Two side-by-side headshots, from left: A white woman in a red dress with a black headband and a Black man wearing a gray fedora and red shirt against a blurred background. Above their photos is red text reading "Reframing Resistance: Reimagining Higher Education."

Reframing Resistance: Reimagining Higher Education with Johnnie Campbell – Episode #21

How can educators create unifying classroom spaces where resistance skills can be safely practiced and cultivated? This is the “freedom dreaming” Johnnie Campbell and Alida Miranda-Wolff do together in this episode of Care Work. As a resistance scholar, educator, and PhD candidate, Johnnie Campbell is putting in the work to build danger-free, liberatory spaces and explore the way Black young adults experience college. He doesn’t strive to merely observe and record them; rather, he plans to use these learnings to tear down damaging higher education structures and policies and rebuild them. In his vision, higher education institutions will go on to center the experiences of young Black people and remove the arbitrary barriers that cause them to be left out.

Episode Show Notes

Discover groundbreaking strategies that could reshape the college experience:

  • Creating danger-free education spaces where students can show up fully
  • The impact of power dynamics on collaborative learning
  • The potential future of a higher education system that centers equality in the discussion
  • How to prioritize self-care while you’re building communities of resistance

Important resources from this episode:

Connect with Johnnie Campbell: 

Connect With Alida:

Advocate for underrepresented and underserved groups in organizations with Ethos –


JOHNNIE: A lot of us have made it to college and have already lost the freedom to dream through learning and thinking. And I think that care work should be rooted in offering space to do so, which means that also requires me as an educator, to craft the space in that way in partnership with students, and also to do so in a way that lessens the power dynamics that I have.
ALIDA: Welcome to the Care Work Podcast. I’m your host, Alida Miranda-Wolff. This podcast is for anyone in the business of providing care. Whether you’re being paid for it or not, you’ll discover what it means to offer care and how to take care of yourself in the process. For the last ten years, as a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging practitioner, a care worker myself, I’ve focused on providing care to other people for a living. Now with this podcast, I’m hoping to create a culture of care in my community and help you do the same in yours.
In this resistance centered episode of Care Work, I talk with Johnnie Campbell, the PhD candidate, resistance scholar and educator, about a whole lot of things. But the main thing we talk about is how every form of resistance is activism. To paraphrase the great TJ Stewart, in this episode, we not only talk about the ways in which our higher education structures and policies keep black young adults out on the fringes, but also what we can do to create danger free classrooms that ultimately allow them to engage in freedom dreaming, the kind of dreaming that ultimately will allow us to rebuild higher education institutions into fundamentally more unifying and inclusive spaces. Hi, Johnnie, and welcome to the Kerock podcast. Thank you for being here.
JOHNNIE: Well, I’m very honored to be here and excited to share and have some good conversations today.
ALIDA: In your own words, what do you do?
JOHNNIE: My claim to fame, if you will, is that I identify as a resistance scholar. My work as an educator began in higher education in 2016, where I began working at Idaho State University. And so, uh, predominantly, my work has been in higher education and has since migrated to, more specifically, work with social, uh, justice education and facilitating work around that with various organizations and institutions simultaneously, I am also a doctoral student at Loyola University of Chicago, where I’m currently dissertating and in the dissertation proposal phase. So, uh, there. I’ve spent the last three years doing various research with two scholars there, Dr. Lorenzo Baber and Dr. Demetri Morgan. Both scholars are critical scholars who espouse social justice, uh, approaches into their work.
Since then, I think my research philosophy and my claim to fame as a resistance scholar has kind of, I’ve kind of come to know that more as a student and as a professional. And I’ve coupled those experiences with my lived experiences to really want to understand, you know, how people resist systems of oppression and how they do so in their quest to learn, right? I’m very interested in that particular piece, and those who know and understand how they might do it, how they talk about it, how they think about it, how they do it, and if there is a potential framework around that for us as educators to learn from. So that’s a little bit about me. I think, personally, I’m a Chicago person from the south side, proudly, identify myself as a project kid. I am from the south side of Chicago in a small town called Robinson, Illinois, one of the first all black towns in the United States of America. I’ve had to come back and relearn my own upbringing, if you will, in an anti deficit way, to learn about the rich culture that my upbringing brought me. Despite some of the negative connotations you get with being from the projects, I bring so much value by having re-situated myself and how I understand that now.
ALIDA: I’d love to hear from you how you, as an educator, offer care.
JOHNNIE: Hmm, I think that as an educator, I am challenged with the opportunity to do two things, one of which is offering tools, right? And giving resources to students to fill their toolboxes, which is up to and including care, right? In a self care approach, but also in doing so in the ways that they undergo the learning process. And that’s up to and including just the space and environment that they’re in, the classroom itself. So, I think the classroom as a laboratory of learning, it’s just one big science project to me. And when I think about that through care, I think about, how can we experiment with care? How can we try different things to find what works best for the students that are in this space? And I do so for and with the students that I work with. So, I want them to be able to become self-sufficient in understanding how to do that for themselves and also challenging spaces that would otherwise show differently what that looks like.
And that is my impetus for resistance scholarship, because I think for various populations, some of this work has been seen through various lenses that would otherwise situate it in a harmful way. Right? So I often ask, can some of us who exist in margins resist fully? For those of us who do resist, who hold marginalized and mostly marginalized identities, it’s dangerous for us to do so. And so myself, as an educator, I work very diligently from the lens of care to situate the classroom in a way that is danger free and for them to be able to experiment with resistance and learning their own voices and coming to know how they want to utilize them in the classroom as a way to learn. And it can be exciting and fun and really life-giving and affirming when done so in a culturally relevant way that really seeks to expose students to the ways that they are brilliant. They are and can be thinkers, and that, if given a healthy environment to do so, I think that our world just becomes a little bit better of a place. I try to situate care work in the classroom and engaging with students as its own little world, right? It’s its own small world that students get to come and dream, freedom dream, and do so in a way that should be supported, right? And I think that this is something that we often lose before we even can arise to higher education, right? A lot of us have make it to college and have already lost the freedom to dream through learning and thinking. And I think that care work should be rooted in offering space to do so, which means that also requires me, as an educator, to craft the space in that way in partnership with students, and also to do so in a way that lessens the power dynamics that I have as a facilitator of learning and knowing that. That learning can’t take place if students and learners aren’t able to fully exist there, right? We are limited in that if we don’t offer that for them.
ALIDA: I feel like that’s such a rich entry point, but I’m just really stuck on this idea of a danger free zone or a danger free space, because especially in our cultural and political moment in the US today, that is increasingly becoming something that, regardless of your affiliations, seems impossible. So how do you actually create a danger free space when you’re talking about issues of resistance and social justice?
JOHNNIE: We are in an interesting time. We’re in an interesting season. And, I mean, I feel like it’s almost everywhere. If I open up TikTok, it’s there. If I open up Instagram, it’s there. If I turn on my news, it’s there. If I listen to the radio, it’s there. If I’m having conversation with family members, it’s there. Right? In some way, I don’t even know if we fully know the real ramifications of it being so pervasive. And so I often start there, right? To help identify for students. When we are in community with each other, what approaches can we implement to help sharpen our lenses, to understand what we have endured and experienced through our lives up until the moment we entered this classroom. And I try my best to encourage reflecting on what that looks like. I believe that there are many students that don’t get a lot of opportunity to talk about their own experiences to begin with. And to be able to offer that to students is a starting point certainly necessary in crafting this space.
So to start, we’re able to actually bring those issues into the classroom, bring our lived experiences into the classroom, and then grapple with them, right? But to also learn to reframe the ways we think about them, right? For example, for myself, when I entered the classroom, you know, I would often talk about being from the projects as a deficit, right? My first exposure to higher education, the first things that I would learn, is, you know, where I had gaps in my learning. What would have been beneficial for me in that moment is to have a facilitator or a teacher tell me that it is a skill to identify those gaps, right? To even be able to say, hey, I didn’t quite learn as well as I did here, or, we didn’t get this when I was in high school in this particular area of math, right? And therefore, the way I think about math is the way it is, because I just didn’t have exposure to it. I didn’t have access to it, right? So it took for me to connect to folks who knew how to identify those skills and say, that’s very useful to you in your learning, right? And I also recognize that education is not exempt. Right? We have also been contributing to this through some of the regular, everyday things we connect to schools, right? Grades, testing, all of these things that we use to kind of measure a student’s aptitude for academic excellence, and then that become then an issue of access as well, right? So I think about ways to challenge that in my own way, to say, hey, let’s just think about reflecting on learning and taking learning and centering that in everything we do, rather than centering failure, right? Rather than saying, well, maybe college isn’t for you, because if we hear it enough, we will begin to say that and speak that over ourselves, which becomes, I think, really a tool of oppression in that way.
ALIDA: You’ve brought up this idea of coming out of the projects and really having to reframe your perspective on that experience. And I want to first admit that so much of my understanding of the projects is informed by outsiders looking in. So, I know about this from an academic standpoint and from people who are not from the projects, writing about the projects. And so I feel like I have this gap. And I want to know from your experience, what was it like to grow up in the projects and what would you want people who like me are, seeing it through media, or through books, or even in these academic circles where there’s sort of this patronizing heir to it. What would you want us to know?
JOHNNIE: First and foremost, I would say that there is no one size fit all answer to this. And that my answer is going to be specific to my experience itself. I was raised in a two parent home, right? So let’s just dismiss the myth that, you know, this wasn’t happening in these sorts of environments. My mom and dad were, you know, religious people. Very strict on what they expected from me. They expected academic excellence from me. Even though my mom doesn’t even have a high school diploma. She was the one helping me do my homework. My dad only had a high school diploma. And they both spoke college into my life. They were the ones that said, okay, well, we are going to work to make sure you get access to something that we’ve never had. And that, to me, was not uncommon in my community. By and large, my mother is probably the groundwork for my resistance scholarship, right? Because she possessed the will to resist every notion before I was even alive. And it’s how I was able to get where I am.
And also I think that I want to dispel myths about gangs and gang violence as well too. Because I can recall Thanksgiving, getting turkeys from gangs. I can recall getting Christmas gifts from gangs in a very organized and community focused manner. From folks who were affiliated in gangs, right? So I was connected to gang affiliation in my own upbringing. And my eldest brother was directly affiliated in gangs. So, by virtue and by nature, his friend group were affiliated. And therefore I was supported by his friends in a lot of different ways. So, if my dad couldn’t be at a football game, best believe folks from my community were there, right? And I, think to dispel this hyper masculine piece too, if I had a choir concert and I had a solo, they were there too, right?
So, I think that some of the myths that we hear on the outside is quite unfortunate. Because while we were kind of, you know, left to our own vices and had folks speaking for us in a lot of spaces where powerful decisions are made as it pertains to policy, as it pertains to governing officials and what decisions they made to tear down homes that we were living in. We weren’t being accessed to what was happening and being made accessible and adjustable to the community members that lived there in the first place. I think that this also dispels the myth that there was no political identity development happening in the space, right? That there was, but that was inaccessible to us at the same time, right? So what we would read in papers about our own community or what we would see on the news about our own community, was sometimes the first access points many of us had to some of the things that was happening.
So, me growing up in a project and my mom finding out that they were being tore down, and then that we will be given vouchers that didn’t equate anywhere near the money at which we would need to find suitable housing from there, right? And how that decision was made and how what was fair in that decision to be made didn’t really speak to the community members at large. Yet folks still found ways to resist and survive and thrive and raise their kids, and get their kids to college, get their kids graduating from college, and enhancing the trajectories of their futures. I do think it’s really, really, something to be proud of one, but also something that a lot of folks should know and know from the people. We were learning that through living, surviving, and finding ways to thrive in our community, with each other. In community with each other.
ALIDA: And it certainly shows up in the way that you teach and the way that you educate. When did you realize that you were going to be an educator?
JOHNNIE: The interesting thing about being from the projects and then going away to college, for me, is when you go to college, you try to look for things that are similar to where you came from, right? And so for me, that was asking, in Macomb, Illinois, where are the black people? Right? Where are they? Thankfully, you know, we did have a significant population of black folks that attended western, but I was particularly interested in, in the town of Macomb, where were black know. So when I went to Walmart and I was just in the grocery store, I was going to get some school supplies, I can see people that looked like me, right? And that was something that, in reflection, I knew. I was just uncomfortable in the town of Macomb. Even though Western had its own demographic as an institution, I had personally challenging experiences with police in college, right? And so even though I was looking for a similar experiences from an anti-deficit piece, I unfortunately came to know challenging experiences with police, similarly to how I was being looked at from the outside in by police, which wasn’t always healthy, right? I couldn’t walk to the library and not be pulled over by Macomb police, right? And so, navigating that and then having to go to class and show up fully after being shaken up by dealing with the police for nothing at all, and then talking to my African American studies professor about it, and then we all write the mayor, and we get the mayor involved.
This is where my activist identity kind of became a thing. This is where my voice for this, I think, became a thing, because I became concerned about other black people. I became more concerned about the ways we lived here when we were paying to be here. I felt that having that experience was super unfair, right. But also, it was hard to search for folks to see that experience and support us. We really clung to those folks because they helped develop us beyond the classroom and helped tell us about the things that were happening in our country to help us shape our political identity development, to help us shape what we might want to do. And in that work, my involvement increased, my student leadership increased, and my mentorship of other students and particularly young black men emerged. And as it emerged, I really found that I was passionate about helping see other black people graduate from college, but not just graduate with a piece of themselves and having to really endure some of the racialized and gendered trauma that I’ve had to. I wanted them to graduate full, whole, and healthy, not having to traverse that similarly to me. So if I could help them do it a little bit better than I had to do it, I felt better about my time in that town. I felt that was a calling for me to do. I felt I just innately grew into the desire to do that.
And then that also, then would be like an impetus for how I became passionate about education, because I started to see similar harms happen in the classroom, right? I started to see teachers very willing to speak failure over students before doing the care work that we’re talking about right now, to see about them, Right? The assumption of failure, the assumed deficit, is what really drove me to want to impact how classrooms operate. I put myself in it. Right. When seeing teachers assume that you’re going to fail before you even get there, just based off what you look like or based off what your standardized test score might suggest to me was asinine when the standardized test score was not developed for me to begin with. And so seeing that that was common, those experiences with other black people really drove me to want to come to know myself as an educator. I think that I was already engaging in that work in some ways, and then I had the appropriate folks in my life to help draw those connections for me so that I can think more intentionally about it.
ALIDA: This feels like a really good segue to talking about your dissertation and how you’re imagining this in a concrete way. So, what I would like to know a little bit more about is, what is the focus and what is the message that you would want people to take from this endeavor?
JOHNNIE: So I was in a research methods course, and, uh, we were developing a perspective for a project. And in this project, I presented what I am conceptualizing as a resistance playlist. I use playlisting as one of my data collection methods because I think music allows us to dive deeper into our stories, and music is connected to memory. So music helps us remember things sharply, because we oftentimes connect ourselves to music and connect experiences to music. So I triangulate music playlisting with interviews of focus groups in this project to think about this in an intersectional way. I think my dissertation was birthed from, okay, what can I offer knowledge? What can I contribute to knowledge that centers black folks’ experiences? That helps them understand what they do in the face of oppression?
So this is where I think my dissertation is contributing well to. The knowledge is that it talks about the everydayness of resistance. A wonderful scholar by name of TJ Stewarts, who I engage with in Iowa State, taught me that all activism might not be resistance, but all resistance is activism. And this saying was so eye opening for me because it made me think deeper about resistance beyond intentional activism, social movement pieces. But, what we do on our everyday, just showing up can be resistance, right? If we really think about this, for certain folks who show up in spaces that they aren’t, quote unquote, supposed to show up to, or that they, quote unquote, do not belong at, but they show up and they find ways to thrive in the face of whatever it might be. To me, I think it is an important site for learning, particularly for education, because we bring so much of us together. And I do think that higher education espouses to doing exactly what I think this work is calling for, which is bringing diverse minds together to help change and better our world. And I argue that with this project, we’ll be able to inform education policy, we’ll be able to inform pedagogical approaches, we will be able to inform the ways we develop curriculum around ways students are telling us through their resistance. This ain’t working. This does not speak to my experience. This is not true about me as a black person. Even though education can be a place for freedom and liberation, it is simultaneously the place where dreams die, right?
So we absolutely have to reckon with that reality of our history and our truth. But our future can’t wait on us to get it right. And so when we don’t get it right, what’s left? We can’t just say, okay, well, but a certain percentage of us, it’s working for. That piece, to me, just has never sat right with me because I’ve always thought about, okay, well, the 60% of your institution is graduating. Who are the rest? Who are the 40%? Why aren’t they graduating? What are you learning from it and what are you doing about it, except leaving us in debt? Well we didn’t have the means to come here anyway? We had to take out loans, and you set us up for that. And so now something has to happen there, right? So that we can really start to shift that trajectory. And I think my work is a conversation with other scholars who have already begun that work, and I hope to partner with them in that effort.
ALIDA: Thank you so much for sharing. And my last question for you, Johnnie, is just for folks listening today who find that they’re very lonely or untended to as they pursue this larger project of resistance, of justice, of community building, what is something that you recommend they do to care for themselves?
JOHNNIE: Perhaps one of the biggest questions I’ve gotten since I’ve really made the commitment to do this work more intentionally, is, what do you do? And what keeps you whole and healthy? What is it? And I routinely ask that question of myself, is what keeps me whole and healthy and what has? So, as I began my studies with my dissertation, uh, even as a master’s student, you know, I had to have some come to Jesus moment about things I was letting go of for the sake of labor and the sake of producing, whether it be other scholarship to help support other folks’ research agendas or trying to pass a class. I forgot about a lot of the things I had let go of, things that I absolutely love, that are core to who I am and help keep me, me, right? Through it all. This happens to the best of us, even those of us who may be mentored and advised not to do so, right? So if you’re that person who has kind of forgotten, know that we’re in community with each other on that, and it’s okay to get back on it and get back right with it again, right? And re-situate about these things again.
For me, I would say find that thing right if it’s going to support your mental, physical, environmental, cultural, spiritual, self or a combination of it. And that speaks to the core of who you are, and it keeps you there. I would encourage you to prioritize it if you have the ability to do so, and to think, firstly, what is it? You know, reflect on what that is. For me, it was a creative arts. At every stage of my academic career, I have been so very intertwined in the arts that it then became the impetus to keep me whole, right? It kept me whole physically, but it also kept me whole physically and spiritually as well, because I engaged this in my religious identity, but I also engaged this in my social self, and I also engaged this in my personal interest. I am personally invested in that. I love this part about me. I love who I am when I’m doing it, right? And so I would ask you that. I would ask folks that, what do you do that reminds you how much you love yourself or that version of yourself when you’re in it? I had to find my way back to it, right? And I found myself like this had physical implications, right? My physical health declined because I was without it. My mental health declined because I was without it, right? I wasn’t the best self, right? I wasn’t coming home as happy as I normally have been without it. And these are things that, you know, I think particularly matter to us, because when we lose sight of it, we lessen the quality of person we are in all of the selves we have to be, whether that’s the parent, the partner, the colleague, the teacher, right? The student. I say, do what keeps you whole and healthy. That’s what keeps you you, and that’s what helps you be your best self in the multiple spaces we occupy.
ALIDA: Sage words, Johnnie, so much of what you say are sage words. I so appreciate you. And as we wrap up today’s session, what I’d like to do is make sure other people can keep learning and growing as they have this relationship with you, too. So where can folks engage with you? After today’s episode?
JOHNNIE: I’m happy to connect with folks on social media, so please connect with me, uh, at Facebook. Johnnie L. Campbell, also my DEI platform, The Resistance Roundtables via Facebook as well. And then you can connect with me at My Instagram page is @jlcampbell_7. Certainly can connect with me on LinkedIn as well, for the Johnnie L. Campbell as well. So, yeah, connect and looking forward to more engagement with people.
ALIDA: Thank you so much, Johnnie.
JOHNNIE: Thank you again for having me. I’m so very honored to be here. Alida, you already know how I feel about you. It’s been a vibe from jump and I can’t wait for more.
ALIDA: Thank you for listening to Care Work. Please share this podcast with other care workers in your community so that we can collectively create a culture of care.
This podcast is a collaboration between Ethos and Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Your host is me, Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Theme music “Vibing Introspectively” was written and recorded by Logan Snodgrass.
Production assistance was provided by Ivana Savic-Grubisich.
Audio editing and podcast post-production were provided by Organized Sound Productions.


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