Jeff Johnson doesn’t believe that mistakes are fatal — unless we let fear of making them paralyze us.
“In the midst of trying to do something different, don’t allow your mistakes and naivete destroy your leadership potential,” the award-winning BET journalist and political commentator told UT students last Tuesday when he was on Main Campus to share the official release of his first book, Everything I’m Not Made Me Everything I Am.
As he admitted to the students who filled the Student Union room where he spoke, Johnson knows from mistakes; he’s made them, some while he was a UT student in the 1990s, serving as president of the Black Student Union (BSU) and Student Government.
“I was here on a track scholarship, more interested in majoring in kickin’ it, with a minor in hanging out,” he said.
BSU officers, though, saw leadership qualities in the fiery young man and pulled him into the organization that he eventually headed. The times and issues were volatile, perhaps never more so than when BSU invited the controversial Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam to campus.
“I didn’t realize how much that threatened people until I began to receive death threats at my home,” Johnson said. The University, however, was very supportive of BSU, and the event was a major success.
Another test of leadership for Johnson was when he and his fellow BSU officers led a march to the home of then-President Frank Horton to present a list of demands for campus changes. (Their initial mistake, Johnson admitted to the audience, was that when the 600-strong marchers initially arrived at Horton’s office, he wasn’t in: “We were passionate but not strategic.”)
With some cat-and-mouse, give-and-take, the students’ demands — including the creation of an Africana Studies Program — were ultimately addressed, he said. “We got gangster, but when the rubber met the road, we were willing to work with the University, sitting in committee meetings for over a year to make it happen.”
He told the intently listening students, “Right now you have the power to create real change if you are willing to work with the University to make it happen. What my experience as a first-year president of BSU taught me was that a bunch of people who had messed up before could still create fundamental change.
“We were no different than you. Don’t be so concerned with ‘Our funds have been cut, we don’t have the office space we used to have.’ Why so often does it seem that this generation feels helpless to change things around them?”
Johnson, whose activism and investigative journalism have taken him global (and netted him an award of excellence last year for BET’s “Life and Death in Darfur, Jeff Johnson Reports” series), added, “Had it not been for this university, none of the other things I’ve done would have happened.” He also publicly thanked his mother and aunt — “powerful, beautiful, intellectual women” — and,, among others, Dr. Rubin Patterson, UT professor of sociology and interim director of Africana Studies: “He was the first man outside my family who said, I see something in this young brother he doesn’t even know he has.”
Earlier in the day, Johnson spoke at one of Patterson’s classes about another topic close to his heart: renewable energy.
“The largest sector of manufacturing is going to be the production of green technologies,” he said. “This is a brand-new industry with limitless potential. It’s going to be connected with things [UT] is doing in science and research, but also connected with regular folks who are willing to go to their elected officials and say that this is important.
“We as a country have to be concerned about what our country is manufacturing. It might not be sexy, it might not seem interesting, but at the end of the day, it’s what will either save America’s economy or be something we lost. And for people of color and disenfranchised people, it’s even more important.”
Patterson, a longtime mentor, noted, “Having the students hear about career opportunities in those fields made a strong impression coming from Jeff. I may be taking some advantage of his celebrity and his passion.” Patterson initially contacted Johnson with an idea for creating scholarships in social justice and renewable energy, an idea the younger man embraced.
“The endowed Jeff Johnson Leadership and Service Scholarship will be established for students in Africana Studies, with a focus on environmental justice,” said Ellen Ingram, director of corporate and foundation relations. “The criteria are still being determined, but one will be leadership and involvement with UT community.”
“It’s groundbreaking to have an Africana Studies Department focusing on environmental justice and renewable energy,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if you will see that anywhere else in the country, and I thank Dr. Patterson for having thought to bring me into the discussion.”
Applications will be taken beginning in February. Funding opportunities exist; contact Patterson at 419.530.4953 or Ingram at 419.530.2646 for information.