Alumna is “Epitome of Giving Back”

 Dr. Cynthia “Mama J” Johnson’s Powerful Storytelling Inspires UCM Students


Cynthia “Mama J” Johnson, Ed.D., gives back to her alma mater, the University of Central Missouri (UCM), by speaking to education students about her experience overcoming poverty, stuttering and a learning disability thanks to help from caring teachers and her parents. A national leader in equitable education, Johnson also serves on the UCM College of Education Advisory Council.

Dr. Mama J_2

"Mama J" addressing the crowd at UCM's 2016 annual Freedom Scholarship Dinner in January 2016.

     Giving back comes in many forms. To Cynthia “Mama J” Johnson, Ed.D., of Lee’s Summit, Mo., it means speaking to classes and at special events and serving on a college advisory council. Johnson overcame poverty, severe stuttering, and insecurity to become a national leader on educational equity. A 1987 UCM alumna and Warrensburg native, 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 MLK Freedom Scholarship dinner, the highlight of the University’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration. The dinner raises money for the Freedom Scholarship, a four-year Alumni Foundation scholarship for students from populations historically under-represented in higher education. In addition to cash awards, recipients benefit from mentoring through the Office of Student Experience and Engagement. 
     “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 Dr. Charles Ambrose was so impressed with her speech that he invited her to be a regular guest speaker in education classes. Since then, Johnson has spoken to future teachers six times.
     “UCM greatly values its relationship with Dr. Johnson. She’s a tremendous role model and an inspiration to all of us, reminding everyone that they can overcome obstacles in their lives," says Ambrose. "Through her work as a speaker and educator, she continues to give back to her community and her alma mater by helping to develop a culture that promotes engaged learning and service. This is important to our students’ success, not only in their studies at UCM, but in life beyond campus.” 
     “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 direct experience with poverty. “Cynthia opens their eyes and inspires them,” Wright says. 
     Elizabeth Williams begins her sophomore year at UCM this fall. A native of Blue Springs, Mo., 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.” 
     Sarah Clay, also a sophomore, 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 serves UCM on the College of Education Advisory Council. As a council member, she advises the dean on what she sees in the field and helps guide and shape the college’s practices.
     “There are multiple ways for alumni to stay involved, helping to advance our students and university,” says Dr. Jason Drummond, vice president for university advancement, executive director of the UCM Foundation. “Dr. Johnson illustrates the significant impact alumni can have on UCM. We are grateful for her service as an alumni leader and the difference she’s made in the lives of our students.” 
     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, motivating 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 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. Johnson blew away the competition in college, eventually earning the national Outstanding Collegiate Competitor award. Johnson was the first person inducted into UCM’s speech and debate honor society, the Podium of Honor. She says her Talking Mules experience prepared her for public speaking and teaching. 
     She set her sights on becoming a high school speech teacher. Her dream came true when she was hired as speech and debate coach at Raytown South High School in Raytown, Mo.  
     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. She brings that same energy to her presentations at UCM.
     “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 you get an education,” Johnson says.

To learn more about Mama J, visit her website here!

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