Equity Actions: Learning from a Living Legend

September 22, 2023

As a key social determinant of health, racism is known to impact lifelong well-being and resilience. This conversation with living legend Dr. Josie Robinson Johnson illustrates how she has turned her social experiences of racism, bias and injustice into a life and future filled with hope and healing. Born in Houston, Texas in 1931, Dr. Johnson was born to be an activist, disruptor and civil rights leader. Listen as she shares her amazing story, beginning as a teenager canvassing for voting rights, through her delegation to represent Minnesota in the March on Washington in 1963, and her impact of helping create the African American studies department and become the first Black woman on the Board of Regents at the University of Minnesota.


Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: This is Talking Pediatrics, a clinical podcast by Children’s Minnesota, home to the kid experts where the complex is our every day. Each week we bring you intriguing stories and relevant pediatric health care information as we partner with you in the care of your patients. Our guests, data, ideas and practical tips will surprise, challenge, and perhaps change how you care for kids.

Welcome to Talking Pediatrics. I’m your host, Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd. As a key social determinant of health, racism is known to impact lifelong wellbeing and resilience. This conversation with living legend, Dr. Josie Robinson Johnson, illustrates how she has turned her social experiences of racism, bias, and injustice into a life and future filled with hope and healing. Listen as she shares her amazing story with guest host James Burroughs, which begins as a teenager canvassing for voting rights through her delegation to represent Minnesota in the March on Washington in 1963, and ultimately helping to create the African-American Studies Department and become the first Black woman on the board of regents at the University of Minnesota.

James Burroughs: Welcome to Talking Pediatrics. This is James Burroughs, SVP and Chief Equity Inclusion Officer at Children’s Minnesota. I’m coming to you live from the equity and inclusion suite, and today I have a very special guest that I’ve been wanting to interview and talk to for a long time. Her name is Dr. Josie Johnson. Welcome, Dr. Johnson.

Dr. Josie Robinson Johnson: Thank you very much, James. It’s an honor that you’ve invited me to come.

James Burroughs: Well, it is my honor. I’ve admired you and you’ve been my mentor as you know, for many years. I’ve been in Minnesota 31 years. I’ve always modeled myself after you, Dr. [inaudible 00:01:49], Dr. Reatha Clark King, and always tried to live up to your expectations. So thank you for all you’ve done.

Dr. Johnson: You have lived up to them.

James Burroughs: Well, thank you for joining us today. Really appreciate it. Well, the first question is the easiest one. It’s tell us about you. What influenced you as a young kid growing up and also too your family.

Dr. Johnson: My hometown is Houston, Texas. I was born and raised in Texas. My father and mother were graduates of Prairie View Black college in Texas, and my dad became a real estate dealer. And my mother, a home helper involved very much in the community and engaging us as her children. I had two brothers, and we were all very involved in our community. We had family in Texas. My father was raised there and so was my mother. So Texas is a special state for us and we learned a lot from them and others in Houston high school, elementary school, off to college from there.

James Burroughs: Okay. As a young girl growing up in Houston, who were some of your influences that you looked at and said, “I want to be like her or him when I grew up?”

Dr. Johnson: Yes. Well, we were very blessed, I think, because many of the residents there were graduates of college and engaged with our parents who were college graduates talking about education and us going on to college. So that was a ordinary, constant conversation among the people with whom my family associated and therefore the people that we as my two brothers and I were exposed to. College was never something you thought about. It was automatic. It was the thing you did. You completed high school and you went on to college. So we learned early to respect higher education and what you needed to do in order to be rewarded as a result of that education.

James Burroughs: So your influences were in your home, your parents, your community. And the expectation was higher education to go to college. We talk a lot about at Children’s Minnesota, we want to make sure we diversify our workforce so our young people can see people who look like them and aspire to be a doctor, a nurse, a pediatrician, and that’s so important.

Dr. Johnson: I agree with you. Growing up in an environment of people who respected and expected education was something that I think many of our Black people in Houston, Texas and in other cities within Texas were exposed to. You anticipated that next level from elementary, high, to college, and beyond.

James Burroughs: Dr. Johnson, my mom told me when I was growing up and she tells me now, “You’re never to ask a woman her age.” I’m not going to ask you that, but I’m going to ask you the time period of time as you were growing up.

Dr. Johnson: Born in 1930. So that gives us some reference, do you think?

James Burroughs: There we go. And I didn’t ask your age.

Dr. Johnson: No.

James Burroughs: So we’re clear.

Dr. Johnson: And tell your mother you didn’t ask me.

James Burroughs: Okay. I’m good. I’m still safe. And I wanted the audience to hear that because a lot of times we think in the 1930s, 1940s when there was segregation, there was violence, there was the Klan and all those things that were terrible. There was also these positive things going on in Black communities as well.

Dr. Johnson: Absolutely. I consider myself very fortunate to have grown up in the environment that I did. Both of my parents were college graduates of the Black college there, at Prairie View in Texas. My mother was very active in the community, engaged with families and children. We had nursery school early in my life in my community, and my mother was very involved in that. My father was engaged in real estate, so we had an opportunity to meet people who were interested in property and ownership in Houston, and my father was one of those people who assisted them in learning about Houston, learning about the community. They were both graduates of Prairie View College and engaged in kind of the normal natural way I think of it now. People came to our homes and it was always welcoming and like family and community, and that’s how they treated each other and how they taught us and modeled for us respect for our community and our people.

James Burroughs: One of the things I want to talk about today with you is called health equity, and health equity is making sure that we provide adequate or excellent healthcare to everyone no matter what your race, ethnicity, class station in life. But one of the things we struggle with as Children’s Minnesota and other hospital is how do we engage the community, so the different community of different ethnic racial groups, languages, and you talked a lot about how your parents and your community was engaged at that time. What are some ideas you may have for us around how we could better engage community?

Dr. Johnson: Those who are interested in reaching out to our community somehow figure out how to do that through existing organizations like the Urban League, like the NACP, like church groups that actually go out and engage people and bring them into the community. I believe we have lost that sense of It’s important to bring people in to talk to them, to find out how they feel about what’s going on around them, to double check on children what they watch on TV, with whom do they spend hours on the telephone with. Are we creating for them, not some kind of policing and worrying, but engagement, being involved with them?

I’ve known parents who are able to know where their children are, to appreciate the people with whom their children associate and make that a part of an everyday routine, not something special or policing. And we have to learn that there’s so much going on that worries us that we sometimes step back when perhaps we don’t need to, we’re fearful. And I believe the more we are engaged and talk to our children, listen to them, the better they are and the better we are, and the kind of policies we can create in our community that encourage participation and listening. We are not listening, I believe, as deeply as we should to what our children are telling us.

James Burroughs: One of the things, Dr. Johnson, that I’ve seen you as the many years I’ve known you, you made sure that we also had a political influence in the community and made sure that our political leaders knew what we needed in our community, but also too were accountable as well. Can you talk a little about the importance of that as well?

Dr. Johnson: I grew up in an environment of activity. My parents were very involved in their community and in organizing and being a part of organizations. So it was fortunately for us, kind of a natural thing. You got involved in your community, it was not a surprise to be engaged and to do whatever was required. So early on, getting involved in the NACP here in Minneapolis, the Urban League actually working for the Urban League and going into the community, organizing young people to tell us the issues that were facing them and the unclarity of what many of us were doing adults in the community has always been, in my judgment, so critical.

It’s kind of top of everything you do. Listening, being engaged with our younger people, what are they experiencing now? Much of what we have a tendency to do as oldsters, I believe, is to reference what we know, what we did, what we thought, rather than listening to the new direction. So I think, for me, I have been blessed in that early appreciation of our youth having had an opportunity from my own youth and forward being exposed and being in the middle, not on the periphery where I’m seen not as a part of it, but as an outsider. That attitude that you get early on in your life, I think respecting, listening, and engaging has been a blessing that I have felt and appreciated.

James Burroughs: Let me ask you that. So one of the things I want to do better is also to have our healthcare system lean into things like housing because if you don’t have proper housing and you don’t have children that are safe, lean into things like better gun safety or safety in our communities as well and things like that. Food security, we have a lot of grocery stores that aren’t in our neighborhoods, our poorer neighborhoods, that serve our people of color populations. What do you think we should do as a system to address some of those housing, food, security, those kind of violence in the community?

Dr. Johnson: Well, I think we need to know more about those activities in our community and we need to talk about them. We need our churches to talk about that, organize around the service of those entities that you’ve identified, and put pride around it rather than shame. Often it’s we move into an environment or a sense that there’s something wrong with belonging to food gathering efforts or safety programs for community, and that they become an anti-community effort rather than a collective. And I think we probably don’t spend as much energy as we should, and perhaps we do, and many of us don’t know it, to talk about what we are doing and the impact of what that activity is yielding rather than constantly complaining that things are not being done.

We need to model, talk out loud, have conversation with the people who are engaged. We need to remember this is work that so many of our people do automatically, but to evaluate what does it mean to have a social committee? What is it doing? What’s the result? Share it with the community and the church. Sometimes we don’t tell our community what’s going on and the benefits of it, not trying to gather pride in it, but in modeling, telling what the impacts are.

James Burroughs: One of the things I’ve learned from Mayor Carter, Melvin Carter, who’s our mayor in St. Paul, is that it is not easy to get elected, but you can get elected, but then you need people to still work with you to implement these plans and these ideas and these thoughts. So that action piece is so important, Dr. Johnson.

Dr. Johnson: And the action people want to know that something results from it. We have talked for a million years about what we ought to and should do, but we have to actually show that organizing around equity in housing and employment matters. Sometimes we get so satisfied with small results because it takes so much effort, and work, and hard times. So any little sign of success, we want to talk about that rather than filtering that in. But talk about the long goal of children’s education, and health, and safety.

James Burroughs: I’d love for you to talk to my 10-year-old daughter. So Teresa Ann Burroughs, who’s the product of a Delta woman and an Omega man, and she’s very smart, but if you could tell her anything about what she needs to do around health equity, what she needs to do around making it better in the future, what are some of the advice that you would give my 10-year-old Teresa?

Dr. Johnson: Your daughter probably represents a generation of young people who want to be a part of the group, part of the crowd, not excluded from what her or his peers are doing at that age. We need, I think, to find as many examples as we can, and there are a lot of them in our African-American community, historically and current, who made the decision that they were going to make a contribution to their community and stuck to that and figured out what did that mean to have parents and other adults with whom they can talk about their observations of their time, their group, their own attitude about things, and to help our children understand how complicated it is to sometimes hold on to something that others don’t seem to respect or appreciate.

But our parent groups and our elders really are needed and we must reach out with respect and commitment to the mission and goal of saving our children and helping them develop the respect for their historical history and the struggle of their ancestors. So there’s a lot of work to be done. I think it is absolutely doable, but we’ve got to know what is the goal and what are the steps to get there. And, James, I think the kind of work that you do must be told, we’ve got to tell our children. We have to tell them and then model and give some examples of what it means, not just goody-good, but what does it do to your spirit and your feeling of contribution.

James Burroughs: Well, I want to thank you for allowing me to reach out to you as my elder.

Dr. Johnson: Thank you.

James Burroughs: It’s my guide and somebody I’ve followed and loved for many years, and I’ve followed your footstep through your actions and hopefully will they be the guide Teresa and other young people in that way. So, Dr. Johnson, I want to thank you for coming on Talking Pediatrics, it’s been a wonderful time talking to you, and I wishing you nothing but love and God’s mercy.

Dr. Johnson: Thank you, James. It’s all of that that has brought me to this 92 year period in my life, and it is the love and respect that I feel I get from my community and my family. So I’m very blessed and I thank you for this opportunity to talk to our community.

Dr. Angela Kade Goepferd: Thank you for joining us for Talking Pediatrics. Come back each week for a new episode with our caregivers and experts in pediatric health. Our executive producer and showrunner is Ilze Vogel. Episodes are engineered, produced, and edited by Jake Beaver. Amie Juba is our marketing representative. For more information and additional episodes, visit us at childrensmn.org/talkingpediatrics, and to rate and review our show, please go to childrensmn.org/survey.