Everyday Hero Brenda Johnson

Winner: AFT PSRP division

Transition specialist
Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Educational Support Professionals

Besides love, the things students in a juvenile facility may need most of all are structure and consistency. Brenda Johnson provides all those and more.

Brenda Johnson, Everyday Hero
Every Sunday, Johnson teams up with a social worker to meet and greet families of incoming high school students at Stadium View School, which is part of the Minneapolis school system and housed within the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center. On Tuesdays, she follows up with students in the classroom. On Wednesdays, she makes phone calls to families who visited, asking them, "Do you have the resources you need?" Once a month like clockwork, there is a parent council meeting. Each family gets a calendar. If asked, she will come along when students must appear in court.

"I try to re-instill hope to kids who are on their last straw," she says. "Kids often look at police and correctional workers as being the enemy. I am not the enemy. My work is to build trust." Students tell her, "Ms. Johnson, I wish you were my mom."

Fervently devoted to interrupting the "cradle-to-prison pipeline," she was recently asked by her city's police chief to serve on a task force about gangs. She is a single mother of two, a minister in the AME church, and has become active as a steward and member of her union's negotiating team.

Through all of this, Johnson is "the point person for all families," her nominator says. She has a wonderful working relationship with supervisors and community partners, and because of her skills at outreach, school employees "pride themselves on building relationships."

So far, the pinnacle of Johnson's work has been developing a national model for engaging the parents of incarcerated students. She has run a Freedom School at the facility for the past three years, in which parents and the community are invited for a night of celebrating students' academic progress. The next day, school and elected officials visit. "People as far away as Australia have come," her nominator writes, "to see how Brenda has engaged parents and supported students in and out of the system."