While the internet has helped loads of people get into design, it's design educators like Jennifer White-Johnson who really help teach the next generation of our industry. As a multidisciplinary artist, designer, photographer, activist, and advocate, Jennifer brings all this to her work as an assistant professor of visual communications and digital media arts at Bowie State University. Our conversation began with talking about HBCUs and the responsibility they bear, and we discussed Jennifer's background in art and photography and how a small stint at MICA prepared her for her current teaching career. We also talked about KnoxRoks, an advocacy photo zine dedicated to her son which helps give visibility to children of color in the autism community. As we move into 2020, I'm glad for this conversation and I hope it helps you think about how you can use your design talent in the world!
While the internet has helped loads of people get into design, it's design educators like Jennifer White-Johnson who really help teach the next generation of our industry. As a multidisciplinary artist, designer, photographer, activist, and advocate, Jennifer brings all this to her work as an assistant professor of visual communications and digital media arts at Bowie State University.
Our conversation began with talking about HBCUs and the responsibility they bear, and we discussed Jennifer's background in art and photography and how a small stint at MICA prepared her for her current teaching career. We also talked about KnoxRoks, an advocacy photo zine dedicated to her son which helps give visibility to children of color in the autism community. As we move into 2020, I'm glad for this conversation and I hope it helps you think about how you can use your design talent in the world!
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Maurice Cherry: All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.
Jennifer White-Johnson: My name is Jennifer White-Johnson and I'm a multidisciplinary artist, so photography, graphic design, and then I'm also a professor of visual communications and digital media art at Bowie State University.
Maurice Cherry: So I know that you wear a lot of hats, both literally and figuratively. But let's start off talking about your work as an art and design educator. You mentioned being a professor of visual communications and art at Bowie Stte. What courses do you teach?
Jennifer White-Johnson: I teach all across the spectrum of foundation art and then also senior thesis and exit portfolios, so it's really great. I get a chance to dabble in intro to digital art and what that means for non-majors and then also students that are just getting into art making and what that means for them, so if they're painters or illustrators but they want to get into a digital kind of experience, I help them navigate through the tools and the different experiences that they want to be able to learn. And then also, traditional intro to graphic design courses and getting them excited about typography and font design and then also getting for them to understand design history and what that looks like as an HBCU student and kind of creating artwork that they often don't get a chance to see or that they maybe want to change the narrative a little bit, and then also senior thesis.
Jennifer White-Johnson: So again, not all undergraduate programs have students create an actual senior thesis capstone. And so it's really great that the students ... It's a group show, but they still get a chance to kind of create this really amazing legacy that they want to leave behind and they get a chance to kind of pick any topic that kind of relates to their concentration, whether it's fashion design or advertising, animation, motion graphics. And so it's great. I love that I get a chance to meet so many different students and teach on so many different levels because it's a very interdisciplinary program.
Maurice Cherry: It also sounds like because you're teaching such a wide spectrum of classes, you almost end up sort of being a student's guide from starting out as a freshman all the way up until they graduate. You get to see them really evolve as a designer.
Jennifer White-Johnson: Yeah. That's one of my favorite things. I think now, because I've been teaching there since 2011, and so I think that I've seen maybe three or four classes from freshman year all the way to senior year. It's just so amazing, and like you said, just seeing them develop, seeing them evolve and then seeing them kind of pick up all different types of design and art styles that they want to be able to incorporate into what they do, and these kids are so dope. They're amazing. They're their own little mini design firms in their own right.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And I feel like a lot of people don't really get a chance to realize, or maybe sometimes they get harped on because they're like, "Oh, well, can't you just focus on just doing this and kind of solidify your place in this particular type of work?" But it's like the students know that they want to be photographers, they want to be designers, they want to create their own brands and it's just like, I can't say no to that. I have to just kind of let them be. I have to let them create because that's one thing that we kind of push and strive for is them getting out there and collaborating and not working in a silo, so I love that I get a chance to kind of see a lot of little collectives forming within the school and then also outside of the school. I can't push that enough. I'm so happy when they kind of take it upon themselves to do that.
Maurice Cherry: No, that's really good. It's funny you mentioned that because I was just talking with someone recently. I think they're a film student probably at Georgia State here in Atlanta. You know how we connected? He was one of my Lyft drivers one time. I remember he was talking about being a designer and I gave him my information and said, "Reach out to me," so we've kind of been keeping in touch. He's been talking about really trying to get out there and find a job. He's in school right now. I think he's maybe a junior or so. And he's like, "I really need to find a job and I'm trying to find a job." I'm trying to stress upon him, "You need to build a website or get a brand or something, or not get a brand, but build your brand up so when you're ready to graduate you actually have work that can show for it."
Maurice Cherry: And it's so interesting how I think people can be so focused on the end results that they don't realize kind of everything else that can go into it, which can help make you successful past getting just that end result. Say you get that job. That's not the end once you get the job. What about the next job or what if you get tired of this job and you want to do something different? You have to think about that as you're kind of coming up, I think especially now as a student because there's so many ways to be a part of this industry that don't involve going to school. This is not to sort of harp on education, but you don't necessarily have to even go that route to be a designer. So it's an interesting time right now.
Jennifer White-Johnson: Yeah. So that's why I'm always really excited that ... and like you were saying, the students, they become these mini little entrepreneurs and we stress that a lot at Bowie, and it's just, "How are you building those relationships? What are you doing? What connections are you making? Where are you going? Where are you showing up? What you folks are you aligning yourselves with? What collectives are you aligning yourselves with?" And it's awesome, just being in DC and close to Baltimore and being able to kind of ... There is enough stuff happening that we push the students to go to and to be a part of that they really don't have any excuse to not want to get out there and want to share and want to propel like their art forms forward.
Jennifer White-Johnson: I think one of the key things is just making sure that they stay motivated, and we have to work so hard to just put people in their path, make sure that those paths are also accessible so that they feel like, "Oh, these paths are a reflection of me. I can see myself being a part of this world," and it's not like, "Oh, my professor's just trying to force me to make these connections or these networks," but it's like, "No, this is how this particular AIGA chapter can really, benefit me because they want to mentor me, they want to continue to kind of see me through and collaborate with me."
Jennifer White-Johnson: And so it's been amazing, and I think that's what makes educating at an HBCU so fun is that people want to be able to continue to provide accessible opportunities for students of color. They see how necessary it is and how important it is. And it's just really about ... The responsibility is huge. The work is huge because I have to continue making those waves and setting those paths for the students. But I need a lot of help. I need a lot of help from the outside community collectives to continue to kind of create those paths. And I mean, it's happening.
Maurice Cherry: Now,, to that end, having been there since 2011, how have you seen the university kind of change with respect to the world around us? Because a lot has transpired since then.
Jennifer White-Johnson: Yeah, I mean, a lot has transpired, and it's one of those things where ... I mean, it's not easy, because some HBCUs are conservative, some of them are a little more liberal, and some of them are like, "Well, as an HBCU, we have the expectations that we have to kind of dot all our Is and cross all our Ts to make sure that the workforce" ... It's this workforce mentality and it's like, we need to get them ready to ... They have to be this standardized image of what this black person's going to do as they're navigating outside of the university, and we need to make sure that they're kind of ... I don't want to say like this cookie cutter kind of person, but I feel like I feel like that type of mentality kind of takes over, whereas it's like, okay, how is this particular student really going to be an innovator and what are they doing to kind of change the world around them?
Jennifer White-Johnson: And I feel like that's a conversation that really isn't going to start with just an art and design program. It has to work across disciplines. And so one of the things that I've really enjoyed is being able to cross-pollinate and cross-collaborate with different departments and different professors on campus and they give us the opportunity to not focus on this workforce mentality, but it's like, "Okay, so how can you take science and math and art and allow for the students to kind of see how they all collide and how we can use all of these different disciplines to create a really innovative narrative?"
Jennifer White-Johnson: So it's like one project that I often give to the students is, "If you were to pick a place on campus that you would want to reimagine or that you would want to completely revamp so that it is an expression of your voice and of how you see the world, what would that space look like? How would you even design a facade or a front facade or a mural for that space? How would you even design the interiors of that space? What would that look like?" And it freaks them out because they're like, "I've never been asked that question before. So you're really giving me the opportunity," and these are freshmen.
Jennifer White-Johnson: It's like, "Yeah, I don't wait until junior, senior year." It's like, "Let's have this conversation now. You're a new student. You're a new freshman. How do you want for your school to impact your soul as you're walking up and down these legendary pathways on this campus?" Because Bowie's the oldest HBCU in Maryland, 1865, and so we take a lot of pride in that, and the students forget. You're walking where your ancestors were.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. It's a trip. I mean, I went to Morehouse here in Atlanta, and I know what you mean about there being just different kind of HBCUs because Morehouse is so strictly conservative. When I first got there, it did a number on me because I not expecting it to be that different, I guess, from how I grew up and the world that I knew and everything like that. I mean, I don't know if they've changed this rule by now, but when I went there they had strict codes on what your haircut needed to be and you had to wear a suit once a week and all the different sorts of things that they were doing to kind of mold you into this representative Morehouse man kind of. Don't get me started.
Maurice Cherry: But now, I mean, the school itself, and the reason I asked this question about how the school has changed is because even with Morehouse being the institution that it is, it has changed over the years as many things have happened out in the world just in terms of finances, in terms of politics, in terms of even things like sexual orientation and gender. There's been a lot of discussions sort of within the college about what that means for students and what that means for the image ... I'm using air quotes here, but the image of a Morehouse man and what that means. And so I know that does invariably trickle down to curriculum as well.
Maurice Cherry: Granted, Morehouse isn't a school that has a design department or an art department. Generally if you want to major in it, you declare your major and then you take all your classes at Spellman or at Clark Atlanta. And so you certainly have the course load, but you certainly don't get that same kind of campus experience. And I think even with knowing the history of what the school is about, I can see how, yeah, coming in as a freshman, you don't even know. You're just glad to be not at home with rules from your parents or whomever and you're out on your own. But it's great that you've got that sort of establishment and let them know that, "This a historic space. Treat it as such and know what you are contributing to it just by being here."
Jennifer White-Johnson: Yeah. Yeah. And I feel like students ... I mean, the way that it continues to shift is just making sure that we just create opportunities for students. And so right now we have like a really great entrepreneurship academy where the students, they're encouraged to pitch concepts and pitch ideas, I think every spring semester, and they're allowed to continue kind of say, "Okay, well, how do I pitch this concept? How do I get the support? What are some things that the campus needs or students need that are very practical to what kind of business plan that I can create?" And we give them the opportunity to be able to kind of showcase those concepts and ideas, and they're super interdisciplinary.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And then also, we have a lot of pockets of all different types of students. So I like that Bowie isn't ... I mean, there this kind of, like you were saying, the Morehouse man, so there is this, "Well, what does your typical HBCU student look like?" And I like that at Bowie, there's not really just one definition of that. You have a lot of really fun, interesting students who have their own interests and their own personalities. And so we have a lot of fun little pockets. You've got the black nerds and those are my babies.
Jennifer White-Johnson: Seeing them, staying on them, pushing them, making sure that they sign up for these scholarships and making sure that it's like, "Okay, you're doodling, but are you sharing this? Are you out there? Are you getting it out there? Are you sharing? Are you building up a really cool network?" And it's been fun watching them, like, "Yeah, we're going to table at Awesome Con," or, "We're going to get a table this year. We're going to make our own costumes for this particular conference."
Jennifer White-Johnson: And it's cool because we try to make Bowie a cool central hub for that so that they feel encouraged and that they feel that they get the support that they need. So we've had them present and table at different cons. And that's been really exciting to watch. And we don't have to push them. They want to do that. If anything, all we need to do is just make sure that we just provide the support that they need and that we're their biggest fans and that we try to get as many artistic representations in the classroom to say, "Hey, this is how you can be black," or, "This is how you can be a woman and this is how you can create and this is the opportunities."
Jennifer White-Johnson: And so there's an HBCU in LA internship program where they allow for students to shadow different producers and to be a part of different sets and to kind of contribute their own artistic voices into a variety of different platforms. So it's really important that we have the right folks walking through Bowie that really care about making sure that students of color are out there getting the opportunities. In a few weeks, we have the HBCU Con coming up, and we're going to be talking about like the black person's role in cosplay and what opportunities can you as a black student, what can you get and what kind of platforms are we going to encourage you to kind of push for within that whole blurred space and what that looks like. We try to handle that, we to make sure that they're supported.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And then also, we have our theater majors and we have our fashion design majors that we kind of ... We had Ruth Carter come out and do a really amazing talk last year. Emory Douglas came two years ago, the same year that we took some students to the 2017 Black in Design Conference. And so that was a really amazing year. And so just making sure that they see themselves reflected, and not just contemporary designers, but it's like, no, these are people who have been doing this for like four decades and who have worked hard to pave the way for you. And so when you as a black student, when you're just living in the present and you're like, "Well, I don't see any designers," or, "I don't see any people," it's like, "No, they're there. You just haven't been been looking or you're stuck in your bubble and make sure you do the research and to see who paved the way, who has been out there kind of making waves for decades that want to advocate for you."
Maurice Cherry: What do you learn from your students? What do they teach you?
Jennifer White-Johnson: They teach me a lot. They teach me that ... oh, man, just to continue to stay humble, to stay connected, and like I said, I get inspired by watching the collectives that they're a part of, especially there's like the DC Street Meet, where there's a huge hub of photographers that get together every Saturday and they usually meet up at Union Station in DC. It used to be a very small group and now it's over 200 folks from all ranges of photo skills. You have your beginners and then you have your photo vets who've been out there and they just meet and they chill, they get together, they shoot each other, they teach each other tips, they will go in different spots and just learn different photo-based, fun experiments from each other and they're like, "Professor, are you coming to DC Street Meet this weekend?" Or, "How come you're not there?" You know what I mean?
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And it's cool because those were these collectives that weren't necessarily around when I was an undergrad or they weren't as huge, because social media wasn't necessarily this hub of, "Man," where it's this whole world, this dynamic where people can just assemble. And so I really love watching the students get really excited. A lot of it is off-campus kind of activities, which is cool because it's like, "Yeah, I don't want you to just be at Bowie every day. I want you to leave and I want you to have fun and explore and show me something different or show me something new that you're learning that you want for me to teach the class or that you think would be worth investigating."
Jennifer White-Johnson: And so my classes are workshops. I hate lecturing and I hate being like, "Well, this is this particular artist, and in 1965," and it's like, "These are the terms." It's so hard for me to teach that way because oftentimes I'll just give fun little projects where it's just like, okay, so animated GIFs, or, "Let's talk about like how you can use this really cool augmented reality app and incorporate an insane messaging in it to kind of tell a different kind of narrative." And I sometimes they get frustrated because they're like, "Well, you're not giving me enough prompts." And it's like, "Well, pick a topic that's plaguing you as a person or plaguing your community and see where you can just kind of take that, where are you going to take all of those internal narratives and how you can use art and design to empower."
Jennifer White-Johnson: And it gets on some people's nerves and some people don't understand why I'm doing it, but it's just learning from the students means that I have to learn to be more vulnerable and I have to learn to be a little bit more open with the way that I teach and how I teach. And it shifts. Rarely do I assign the same projects. If they're super popular and if the students continue to create good work and it's great for their portfolios, yes, I will stick with certain projects but I change it up based on what's happening in the world, based on what I feel like they need to continue to kind of incorporate into their own portfolios. So yeah, I learned to stay challenged and I learned to stay on top of it.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. And now before Bowie State, and I promise we'll move on past teaching, but before Bowie State, you also taught at MICA, Maryland Institute College of Art. How was that experience versus kind of what you're teaching is now at Bowie State?
Jennifer White-Johnson: When I was at MICA, I was teaching a basic intro to digital art and then I went back to teach a fun photo class was catered towards graphic designers. It's really one of those things where they're always going to be open to who you are as a person and they love seeing your work, so I enjoyed sharing my own personal work. At the time, I didn't really share enough of it like I could have. And that's something that I'm learning to do more is to say, "Hey, this is what I'm doing and this is how it kind of empowers what I do." And so it's hard for me to stick to the script.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And usually art schools, you can kind of get away with not sticking to a specific script, and as long as the students feel that they can kind of incorporate those concepts and those ideas into their own work, that's cool. But if they feel disconnected from specific topics or if they feel like, "Well, I don't want to talk about myself," and I'm a very, "Talk about yourself." I want to hear your own personal narrative. I want you to put your yourselves on the line. And sometimes students aren't always necessarily comfortable or they're not ready or they don't feel that it's super relevant. So it's just finding the line of, "Well, how is this going to get me a job? How is this going to add to my work?" And so for me, it's just pushing them to just think in an abstract way. But it's always going to be difficult, and because I don't necessarily teach design or photography in a very traditional way, it's making sure that the students kind of get it.
Jennifer White-Johnson: But I'm crazy. I spend a lot of time getting them out of the classroom and putting them into different spaces that they're like, "What am I doing here? I'm in a basement right now with all these musicians shooting them," because I'm like, "All right, this is a school in Baltimore. I want y'all to know Baltimore. I want you guys to get out and to feel and to be open to the Baltimore voices that you don't really often get a chance to see. So what would it look like if I were to put you in a room with a whole bunch of musicians that you've never met, and it's a really tight space, but you have to photograph them singing or you have to photograph them arguing or talking a little bit about the riots that happened in Baltimore, the uprising. What would that look like? How would you kind of illustrate that through photography?"
Jennifer White-Johnson: So it's completely switching up the dynamic of what they expected. But I always have to be prepared that students may not always get it or they may not even understand why I'm asking them. And it's like, you're not always going to understand why. You just have to roll with the punches and see what putting yourself in a different kind of experience will do to you as a person and what it will do to you as an artist. But there's no way to prepare them for that, so I'm not necessarily sure if they ... Some of them were feeling it, some of them weren't. [inaudible 00:27:09] It's just continuing to just ... I don't know.
Jennifer White-Johnson: That's a hard topic because I don't necessarily say ... well, and it's because I went to MICA, so it's like I understand the whole dynamic, so I didn't necessarily feel like I had to change my whole style of teaching. I just stayed myself and any kind of project that I'm going to give to an HBCU student, I'm going to give it to a whole bunch of other kids who aren't of color, or maybe there's a few. I didn't have any black students in my class. I'll tell you that. But maybe they just weren't taking that particular photo class that semester. Certain schools, you just need more time to be able to just grow in that particular institution, grow with the students, maybe grow with the curriculum, having an opportunity to kind of set your own kind of curriculum and maybe teach specific kind of classes that are geared towards something very specific. That's where you will get more opportunity to maybe shine a little bit. But that's a much larger-
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I gotcha. So let's kind of switch gears here for a little bit, because I'm curious to kind of know where your spark for all of this really began. Was art and design a big part of your childhood growing up?
Jennifer White-Johnson: Yeah. Both of my parents, my dad was a low-key painter and my mom was a crafter, and so she would make me these little mini booklets and zines, and I think that's why I love zines so much because she would make me these little, "How are you? I love you," and I would open up my door and I would see this little envelope at the bottom of my door and it would be just a little tiny little message. And I didn't realize that those were little mini zines at the time, but I have a whole bag full of them, of these little microscopic booklets. And looking back at those little vignettes now, I realize that my parents were super low key. They were never like, "This is who I am. You have to love me and see me as an embrace me as this artist," because they had like these government jobs where they kind of grinded it out and did the whole nine to five thing and supported their family.
Jennifer White-Johnson: But they had these fun little artistic things that they would do that I never really saw as art. I just saw that as, "This is what my parents do and these are the ways that they express their joy and their happiness as people." When I think about what were some of my first exposures to art making, it was just, "Well, that's just what my mom and dad do all the time. These are just a little fun things that they use to express their love." So artistically, that's what they did, and then they were both Sunday school teachers. And so from an early age, I began to see their whole definition of service and serving the people and being these mentors for folks in the community within our church. And so I got a chance to just watch them serve people. It was never about them. It was always about other people.
Jennifer White-Johnson: But I never felt like the service that they did for other people outweighed the love that they had for myself and my brother and my sister. So that's why service and collaborating and community has never been an issue for me because I've always seen how it can bring so much power and how community and assembling can just be a very powerful thing when you do it well and when you do it right. And I grew up as a performer. I would sing at church and I would sing in school. So photography and design was something that I picked up when I was just looking for another creative expression and looking for another outlet. And then also, just growing up as a young black Puerto Rican kid, you're like, "Well, am I actually really going to" ...
Jennifer White-Johnson: ... up as a young black Puerto Rican kid, you're like, well, am I actually really going to be on Broadway? I don't know." So of course, my parents were like, well, we love you but there needs to be a backup plan. What's your backup plan going to be? What's going to be your fallback, just in case this performing thing and this recording contract and all this stuff doesn't necessarily work? And then I was like, well, I love to write, so I want to be an English major. I was thinking that writing was going to be something that I would do, and that performing is something that I would just do as a ministry, you know, to bless people.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And then eventually, I picked up a camera, and that was it. My photography teacher and my amazing cohort of photo buddies, I found them after 9/11/ post 9/11, I was 21, and literally, I was in this really weird place where I was like, all right, how am I going to move forward? What is the world saying to me right now that I need to do? That I have to just change? Because it was really hard, it was a really hard time in the world, period. Everyone was like, what do we do? How are we supposed to feel? How are we supposed to move on? And especially living close to DC, the Pentagon, we were really impacted by all of that, and the whole dynamic and the shift of the community. It was scary. Both my parents were working in DC at the time and I was an intern. I was doing an internship for this really interesting educational compan,y and I was all over the place, and the world stopped. It was really scary.
Jennifer White-Johnson: You're 21, and you're not super young, but then you're not super old either, and you're trying to navigate through as an artist, and you're trying to find your way. And then picking up a camera, I don't know, it solved so many things for me. But choosing not to pick up a camera and just stay in my own little world either. I picked it up, but I had this amazing group of friends. This one girl who's Egyptian, another Caucasian chick, another half Filipino, half black chick. And we were just a thing. We were a unit, and we had an amazing photography teacher, and that was it. I found my posse and I was like, man, this is crazy. And then that was it. That was it. That was just...
Jennifer White-Johnson: So I think finding my love for a different kind of art form, but then doing it along with other likeminded individuals, women of color, it was just really empowering. I think that that's all I needed. and as a young person in a post-9/11 world, whatever that means to certain people, it's like, how do you find like your way? Who is your posse? How are you going to move forward? And being able to align all of those. Especially once you pop into a new experience, sometimes you feel like, oh, I'm all alone, I'm doing this all by myself. But if you have a posse, then you're like, I feel like I can really do this, because I'm not alone. I think that was a really big part of my whole existence.
Jennifer White-Johnson: That was before everything. Before grad school, before teaching. So being able to come back to that. And that's why I tell students, don't create in a silo. That's why everything I do is community first. The better my posse, the better I will be.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. And I think it's important to note here, even though you said that your parents weren't, I don't want to say fully supportive, they always thought you should still do what you do but have a backup, is that they allowed you to have the space to pursue that. To even see if this is something you really wanted to do. I think sometimes what can happen, I think particularly for black families, is that it ends up getting snuffed out. It's just a hobby, it's just a fun thing that you like to do, but you're expected to...
Maurice Cherry: And I think of my older brother a lot when this comes into play, because he is a super talented artist, painter, welder, sculptor. I don't know where he... I'm not the artistic one in the family by a country mile. He is the true savant. But it was never something that I think my parents encouraged. They always wanted him to do something that was more, not necessarily learn a trade, but do something that's going to make some money. And it often makes me wonder, especially now that I've been talking to so many people through this podcast, how would my brother's life have been different if he would have been pushed into a community or a tribe that would have allowed him to take this talent and really nurture it? As opposed to having to keep it on the side while trying to do something else. You know? So I think it's really important that your parents were like, yeah, well, they gave you the space to do that even though they wanted you to do something, I think, maybe a bit more stable.
Jennifer White-Johnson: Yeah. And there were times where they were questioning my intentions, because they were like, well, what are you shooting? What kind of designer do you want to be? What is this graphic design? What is this? Like no, you know? Right. They only supported it because they saw how serious I was and they saw how I was a part of these little fun exhibitions, and I would go on these photo walks and I would... I was serious. I was actually... Because I was at a community college at the time where they encourage the students to actually showcase their work. We would have these fun student art shows. And so the school itself really helped to cultivate a really beautiful, open, safe space for students artists.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And so once they saw that I was really passionate and serious, they knew, okay, so we can't really define this anymore for her. We have to just let her explore. And like you said, give her the space. And then continuing on to a four year institution and then grad school, they were like, well, why grad school? Aren't you just ready to get married now? You've already done your art thing, just go ahead and just... You got it out of your system. But it was like, well, grad school, it's going to help just nestle and harness all of it, right? And then I could teach afterwards. And they're like, oh, okay, yes, you can be a teacher. We get it, we get it.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And that's a whole other conversation, my whole MICA journey and as a grad student. At that time, the program has expanded a lot, but it wasn't a lot of folks of color within my particular program at the time. And so even what I wanted to talk about and what I wanted to do for my thesis was just like, what? And proving it to my parents. They knew why I wanted to document a whole bunch of high school kids wanting to reconnect with their African heritage and going to Ghana. But it was very radical, and it was like super... So are you going to really do this? Is this going to be a thesis? And I'm like, yes, it is.
Jennifer White-Johnson: Of course, they were very emotional at my opening. They were like, oh my God, you're photographing all these kids, and you've really invested time into just examining their faces and their complexions, and that's really what it was about. Not everybody understood it. But I was like, well, maybe I just want a wall where you can just look at black kids. What's wrong with that? Why do I have to go into some huge, intellectual narrative behind it? So it was difficult, and it's hard to talk to talk about. I still got the support from faculty and I got a lot of really great feedback from the other folks that were in my cohort. But it was a little touch and go for a second.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And the thesis could have went in a variety of ways, but for me, it was just about the impact. And now, a decade later, those kids, they felt like they were being seen. And watching them now, 10 years later, they're in college, they're graduated from college. And watching them be advocates in their community and watching that. I'm like, that's why I did it. That's why I told the story that I did. I could have told it in a variety of ways. I was still learning about my place, I was still learning about how to design, and photography could be one, and how they could say something insanely powerful. It was really ambitious and it was radical and it was a lot more than I could do in just one spring semester, obviously. But because I'm still in touch with the folks that I worked with at that time, because I've seen those kids continue to grow, and they're adults now. It's just been awesome watching them.
Jennifer White-Johnson: But my parents were really emotional at that show because they were like, oh my God, she's serious. She's not going back. And then I was teaching. I was a TA at MICA when I was in grad school, and I really loved developing relationships with the undergrad students while I was there at MICA, and the freshmen. It was amazing just being in the different foundation courses and seeing all these 17, 18 year old kids just go all out with their artwork. It was just really beautiful to watch, especially the kids of of color. And I'm like, oh my God, just watching them blossom and shine. And so it was great because MICA, they have this pretty cool art pedagogy class where you get a chance to practice writing up lesson plans and practice writing, teaching philosophies. Essentially, they're prepping you for applying for an actual teaching position. And it helped, because I had maintained a lot of really great relationships with former faculty at my different previous institutions.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And then bam, as soon as they found out that I got my graduate degree, it's not even a thing. Like, oh yeah, hey, we'll keep you in mind. It was like, no, we want you to come back and teach, period. It was a blessing. It was amazing. And I was able to go back to my community college where I met my posse and my favorite photo teacher, Tom Barrault. I was able to go back, teach a couple photo classes, teach some design classes. And then I was able to connect with Bowie, and I found out that they had a adjunct position open, and I was able to go back and teach there.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And then it was the same with MICA. I had kept in touch with the folks that I TA'd for. They were like, come back and apply. We have some sections open for intro to digital art class and we want you to come back. It's called something different, it's like photo and electronic media. It's not called that anymore, but it was a class where you got a chance to dive into, well, this is how you use digital art and video and sound to tell a really interesting narrative. But they were all freshmen and brand new to electronic platforms and mediums. But it was amazing. And so it wasn't really difficult and hard for me to go back and to just teach and to say, hey, this is how you use this cool stuff, now just go crazy. And I'm going to be your biggest fan because I love you. And that's really what teaching was for me, period.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And so at an HBCU level, I'm a sister, I'm a mom, I'm an aunt, I'm an adviser, I'm a mentor, I'm a student. Because the dynamic of the students, and the students are dealing with a vast array of different situations, my role as an advocate is maximized times 10, that I don't think would be the same if I was teaching at a predominantly white institution or at a MICA, you know? And so that's why Louie has been like, ugh. It's been crazy, in a good and a bad way, because they really pour so much out... You have to pour so much out as like, I would almost call myself an advocate first before I would call myself an educator when it comes to those students, because I spend lots of hours having pep talks. A lot of you got this conversations. I have to constantly remind them, look, you are a 19 year old black kid at an amazing institution. Do you understand what that means and do you understand what your responsibility is? You cannot give up. I spend so much time having that kind of conversation that I forget to have that conversation with myself. You know>
Maurice Cherry: I know that feeling all too well. Sometimes you can be so into the work that way, I get it. Talk to me and talk to the audience as well about Knox rocks. Where did that idea come from? What is it? Just talk to us about that.
Jennifer White-Johnson: It's good that we're segwaying into this, because the pep talks that you give your students and the energy that you are constantly trying to pour into making sure that you keep students motivated, I needed to turn the pages and do a 360, because I was just getting super burned out. And teaching for eight years at that point, and trying to balance and to set boundaries for family life. I was a new mom, and my son was born two pounds, 15 ounces. I was pregnant while I was teaching at three different schools. I hadn't been made full time at Bowie yet. I was teaching at Prince George's Community College, at Bowie State, and then I was also teaching at MICA. And then once I really got super pregnant and I had to let some things go, so it worked out that I ended up not going back to MICA that semester. And even at the community college where I was teaching, I didn't have to go back, and I was just at Bowie. That was it.
Jennifer White-Johnson: So it was a lot of hard work. He ended up coming early, and it was kind of scary, and I had to just not go back for two years. And it was difficult. And even after he was born, I was like, oh my God, well, I need to work. I need to get back into the classroom, I need to support my kid. Because the expectations, a young black mom, we have all this, we got to keep going, we got to keep moving forward. There was no time for healing, you just got to keep moving, keep pushing.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And so I applied for a full time position, and I actually didn't get it, they ended up going with someone else. A lot of the relationships and a lot of the opportunities and stuff that I had cultivated with a lot of students, it was kind of put on the back burner, and some people were upset. They were like, well, what happened? We thought you were supposed to be here with us. And it's like, look, I don't know what to tell you. This new faculty member, don't worry. You're going to get everything that you need. I just have to focus on my family right now. It's probably a good thing that I didn't get that full time position so that I could just stay in focus. And the students were like, okay, fine, whatever. So it was difficult.
Jennifer White-Johnson: So I thought at that point that teaching was done, because I didn't get that position. And so two years, I was at home with him for two years, and then that's when my new role as full time mom, design photo freelancer came into play. I was already dealing with the aftermath of an early birth experience, and it was a very traumatic and non-traditional birthing experience that happens a lot to young black moms. We don't really talk about it and we don't really talk about the support that they need after the fact of having a very traumatic birthing experience, and what that can do to your spirit and your soul as an artist. And so I had to just sit with that and nest, and everything came to a standstill.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And so mothering was always a super, super crazy thing that I knew that I was going to have to learn. I had great examples all my life, but it's completely different when it's your turn. I had no idea of what to do, especially since he was so tiny and he was so small. So I was like, you know what? I'm not going to overthink it. I'm just going to nest. I'm just going to raise my kid and I'm going to start taking pictures of him and I'm going to start documenting his every move. I'm just going to let the joy and the love inform and influence whatever happens when I'm developing these photos or when I'm printing the image. Whatever happens, I'm just going to let the art and the love just become one. I'm not going to overthink it.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And so I did that for two years. I ended up applying to Bowie and I got the full time position. And so that was really difficult for me, because two years of just endless mommy time, and then it ended up just being cut off because I had to just resume teaching again. So I had to navigate back into that whole experience. So doing that for five years straight, he went to daycare. I went back to teaching full time. And when I say full time, I mean four or five classes, portfolio, senior thesis, internship. All these conversations, all these pep talks, issues with students, concerns. Telling students they're not going to graduate, telling students this. All this staying at school super late at night, coming home, not seeing my kid for a whole day or for two, three days, sometimes not coming home at all and having to crash at my parents' house. It was taking a toll and it was really hard. I had two miscarriages. And again, I don't really talk about it a lot, because it's hard.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And so I was like, something has to change. Something has to change. I cannot keep doing this. So in the middle of all of this, he was diagnosed as autistic when he was two years old. And so my husband and I, we were like, oh, okay. There were some things that were mentioned to us by his care providers at his daycare that we should look into and that we should talk with our infants and toddlers program. Different things that they have set within the state to help parents get what they need for their little ones. And they were like, yeah, he's not very social, there's not a lot of eye contact, he's not really speaking. You should really get him assessed because we don't necessarily think that he's at developmental level where he should be, or where normally kids should be like at this stage.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And so we were like, all right. So we were like, okay, whatever. We were like, let's just get him assessed. All these people are saying what he's not doing and how different and strange he's acting. So let's see what we can do to solve this. Because naturally, as parents, we're like, oh, well, he's broken, something's wrong, so let's see what we can do to get him fixed. Because that's the first reaction as parents that you have about your kid, especially first time parents. There's the pressure of, oh, my kid is not developed. He's not catching up. We knew a lot of it had to do with because he was a preemie and all of that.
Jennifer White-Johnson: So he was diagnosed as autistic when he was two, but we didn't cry, we weren't upset. We weren't like, oh my God, the sky is falling. We were like, yes, all right. We were ready and we were like, let's do this. We love him. We're just happy he was alive to begin with because he was so tiny. So that's why the book was just so much fun to do, because we knew that there's just way too much joy and happiness that we need to share it and that we need to talk about, and especially when it is centered around autism and neurodiversity. Because there were so many, quote unquote, negative or horrible things that happened within this entire process. And so we knew that if we wanted to tell this story and this narrative, and let design play a big part and let photography play a big part, I knew that I just wanted it to be a very joyful narrative and experience.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And so being a photographer, naturally, and as a designer, you're like, okay, so then how am I going to use my gifts? How am I going to use my creativity to tell my story and to, I don't know, to just speak to people, you know? It wasn't hard. I knew that the zine was just going to be a really fun experience. My husband and myself, we both write. He's a much better writer than I am, and he's super low key about it. After my son was born, we spent a lot of time really trying to navigate, okay, so artistically, where do we want to be? Not that we have to make art about our kid, but it was like, what's happening in our life right now that's super vulnerable and super personal that can influence and that can bring us back to certain artistic and creative feelings that we lost? Because we really didn't know how we were going to live and function with everything that was hitting us from all different angles.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And so because the both of us were so busy with work and other expectations, and trying to pay the bills and trying to make ends meet, the photo zine, and collecting and archiving all of these really beautiful moments, is really what made... It's what really helped keep the balance and to keep the glue together while we felt like certain things were falling apart in our lives.
Jennifer White-Johnson: What I didn't realize was that the impact that it was going to have, because instantly, when I chose to release this book and hooked up with these amazing publishers, Homie House Press, these two fems that are just amazing individuals and that really amplify and respect stories that we don't often get a chance to hear. And I made sure that it was important that I went with independent publishers and folks that I saw that were advocating for different voices within the community. I was like, yeah, this has to be super underground, it has to be super gritty. I'm dying to just make something with my design work, and I was getting tired of client stuff.
Jennifer White-Johnson: I just wanted to create something really raw and true. I was like, I knew it was going to be a big risk about making it about my family, but I was like, man, I got to do it. I got to do it. And I just wasn't really prepared for the amount of press. I just felt for the first time in a long time, I felt really heard and seen. It was really important that the autism community especially felt like the book was a really great representation of their community, because that was first and foremost for me.
Maurice Cherry: And it sounds like you also were even able to pull on some of those previous experiences you had as a child with creating. You mentioned that it's a zine. You talked about how your mom would make these zines for you, and now you've made this photo zine about your son.
Jennifer White-Johnson: Yeah, yeah. It's all coming full circle. It's like I let myself go, and I let just those little internal narratives that you feel like as you grow, you're like, well, some people let a lot of that stuff go. Well, when I was a kid and this, but I'm not that same person, so much has changed. But so often you will hear people express that, which is fine. But I like that certain aspects of, like you were saying, of my childhood, and these fun little vignettes that I felt weren't really super significant when I was a kid, because it was the norm for me. But now, because I've been through some stuff, I'm looking back at those little vignettes and I'm like, oh my God, they were all preparing me for this. They were preparing me for my role as a mom, my role as an advocate, as a maker.
Jennifer White-Johnson: And so the zine has been amazing because, again, it's helping to break the stigma of what a black autistic kid in America or in the world looks like. And this isn't just me spewing out these things. These are conversations that I've had with other autistic folks within the community, other neurodivergent families, whether the parents are autistic and they have autistic kids, or whether they're neuro-typical and they have kids that are autistic, and that have brain differences or cognitive disabilities. There's so many names that people nestle it into. But once they were like, thank you so much for telling this narrative, and I've never seen anything like this, or I also feel like I don't get to see black kids depicted like this within this community, as being joyful and as being happy. I was like, wow, yes. And that's really what I wanted. And every single time...
Jennifer White-Johnson: And it was a big risk. And I even told my publishers, I was like, oh, well, maybe we'll just do a limited run of 40 copies or something. They were like, no, let's do 100. And I was like, well, are they going to sell? Who's going to want to read it? Is it just going to be some scrapbook? And they were like, no, Jen, folks are going to be impacted by the story that you're willing to tell. With my husband, he had this really fun blog that was called 3AM Theater that was this comical, really beautiful just narrative of a black dad experiencing fatherhood for the first time, and autism, and all these little interesting vignettes. And he wasn't writing, and we were busy, and I wasn't shooting as much. And it was like we let some stuff go, and then the zine-
Jennifer White-Johnson: ... and it was like we let some stuff go, and then The Zine really gave us an opportunity to bring all of that stuff. I was like, "Kevin, I'm going to take what you had on your blog, I'm going to pop it into The Zine, write some new stuff. I'm going to write some new reflections." So, The Zine itself has poetry and essays, and just reflections of black life, black families, black blended mixed families, because I'm black and Puerto Rican, and the stigmas and what autism means for a lot of those communities, because often those kinds of diagnoses are just like, "Well, nah, autism doesn't really exist.", or ADHD, or certain developmental differences, they don't exist. So-
Maurice Cherry: If it even gets properly diagnosed at all.
Jennifer White-Johnson: Exactly, and sometimes you have families that are just like, "Well, no, I don't want to accept it. I don't want to, no.", and a lot of it is because they know what their kids are going to be up against, but it's also an opportunity to say, "Hey, well, this is who my kid is, and let's embrace it, and let's accept it, and let's just give him the support that he needs, period.", and teaching him how to self advocate. So, that's been a big part of ... The Zine has become this awesome tool to encourage others to self advocate for families to advocate for their kids for themselves. It's kind of breaking the hierarchies of ... It's like, "Okay, well, I'm this designer, and I'm going to design this for you, so that you can see how you're feeling."
Jennifer White-Johnson: So, it was really important that The Zine ... There were no pictures of me. I'm on the front cover, that was a big issue for me, and I had to kind of let go, and that was my publisher's decision, and in the end I accepted it, because it was like, "We need to be able to see a black brown baby, and his black brown mom on the cover, period, because that can be really empowering." But The Zine is just Knox and just showcasing his joy, highlighting his autistic joy, helping to just dismantle, helping to break the stigmas.
Jennifer White-Johnson: So, it's just opened so many doors, and it's just allowed for me to kind of, again, breakaway, because Antionette, I love her so much, Antionette Carroll was in D.C. two weeks ago for D.C. Design Week, and talked a lot about design allies, and being an equitable designer, and how listening to erased voiced, and the unheard voices, and in the community, and making sure that you align yourself with folks from those lived experiences, like how important that is.
Jennifer White-Johnson: So, The Zine has allowed ... It's creating so much dialogue so that I can step away. It's like, The Zine's done, I'm no longer in front of my computer. Now I can step away from my machine, and I can begin to have these really cool conversations now with families, because I was willing to just get it out there, and help to start that conversation. It's like, okay so, I'm not telling people how to have relationships with their kids, but I'm just ... It's like, "Look, this is what I'm doing, this is how I'm able to bond with my kid, because I was willing to just make artwork that shares his identity, and that celebrates it."
Maurice Cherry: Now, between teaching and the other projects that you have, why is it important for you to do this kind of work? I mean, this is work around blackness, around neurodiversity, around even HBCU curriculum and stuff like that. Why is it important for you to do it in kind of this tech and design space?
Jennifer White-Johnson: Yeah, and it's just ... In terms of the design space and tech, it's making sure that people can see that they can use all different types of mediums to tell their narratives, to tell their stories. Even the art making experience that I encourage a lot of students to do, and even Knox, it's like, all right, so I'll give him like little fun tasks and challenges where maybe one day we'll play with digital design, and we'll get out the iPad and play with Apple pencil. We'll come up with some really cool doodles, and then we'll do this funky little animated GIF that kind of amplifies, oh okay, well this is how an autistic kid is choosing to create.
Jennifer White-Johnson: So, it's using fun little mediums that are accessible to him to just express his own artistic sensibilities, because I think that that's really important, because I was like, "Well, I could keep creating this artwork all day that's very for me, me, me, but I want for people to be able to show this is what happens when him and I can create together, and what that would look like." I was able to do some really fun collaborations with Carlos Estrada from AIGA Detroit, and so he's been amazing, a huge supporter of just my whole mommy experience, and neurodiversity in general. We've had a lot of conversations about, "Yeah, so what does that look like? What is design mom and design baby? What can transpire if you create together? What are some really beautiful things that can just be expressed when you make room for that?"
Jennifer White-Johnson: And then, I can't force students to just say, "Well, because you're a graphic designer you have to just create in this one little way, and using these particular mediums.", because they want to be able to incorporate film, and incorporate motion graphics to tell a narrative. For me, it's like, "Okay, so now that you have these tools, where are some ways, and where are some spaces, and what are some innovative ways where you can just run with that? Where you can just kind of express it as it relates to your own personal experience? Are you going to use projection? Are you going to project on your body? Are you going to project on a building? Are you going to be able to play with sound design and have ..."
Jennifer White-Johnson: I mean, it's so great that you were talking to Ari, because I first met her at Afrotectopia, and NYU's ITP program, and that was where I got a chance to see so many brown and black kids using sound design, and amplifying, and having pieces of their fabrics vibrate, and sound amplifying, and just using all these really interesting intricate tech based lived vibration experiences. It's so hard to explain, but literally there was this one particular artist, and she used her whole body as this sound machine. Yeah, and I hope that ... I don't know how much you got a chance to talk about Afrotectopia, but that first year it was crazy, because there were so many students that were just like, "Here's my experiment with sound, and I want for you to hear how my body is going to amplify sound in a very specific way.", but just using a variety of different tech tools.
Jennifer White-Johnson: A lot of those dynamics can be applied to kids who have sensory based interests. It's like, "Okay, so what are some ..." Autistic kids have issues with sound sensitivities, or sometimes being in a room that's with all these different light flashes can sometimes be an issue. So, what are some ways that tech can help to allow for them to not feel as threatened by all these crazy distractions that are around them. So, I want to definitely begin to have those kinds of conversations where we can talk a little bit about how design and tech can continue to empower folks who society is like a threat to them, and they feel like the way that they engage with tech and art and when they merge, it's not necessarily for them. It's not necessarily made for them, or they don't have enough say in what kind of experiences that they want to be able to be a part of. Even with stimming, and dancing, and movement.
Jennifer White-Johnson: I'm collaborating now with Mariah Person who is getting ready to finish up a fellowship program at the Union Contemporary of Art in Omaha, and so seeing how movement and tech and projection, how all that kind of come into one where ... I don't know, it's really just about letting these neurodiverse folks just be, period, and exist. A lot of it has to do with the really cool quirks that they have. A lot of it is sound based, and a lot of it is movement based, and as long as they just have the space where they can just be encouraged to move the way that they want to experience sound and to experience light in the way that they want, what would that look like? Because they're just kind of in this society that's saying, "Well, you have to adapt to this particular space and how it works, and that's it. We're not going to build these really interesting spaces where you can just be and experience movement the way that you want."
Jennifer White-Johnson: So, having those types of conversations with different artists is just really important to me, because Knox, he's only six, and so what kind of support is he going to have when he's a full on adult, and whatever he chooses to get into, what are some of those artistic and design adaptations that are going to be available for him so that he can feel okay about being himself in public, you know? So, I'm always curious to see what different artists, what they're trying to do to address accessibility, accommodations, and even ... I spend a lot of time defining that for my students, too. It's just like, "All right, you have these projects, but are they going to work? Are they going to work with your time? Are they going to work with your artistic sensibilities? Maybe choosing to create artwork in this different way can say the same type of things versus what I'm trying to force you or make you do."
Maurice Cherry: What does success look like for you now?
Jennifer White-Johnson: Success, for me, really just comes from collaborating. If I'm going to continue the whole narrative of photo and design, and amplifying and advocating for different voices, especially those who have brain differences, and who are from neurodivergent communities, to me, the success is going to be really defined by what ways am I able to collaborate, and to create with them, and alongside them. That's really how I'm going to value my success. And then also making sure that other artists of color, especially women, how am I aligning myself with different opportunities to make sure that we're seen, and that we're visible?
Jennifer White-Johnson: So, I'm really excited that ... And again, it's just one zine, and then I have screen prints, and I have fun little projects that I'm constantly working on where I'm making actual practical stickers, and messages that are just empowering that autistic folks don't really see a lot of. Even conversations of like, "Oh, well, if your kid lines up his toys in a very specific way, then that's not diversifying his play. So, you need to make him play differently, because he's not going to be an innovator, and he's not going to be able to think of new ways."
Jennifer White-Johnson: When in reality, it's the complete opposite, because Knox chooses to play in a very specific way, that kind of opens up a lot of opportunities, because he is able to imagine a variety of different styles when he's building, and he's engineering all these different dynamics with his blocks. Yes, he kind of goes about it the same way, but he's always changing. He's using the same kinds of tools, but he's changing, and he's consistently imagining a different way to do things. But if I'm saying, "Well, you always play with your blocks, and you're lining them up in a very specific way.", well, how am I allowing for him to just play the way that he wants?
Jennifer White-Johnson: So, I spend a lot of time just trying to have a lot of conversations, and let the design be influenced by those particular conversations, and then letting The Zine help to allow for parents to feel more comfortable wanting to engage in those kinds of conversations, because a lot of the focus is, "Well, I'm a parent, I don't have the support that I need, I don't have the resources." So, it's like, "Well, how about we get together [inaudible 01:19:52] how about we work on some sort of really cool empowering art activity where we get a chance to talk about the issues that are affecting our communities, and what we can do to change that?"
Jennifer White-Johnson: So, success has been planning fun zine workshops with different autistic based organizations, allowing for them to know that they have to focus on the parents to plan these activities, and not so much like, "Oh, well, we're the organization, and we need to decide what kind of workshops." It's like, "Nah, you just need to continue to have these conversations with the parents, and with the actual autistic kids to see what they want." So, Autism Society of Baltimore does a really amazing job of making sure that these families have these really great spaces where they can just exist without masking and without necessarily feeling like they have to change.
Jennifer White-Johnson: So again, just breaking those hierarchies, and just ... I've just been having a lot of ... If I had it my way, I would just be working with other autistic artists and creatives all day to just come up with strategies and methodologies, and just to help to define more questions. And then just creating the type of messaging, and the languages, and publications that we don't really get a chance to see a lot, because there just tends to be a lot more focus on researching the risk factors so that we can prevent our kids from being autistic, so that when they get into adulthood they're no longer autistic, but they can continue to just mask in public, and be completely normal. That's where a lot of the research is focused on right now.
Jennifer White-Johnson: A lot of the autistic artists that I end up running into are maybe late diagnosed, or they're just coming to terms with their diagnosis, and they're like, "Okay, so now I'm here, I'm ready, I have my posse, and I have my group of people, but now I'm faced with all of this lack of support, and clinicians, and doctors, and behavioral therapists telling me, well, this is how I should live my life, and this is what I should do. But this is who I am. Just support me with what I need, period, just to exist and to be myself."
Maurice Cherry: So, we're coming up on, not only just the end of a year, but the end of a decade. When you look at the next five years, when you look at 2025, which sounds super far away, what do you-
Jennifer White-Johnson: Yeah. It's right around the corner.
Maurice Cherry: I know. What do you want to be working on? What do you see in the future?
Jennifer White-Johnson: So, a few things that are coming up. I've been really ... Definitely more publications, more zines, and more opportunities to just speak about neurodiversity in academia, and then also in the family life, especially in communities of color. So, I definitely see myself continuing to have those conversations, because I keep getting asked, and then I keep getting amazing opportunities to share and to have those conversations. And then, in November, actually, The Zine is going to be part of an exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. So yeah, it's so exciting. At the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and the Research Center, they have so many amazing archived narratives, like photo zines, publications, all different types of books just from women of color, specifically in the DMV, because the museum does such an amazing job of highlighting the local artists.
Jennifer White-Johnson: But The Zine is permanently archived at that library, but then they're also going to be doing an exhibition where they're going to be just highlighting some of the books. So, I'll be a part of that exhibition along with a whole bunch of other women, and so I'm so excited. It's just more opportunities like that. Not necessarily letting myself say, "Well, okay, that one book was enough." It's like, no, now I just have to going, because again, and that's why the theme ... Had I been at the Black in Design Conference, I would have been so ready. I would have been like, "Look, this is what I'm doing to secure these black futures."
Jennifer White-Johnson: And then, it's like, essentially the work will come into play allowing for these young folk, these young students, these young kids ... It's like, what opportunities and what ... or just, not even opportunities, but what type of experiences are we providing for them so that they can feel like they're worth something, to feel like they're seen, to feel like they're important? So, a lot of the work that I'm hoping to continue for the next five years is going to be talking about that, amplifying it. So, I felt like I've done the family narrative, and then the next narrative is going to be just continuing to talk to more families, other moms, other parents that I've created relationships with, because I spend so much time stalking, and finding who are the other autistic families in my community. I want to know who they are, I want to get to know them, I want to meet them. How can I continue to tell their stories as long as they're comfortable and as long as I have the consent to do that.
Jennifer White-Johnson: Still using photography and design. Ultimately, I can see some sort of press coming out of this where I have to figure out what this is going to be called, and how I'm going to harness this. So, I can see it being some sort of press where whether I'm publishing other folks of color, or I'm just continuing to just publish my own narratives under my own name. But there's something also very powerful about not just having the book on Amazon. For me, it's like, I want to invest time in book fairs, and book festivals, zine fests, because sitting there at a table, it's a lot of work, and you're literally having so many conversations that day, and you have all your stuff at this table. Some people are like, "Well, it's so hard because you're essentially selling yourself."
Jennifer White-Johnson: But for me, it's about the conversation, and getting them to see the hard work that you've put into all these little fun design vignettes that you've been making, and you get the opportunity to meet them in person, they get a chance to meet you, they get a chance to hear your story, hear your narrative, and so there's something really beautiful about creating and making your own content, and distributing it on your own terms. I just, I love that. So, I want to do more of that, because there's just so much power behind it. So, just more community based workshops, speaking.
Jennifer White-Johnson: Right now I'm looking for any kind of opportunity to just talk about what I do with my students. I'll be at the AICAD Symposium at Otis College of Art and Design in L.A. in a few weeks talking a little bit about the types of projects that I'm doing with my students who are autistic, and how that work is important to be able to highlight and to show. We don't often get a chance to see that kind of work presented at a lot of these educator conferences. So yeah, just more of that. Trust me, it's going to fly by, because publishing, editing, narrowing down all these concepts, it takes like two years-
Maurice Cherry: Wow.
Jennifer White-Johnson: ... and then deciding design wise how you're actually going to present it, how you're going to package it, how you're going to create it, what is everything that's going to go, whether I'm making stuff by hand, whether I'm outsourcing and working with different printmakers. I'm telling you, in five years it's going to fly. And then Knox, he's going to be in middle school, and it's just, that's going to start a whole other chapter. So, it's going to fly by.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you, and your work, and everything online?
Jennifer White-Johnson: The best place ... There's a few places. So there's jenwhitejohnson.com, which is my main website where folks can pick up a copy of The Zine, pick up copies of posters that Knox and I screen printed, and then pick up fun swag that really talks a lot about the joy and the soul of neurodiversity, and where they can just read a little bit more about my past, and the reason why I'm doing this. They can see fun projects that I'm working on with my students. And then, Instagram, social media, that's my jam, especially since it's super indie, and we can curate it the way that we want. I follow a lot of Zinesters, and we follow each other back, and we have all these fun conversations about artwork, and how we want to continue to spread the love.
Jennifer White-Johnson: So, I'm on Instagram @JTKnoxRoxs. So, be my homie, I'm always telling people that I want to continue engaging with them, and I have found so many other autistic creatives. Twitter's my jam, too, also @JTKnoxRoxs. I've met so many self advocates who are a part of that community. It's just a great space, because a lot of folks choose different social media outlets to create their own movements. So, I see certain platforms as being super empowering for folks who feel like they would be ignored otherwise. So yeah, I'm big on the social medias.
Maurice Cherry: All right, well, Jennifer White Johnson. Wow, there's so much. I mean, first, I just want to thank you, of course, for coming on the show, and for sharing your story, and sharing your work. I almost feel like there's three big things that people can take away from this conversation. I think first is that there is a lot of heart, and soul, and diversity that is at HBCU's that really needs to be paid attention to. I think, secondly, that it's important for designers to really look at how they can use their talents in order to help out for other causes.
Maurice Cherry: I think also, third, and you sort of ... I feel like this has been a thread throughout all of this is how you've been able to use your vulnerability in different stages in your life as kind of a act of creation in a way. So, I hope that people that are listening to this can pick up on that, and will follow your work, and certainly will see what else you have to come in the future. So, thank you so much for coming on the show, I appreciate it.
Jennifer White-Johnson: Thank you. I really, really appreciate it. Thank you so much.