Economic Growth.  My various roles included evaluating educational needs of juveniles, assessing and supporting families’ capacity to parent, and later to monitoring Work First employment and training program plans. After more than a decade of working across state agencies, I was increasingly asking questions like, why are the systems the way they are? It always felt as if social systems compromised rather than supported families. 

I transitioned from the State of Michigan to the University of Michigan Health, Michigan Medicine and later I earned a PhD in Sociology from Michigan State University. I competed and won a $100,000 National Institutes of Health fellowship award to complete my postdoctoral work, at the Department of Psychiatry and the Michigan Institute for Clinical Health Research at the University of Michigan. I led a translational research program to discover interventions that address psychosocial risk factors underlying disparate breastfeeding behavior among African American women. I also taught collegiate level courses at Michigan State University, Eastern Michigan University, and guest lectured at the University of Michigan, enjoying the interface with youthful brilliance and fellow academicians. 

After my postdoctoral work, I continued to work with Dept. Community Health Services at Michigan Medicine. I now have the pleasure of serving as Senior Community Outreach Specialist with the Program for Multicultural Health in the Dept. of Community Health Services and as Director of Equity and Community Engagement, Zero to Thrive, in the Department of Psychiatry, both at Michigan Medicine.

2.)  What inspired you to take up this line of work?

I love that I am able to support birthing families, to affect change, and to also work with students. I get to see students become more confident, more hopeful, and more willing to pursue equitable practice in research, community, and other places in the world. Often, they have ability but don’t believe that they do. I believe things happen for a reason. I believe I am where I should be. I pray and ask God for direction and strength every day.

3.)  What advice would you give to aspiring black leaders (young people)?

I really admire John Lewis. He said, “When you have been in the fight for social justice for so long, you can’t get lost in a sea of despair. You have to stay hopeful. It’s not a struggle for a day, a week, a month, or a year. It’s a life struggle. It lasts for a lifetime. Don’t be afraid to push back or to get into necessary trouble, good trouble.” If not you, then who? Progress is not easy. There is a push and pull.  We are setting the stage for the next generation. You will stand on my shoulders. I push you up and out. I think for myself that kindness, thoughtfulness, and consideration are important.  I also reflect on what I recently heard Michelle Obama say that, “Every day, you have the power to choose our better history—by opening your hearts and minds, by speaking up for what you know is right.”  Lastly, it is important to not give up ever. Steve Harvey said that you should “never ever, ever, ever give up.” Most people would be surprised how many times I was tempted to give up. Don’t get lost. Keep going. Push forward 

4.)  Who are some black leaders you most admire? What do you admire about them?

I’ve named a few already. I have a lot of heroes for different areas in my life. Viola Davis because she played characters that were forceful, strong, no-nonsense women. She played get-it-done characters. Outside of acting, she spoke about the intersection of race and gender. She discussed the pitfalls she fell into as a Black woman, such as racism, colorism, and sexism. She really demonstrated resiliency.

I also think of my mother. I grew up in a matriarchal family. Women had the stronger voice. Really, it was 90% women leading in my family. My mother worked hard to raise her kids with not a lot of money. My mother had a lot of obstacles, but she never gave up. She managed to persevere and raise successful kids. I grew up in public housing, and we went hungry some times. My mom had mental health issues, and we were in foster care for a period of time. But my mom got us all back. My mom modeled how to stick to it. She never gave up. She never stopped trying to work in her short 54 years on this earth. My siblings and I are all successful now. We all have families and professional credentials. There was also my Aunt Dolores, a brilliant mathematician who traveled the world, and was sought after for years, even after retiring from 40 years of teaching.  She was compelled to return to teaching part time to help her many young Black students in Philadelphia.  And she, too, was a woman who shined with persistence.  When I wanted to give up, she would push me and say, “keep putting one foot in front of the other!”

5.)  What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black history is not just something to practice one month a year! Black history is American history. Black people spent 400 years building this country as kidnapped enslaved people. Black people are how this country came to be. So Black history should be sprinkled through all life lessons. I always picked books about prominent Black people to read out loud with my kids. I read with them about Thurgood Marshall, Jesse Owens (at one time the fastest man in the world), Florence Joyner, Michelle Obama, Malcolm X, and Tupac Shakur.

6.)  What is the biggest difference you would like to make with your life and your life’s work?

The biggest difference I want to make with my life is to make the way easier for just one more family with children or one more mom trying to get ahead at her job or in school. It is too difficult in our society to earn a livable wage, to get an education, and to access health care, child care, and safe neighborhoods. It is like a stroke of luck if you have all the things you need. People get reported to CPS because they don’t have food in the fridge or their kids’ clothes are dirty or they have no lights because the electricity is off. It’s not neglect. The root cause is economics. Minimum wage is not enough. Racism, too, is a factor. We need to make life easier for as many families as possible to find stability and joy. Life is not supposed to be all hard.