Tonja Johnson, Ph.D., joined the University of Tennessee Space Institute (UTSI) on Feb. 20 at the 24th Annual African-American History Celebration to speak about her experiences and encourage others to keep progressing.
Johnson, the executive vice president and chief operating officer for the University of Tennessee System, drove from Knoxville to deliver a powerful message about learning, growing and perseverance.
During her talk, she shared the importance of celebrating Black History Month, how things have changed for African-Americans during her lifetime and how to continue to overcome barriers to work towards an prejudice free and equal future.
She opened her speech by expanding on the broad topic of celebrating Black History Month. Johnson said in order to make progress, people have to learn from one another regardless of their cultural backgrounds.
“I grew up in a community where diversity was celebrated and diversified,” Johnson said. “I was constantly inspired by the progressive influences around me.”
However, those influences did not come easy in Johnson’s life. After her grandfather passed away, Johnson moved in with her grandmother and was expected to follow strict guidelines. Her grandmother’s strict expectations, she said, influenced her heavily.
“My grandmother taught me a lot of things, and in those things she taught me that I had a few choices in life,” Johnson said. “She said faith, education and work were my few choices, and that when I had a chance to use my voice, I was to use it.”
Johnson was a third-generation college student. Her parents had attended an historical all-black college in Montgomery, Alabama, during the height of the civil rights movement. Between her parents and her grandmother’s experiences, Johnson learned that her voice was one of the most important attributes she carried.
“Too many people have spoke. Too many people have fought. Too many people have marched. Too many people have died for my right to use my voice,” Johnson said. “My family taught me to take every opportunity I could to use my voice.”
As Johnson grew up and began new endeavors, she decided to attend college at the University of Alabama. Soon after school began, Johnson decided to study print journalism. After graduating college, Johnson began her first job as a reporter in Decatur, Alabama. She was the only African-American reporter. Through that job she was presented with an opportunity of a lifetime.
Johnson not only interviewed, but also learned valuable life lessons, from civil rights activist Rosa Parks. After listening to Parks, Johnson took her wisdom and knowledge and held it close to her heart. However, Johnson was determined to use her voice to communicate Parks’ main message for years to follow.
“After I finished talking with Rosa, she handed me her business card,” Johnson said. “On her card under her name, it said ‘self-development.’ I couldn’t help but realize that while Rosa was fighting for the rights of African-Americans, she was also teaching everyone the act of self-development and personal growth. Her vision was for all people to self-develop. She stressed the importance of keeping a progressive mindset and always concentrating on moving forward. She valued education opportunities and made sure I knew to learn something new every single day.”
Johnson said she took away a new sense of responsibility after her encounter with Parks. She knew that she needed to continue to progress and show others the opportunities that are available to them.
“Change requires action,” Johnson stated. “If you want to see new realities tomorrow, you have to act today. It’s sad to me that there is a place in society where blacks still have to defend themselves. It’s sad to me that we have to cry out that black lives matter. However, we have to learn from these experiences. In return, we have to do more and say more in order to have a more positive reality.”
Throughout her lifetime Johnson has seen progression. She recognizes that there are many new opportunities for people of color that have never existed before. More educational doors are opening, and public colleges are becoming more diversified, she said. However, she added, society must continue to think progressively.
“What Rosa Parks taught me will stick with me forever,” Johnson added. “We must be progressive. We must take all educational opportunities. It sounds simple, but being so progressive means that you always have to look forward and help those around you to also look forward. Pursue credentials and education. Learn about culture. Be considerate. Engage and take advantage of everything presented to you.”
Johnson holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mass communication and a Ph.D. in urban higher education. She has completed the Institute for Education Management at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and she also earned a post-baccalaureate certification in construction management.
More information about UTSI can be found at www.utsi.edu.