Justice on Board

For Saint Louis University communication professor Amber Johnson, Ph.D., research isn’t just about combing through documents or analyzing surveys. It’s about using her studies to make the world a better place.

 


That’s the inspiration behind Justice Fleet, a project spearheaded by Johnson that is turning box trucks into four pop-up exhibits devoted to topics essential to fostering a better understanding of social justice.

Johnson launched the fleet’s first exhibit, devoted to “radical forgiveness,” this year.

While many people understand forgiveness to mean receiving an apology, forgetting a wrong and continuing a relationship, “radical forgiveness is about the idea that you don’t have to wait for anyone to apologize,” Johnson said. “You can let things go but not absolve people from the consequences of their actions or their behaviors.”

For Johnson, this is how individuals heal while also engaging in the transformation of oppressive institutions and structures.

Johnson got the idea for spreading radical forgiveness from witnessing the guilt her students experienced when they recognized their own privilege.

To combat this, Johnson guided the students in “painting their bias” as a method of moving past guilt and toward productive conversations about topics like race, poverty and difference. The canvases students built became part of a “forgiveness quilt” – a project that is expanded each time the Fleet embarks on a trip.

So let’s see each other in this moment as complex people and not stereotypes, and then what is possible? What can emerge? That’s the goal. We’ll see what happens next.”  

Amber Johnson, Ph.D.

Inspired to take her research and her project to the next level, Johnson talked with Ilene Berman, Ph.D., in SLU’s Department of Fine and Performing Arts, who travels the city with her own pop-up art studio.

Berman gave Johnson one piece of advice: “Make it pretty. Make people feel like you put a lot of time and effort into this thing, and you made it nice for them.”

Johnson got a box truck, collaborated with artists to design a wrapping for it, and filled it with art supplies. Johnson now takes the truck to different college campuses and community spaces, teaching individuals about radical forgiveness and encouraging them to take part in the process of recognizing their own biases and forgiving those who have harmed them.

At first, Johnson had some concerns about the way the truck might be received.

“When I do it with my students, it’s usually around week 13 or 14, and we’ve spent a lot of time together,” she said. Out with the truck, though, she thought, “I’m going to have five minutes with people. How am I going to make this work?”

But this turned out not to be an issue.

“People have said pretty remarkable things about how (the project) has changed them or forced them to think.” Johnson said, “I’ve seen a lot of tears already – but good tears. Forgiving tears. Growing tears.”

Amber Johnson, Ph.D.

SLU communication professor Amber Johnson, Ph.D.

Future Plans

Johnson has plans for three more exhibits: one on radical imagination, another on transfuturism, and a final truck centering on black girl magic.

The radical imagination exhibit focuses on creating a space for people to imagine a just world where liberation and freedom from oppression are possible.

The transfuturism exhibit is a photography, oral history and art activism project that utilizes Afrofuturistic art to bring awareness to black transgender and gender non-conforming people.

The black girl magic truck will celebrate the beauty and strength of black women, girls and femmes.

As the recent recipient of a Missouri Humanities Council grant, Johnson hopes to start taking the fleet to homeless shelters, transitional youth housing, senior living facilities and adult day care centers – places where commonly ignored, vulnerable populations can grapple with the institutions that have oppressed them.

The goal is to encourage people to see each other as they truly are and influence change. It’s why Johnson calls the Fleet a “humanizing project.”

“If you can just take a moment to see that everybody is complex and riddled with all kind of fun and tragedy and trauma and good, it’s a lot easier to exercise grace and compassion,” she said. “So let’s see each other in this moment as complex people and not stereotypes, and then what is possible? What can emerge? That’s the goal. We’ll see what happens next.”  

For more information and to find out how you can help, visit www.thejusticefleet.com.