Picture the words “fierce” and “unparalleled.” Who would those expressions embody?
How about “thoughtful?” “Impactful?” “Needed?”
To friends and colleagues, the answer is simple: Dr. Lesa Johnson and her pursuit of advocacy for Black students and Black scholars at Chico State.
“Lesa Johnson’s enormous heart is just as evident as her keen insight into racial injustice and the undue burdens that our (Black Indigenous, and People of Color) students (and faculty and staff) are asked to shoulder,” said Maitreya Badami, a colleague and friend of Johnson’s, who teaches political science and social justice at Chico State.
“Lesa is one of the smartest and most thoughtful people I have ever met. She never fails to push me to think deeper with her poignant questions and lines of inquiry and her thoughtful analysis of macro and micro issues,” added Lindsay Briggs, a friend and colleague who teaches public health at Chico State.
Johnson is an advocate, an inspiring faculty member championing for – despite severe pushback from colleagues – the betterment of her Black students.
“This stuff is personal for me,” said Johnson. “These students and the other groups that I research are real people who are my community members. I didn’t get all the way here just so I could float and say, ‘I made it.’”
To understand why the daily struggles for Black students and the necessity for imminent structural change is so personal for Johnson, you need to first read through her past and present lived experiences and comprehend her ongoing research to better support and foster successes for students of color.
No more bandaged approaches, but real, sustainable, empowering change and support.
Johnson, an assistant professor of sociology, specializes in social psychology, race and ethnicity, and stratification/social inequality research. Johnson’s lived experiences shaped her life and career.
At 16, she saw clearly her future: becoming a college professor. Struggles early on in her life almost derailed that dream.
“I flunked out of college in the late 80s, twice,” said Johnson. “The first time it was because I was pregnant, my mother was dying of cancer, and my brother was in jail (again) on drug charges.
“My whole family was falling apart.”
More than a decade later, Johnson went to college for a third time, carrying a full course load while balancing life at home: working two to three jobs at a time, supporting her teenage son and his schooling and needs, attending parent-teacher association meetings and band booster and chorus events.
A lot for any one person.
“(I was) just grinding constantly, but always anxious, afraid something else would happen and I would have to start over one more time,” said Johnson. “When I approached my studies, I took all these experiences and looked at the other poor people I had been around, single mothers and Black women who were going through the exact same things I was, and I just wanted to know why.
“I had so many questions, but the main one was ‘Why can’t Black people get out of this hole? Why don’t Black people have real money?’ I had drained what little money my parents had and used up their contacts trying to get back on my feet and raise my son, but I still never felt stable or secure.”
Why couldn’t Black Americans take care of their families and keep them safe, she wondered. Sociology, for Johnson, asked those looming questions.
Collegiate success finally came. Johnson graduated, and by the time she enrolled in graduate school, Johnson focused on race and ethnicity and mental health. But again, another power struggle – this time her research advisor mistreated her.
“By this time, I was building a voice, acknowledging my sexuality, and getting really tired of being beat down by people and this system. I switched focuses to avoid any more contact with the abusive advisor,” said Johnson.
She changed her concentration from mental health to social psychology, and she knew she wanted to understand the types of social support needed for Black people to achieve every goal. It’s what she also wanted for herself.
Fast forward to the near present.
Johnson’s research investigates the social justice initiatives of university students from marginalized backgrounds at a predominantly white institution (PWI). Enter Chico State.
According to Chico State data, white students make up about 43 percent of the student population. Latinx students are around 36 percent, Asian students over 5 percent, and Black students are under 3 percent.
“The biggest thing I found is that if you ask students what is wrong, they will tell you,” said Johnson. “The problem is that many teachers and administrators are so wrapped up in their own careers or their PWI strategic plans and enrollment numbers that they think they don’t have to actually listen to their students. And they definitely don’t think they have to listen to the students who aren’t so-called ‘leaders’ or who don’t have high GPAs.
“If administrators and student affairs professionals really knew how to turn these enrollment numbers and graduation rates around, they wouldn’t have such huge equity gaps right now. So how about asking the folks who are going through it? I still don’t understand why that’s such a brand-new idea.”
So, Johnson listened. And listened. And listened.
“We keep telling each other and keep listening to dominant group members tell us that it’s our fault, but it’s not. It’s the way the system is built, and I wanted to tell my people this. I wanted to share this with students and encourage them,” said Johnson.
She and her colleagues found that students of color need social support to finish school, like administrators who genuinely care about them and believe in them, and equitable student-to-faculty ratios in their racial/ethnic group.
Not every Black, Latinx, or Native and Indigenous student wants to major in psychology or sociology, says Johnson, so that means hiring faculty in all subjects.
“(Chico State needs faculty of color) in agriculture, biology, business accounting and marketing, math,” said Johnson. “Chico State has the lowest Latinx student-to-faculty ratio in all of the 23 CSU campuses.”
Latinx students make up 36 percent of the student body. Latinx instructional faculty are just under 4 percent of all faculty. White students, again, make up 43 percent of the student population, whereas white instructional faculty are the majority of faculty: just under 75 percent.
“Less than 2 percent of our faculty are Black and only three Black professors are tenured. That means that the others are lecturers or non-tenured faculty with very little institutional power,” said Johnson “It also means that those Black and Brown faculty don’t have the power to stand up to the institution and fight for students without a lot of backlash or damage to their own careers and reputations.”
That’s a structural problem, Johnson says.
The university’s message, Johnson explains, is also a problem. She said it places blame and shame on students of color who fail to graduate or take longer to do so.
But the problem: the institution does not provide the environment or support that actively fosters success for students of color.
Or for most faculty of color. Johnson can attest.
“We are not mentored to make change, but to hold the line and let inequality stand as-is,” said Johnson. “I looked around at my co-workers. They have families to take care of.
They either can’t or won’t push back on structural inequalities. Two Black tenured professors once took me out to lunch to convince me that they had families with the same problems as mine, but that I needed to calm down. A white male tenured professor, assigned to be my mentor, tried to convince me that microaggressions that I experienced and wrote down were just my imagination.”
Johnson advocates for a wholesale change:
- Black tenured mental health counselors
- Dedicated Black space
- Dedicated Latinx space
- Protection from police rather than being forced to engage with them
- Concrete reporting structures that highlight discrimination, microaggressions, biases, and abuses in the classroom
“I want Chico State to stop sending the message that it’s only the student’s responsibility to ask for help. Administrators and professors need to ask, ‘what can we DO to help?’ And when those students tell you, DO it!” said Johnson.
Those changes haven’t occurred yet – though some cultural changes are happening. Eyes are beginning to open to the persistent problems.
“If people are starting to listen, then at least there is hope for change. But I also know that you can’t eat hope,” said Johnson. “I need, these students need, for people in charge to be real. Just stop it with the fake tears and only hiring people of color for the looks of it.”