Abigail Johnson of Silver Spring, Md. is one of three Marylanders to receive a spot in the Memorial Foundation’s inaugural Social Justice Fellowship Program, which honors the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Courtesy photo)

By Nadine Matthews
Special to the AFRO

Three Maryland locals, Emanuel Yisreal of Owings Mills, Silver Springs’ Abigail Johnson and Alexandria Washington, were among 50 nationwide recipients in the inaugural Social Justice Fellowship Program, sponsored by the Memorial Foundation, builders of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.  The Memorial Foundation exists to promote awareness of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial and its tenets of democracy, justice, hope and love.

The program was started in order to commemorate the memorial’s 10th anniversary. Social Justice Fellows, according to the organization’s website, “are passionate, community-oriented leaders who believe in organizing and mobilization as keys to the movement for systemic change in spaces across the United States. Additionally, Fellows must possess a strong entrepreneurial spirit with a focus on improving the conditions of marginalized persons on a local, state and/or national level.”

Johnson spoke to the AFRO about what inspires her to do the kind of work for which she was awarded, and her thoughts on civil rights leader Martin Luther King. A child of Nigerian immigrants, Johnson attended K-12 prep boarding school, the Milton Hershey School, in Hershey, Penn. starting at age six.

Johnson’s experience at the school played a significant role in the application process for the Social Justice Fellowship. “That school was the first place,” she said, “that modeled for me what it was like to have a thriving community, with over 2,000 students from across the US, who go there with some form of need.” The school pays tuition and health care for the students, and if they have a certain grade point average, the school also pays their college tuition.

Johnson said that what appealed to her most about MLK’s message was his call for unity and peace. “He represents, for me, the unity that we saw when George Floyd murder happened. I would turn and see my White co-workers out in the streets. That’s what Martin Luther King represented.” She also revealed that “Every MLK Day I would recite the “I Have A Dream” speech to my roommates at boarding school because I believe in it so strongly.”

The eight-week program included appearances from commentators and activists in the realm of social justice, including Bakari Sellers, Angela Rye and Alicia Garza . “What they distilled down to us is that they are still human,” stated Johnson. “We idolize them as leaders of the movement but when they spoke to us they were raw, open and honest in talking about still needing to take care of everyday family matters and that they get weary of the fight sometimes. They talked about how to speak with your authentic voice and how to not be afraid to stand up for what’s right when you feel bullied.”

In addition to the lecture series which was hosted by acclaimed journalist Roland S. Martin, the program also included three other components: a personal learning journey to focus on a key area of interest and practical application; a capstone project focused on building a movement for a current issue at the local, regional or national level; and concluding with, for those who complete the full program, an in-person Congressional component of the Fellowship focusing on social justice and public policy. 

As a graduate of Georgetown University and an attendee of Obama’s first inauguration, Johnson said she hopes her social justice efforts will lead to a movement more commonly marked by the kind of unity she saw on display during the protests of the summer of 2020. “In this day and age, the only way we’re going to heal and move past the generational divide is if all people from all backgrounds and creeds walk together and have the same mindset.”

She pointed to the unique aspects of the latest push for social justice as an indicator of the importance of a shared understanding of history in social movement, noting that the world watched the events surrounding George Floyd unfold along the same timeline. “This happened during a pandemic when everyone was stuck at home glued to the TV.”

As part of her own social justice practice, Johnson revealed she makes it a point to understand as much of history as possible. “I honor and respect everyone who came before us. I try to learn as much as possible so we can avoid reinventing the wheel and just learn from past mistakes.”

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