Johnaé Strong ’08 teaches in the Chicago Public Schools and sees students arrive to class after walking through a metal detector and being checked by an armed officer. It’s a practice that can be defeating, making students think, “You are already a criminal,” she says.
In her role as restorative justice counselor, Strong sees children acting out when they’re not viewed as assets and adults don’t show concern for their problems. Those wounds can be too deep for a school teacher to heal. “I can hug as many children as I want, but they go back to the same environment, so in a way, I’m setting them up.”
These experiences convinced her that “education is political, any human connection is political.” Strong recently made a run for a seat in the Illinois State House of Representatives, but withdrew before primary day. Realistically, she says, candidates need upwards of $1 million to compete. That essentially keeps politically active hopefuls without major financial backing from serving. If she could shape policy, she says, she would change the dynamic and how it affects students, their parents, and the community that knits them together.
It was a goal that she formed way back as a student at Williston. During her junior year, she took a trip to Honduras with Nat Simpson’s Spanish class. It was the first time she had traveled outside the country. “It really opened my perspective. What stuck with me was the far reach of poverty internationally and the deep love and strength of the young people. I want to build community. I want to help people learn and grow to own their power,” she says. “It was the first time I could see myself making an impact.”
Those lessons still drive her. “I’ve always tried to connect on a deeper level. More intimate connections build a better understanding, and it’s not for a ‘Kumbaya’ moment. I’ve been arrested several times fighting for my beliefs. We confront unjust conditions with love. It’s an action,” she says. “It can be difficult, but it’s always with that goal of connecting.”