Honoring a veteran administrator and former Board of Regent member, the University on Monday established the Josie Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award.
The first-of-its-kind award adds to Johnson’s legacy, which spans nearly four decades at the University. Each January one student and one staff member who display exemplary commitment to human rights will receive the award during the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.
With an audience of nearly 300 friends, colleagues and family members at the Ted Mann Concert Hall looking on, Johnson beamed as others reflected on her contributions to human rights and social justice. The ceremony also honored outgoing University President Nils Hasselmo for his support of diversity initiatives at the University.
“The agenda of diversity is not easy in a University that is over 100 years old,” Johnson said as she accepted the inaugural award from Hasselmo.
Mahmoud El Kati, a lecturer at Macalester College and former colleague of Johnson’s, spoke of his appreciation for her work and life.
“This award shall remind us of a great example of a committed life that has been governed by respect for the ideals of democracy, opposition to injustice and oppression,” he said. “This is a good moment for us to be able to hail and salute a great champion and a great friend.”
The idea for the award originated in the Office of the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, Johnson’s former workplace. An award committee was established and the recommendation was then forwarded to the All-University Honors Committee, which approved Johnson to be the award’s namesake.
Johnson’s history with the University started in the 1960s, when she helped build and teach initial courses in the African-American studies department.
In 1971, Johnson was appointed to the Board of Regents. She was the first African-American member of the Board and served until 1973, when her husband’s job moved the family to Colorado.
The Johnson family returned to Minnesota in the early 1980s, and Josie began her work as a senior fellow in the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. She later held that same position in the College of Education and Human Development.
In 1992, Hasselmo appointed Johnson the associate vice president for Academic Affairs with special responsibility for minority affairs and diversity. She served until 1996.
For two hours Monday, Johnson’s colleagues recounted her work as a leader in diversity efforts. Between the speakers, friends and family of Johnson offered personal comments and anecdotes about her. A vocal group, Signature, sang an a cappella arrangement of “Heal the World” in her honor and a slide show presentation chronicled Johnson’s life and work.
Among the speakers at the inaugural ceremony were Hasselmo, Dean Robert Bruininks of the College of Education and Human Development and Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles-Belton.
When introducing Johnson, Hasselmo said the award was a representation of the value of human rights at the University. “What better symbol than Josie for this award,” he said.