University of Central Missouri Feature Article
“She’s the epitome of giving back”
Powerful storytelling inspires future teachers
Giving back comes in many forms. To Cynthia “Mama J” Johnson, Ph.D. of Lee’s Summit, Mo., it means sharing her story of overcoming poverty, severe stuttering, and insecurity to inspire educators. Johnson, a 1987 alumna and Warrensburg native, travels the country speaking to teachers. She calls her message, “Real solutions for real issues in the 21st century.”
In January, she came home to UCM as keynote speaker for the annual Freedom Scholarship dinner, the highlight of the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.
“My mother attended every one of the Freedom Scholarship Dinners, from the first one until she passed away,” Johnson said. “She told me, ‘Maybe someday they’ll ask you to speak at one of those dinners.’ Here I stand tonight, three years to the day from when my mother passed away. It feels good to be home.”
UCM President Chuck Ambrose was so impressed he invited her to be a regular guest speaker in education classes. Since then, Johnson has spoken to future teachers six times. “She brings commitment to a conversation,” says Michael Wright, dean of the College of Education. “She has great ability to energize the audience and work toward social justice for all.” Many UCM students have no experience with poverty. “Cynthia opens their eyes and inspires them.” Wright says.
Elizabeth Williams begins her sophomore year at UCM this fall. A Blue Springs, Mo. native, she plans to teach elementary school in an urban district—perhaps Kansas City. She heard Johnson speak during her freshman year.
“As Mama J spoke about her experiences and discoveries in diversity, it not only opened my eyes to real concerns that I may encounter but it also created a fire that has been burning in me ever since,” Williams says. “Mama J inspired me to be that one caring adult that changes students’ lives by empowering them to reach their potential.”
Student Sarah Clay acknowledges coming from a “pretty sheltered world.” She says Johnson, “challenged every thought I had about diversity in schools.”
In addition to inspiring students, Johnson’s serves UCM on the College of Education Advisory Council. In this role, she helps guide and shape the college’s practices. She also has belonged to the Charter School Renewal Committee and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Leadership Revision Committee.
“It’s important for me to come back and give back and be a living example of what is possible when you have vision, when you have faith and when get an education,” Johnson says. Mark Lee, an instructor in the College of Education, describes Johnson as “the epitome of ‘pay it forward.’”
“Her personal story reminds all who hear it that we CAN and DO make a difference in the lives of students,” says Lee. “Though a child of poverty, through the love of her family and the support of some empathetic and devoted teachers, she beat the odds and her potential was unleashed. After rising to a level of national prominence, ‘Mama J’ spreads her message of hope motivates countless educators to BE that difference in the lives of students.”
Growing up, Johnson’s home was a place of faith and love. It also was a place lacking what most of us consider necessities. When the family didn’t have the money to pay the water bill, they went to the park, filled a bucket from a spigot and took it home. They had the gas turned off every summer and used an electric burner for cooking and heating bath water. On top of poverty, Johnson struggled with stuttering and a learning disability.
Johnson knew deep down she was smart, but succeeding in school eluded her. One gifted educator turned on the light for this future leader.
“In the eighth grade, Mr. Ken Bell was my teacher in an English and speech course block,” Johnson remembers. “He gave me a monologue to perform at a competition. I told him I couldn’t do it because of my stutter.”
Bell insisted. Mustering every ounce of confidence, she gave the speech and took home a first place trophy. She went on to compete in speech in high school and at UCM. She was the first inductee into the Podium of Honor as a member of the Talking Mules speech and debate square for earning the Outstanding Collegiate Competitor award.
Johnson received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from UCM then earned her doctorate in educational leadership at Baker University. After teaching 10 years, Johnson moved into administration. She was an assistant high school principal for two years and a middle school principal for 11 years. A crusader for change in urban education, she became a consultant for the National Middle School Association.
Johnson releases two books this fall, Poverty, Diversity, Equity and Excellence, a book about closing
the achievement gap between the poor and privileged, and From Poverty to Potential, which applies
story to working with children in any setting.
“As schools become more diverse, it’s imperative that teachers understand where students come from and provide them with the personalized tools to be successful,” Johnson teaches. “Equity has become the resounding word of the day since the signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act last year.” Johnson is an expert in equitable education. She frequently speaks at large professional development sessions kicking off a school year. Her presentations include singing, poetry, laughter and tears.
The songs she sings often are ones she wrote herself. She just released an album of spiritual music called “By Grace Alone” for which she wrote the lyrics and music.
When asked how she has the time to do everything she does, she gives the credit to God. “At age 50, I can witness the change that has come over me,” she says