Community Connectors: AJ Johnson
Community Connectors is a monthly series highlighting Ohio State staff members who have shown leadership in partnering with our communities to make an impact. Photo: AJ Johnson helps register a member from the Ohio State football team register to vote. OSU Votes and OSU football held a joint voter registration drive in September.
Coordinator of Service and Outreach
Student Activities, Office of Student Life
I currently serve as the coordinator for service and outreach within Student Activities, administering local service and civic engagement programming through the Office of Student life. Since joining the Student Activities team in the summer of 2017, I've been able to advise the OSU Votes cohort through both the 2018 midterm and 2020 presidential elections, support and organize multiple single days of service with the Pay It Forward cohort, co-advise three trips to Ghana with Buck-I-SERV, and connect hundreds of students to local nonprofits across Columbus for one-time and ongoing volunteer opportunities, including our Semester of Service and Non-Profit Immersion Program. My goal is to continue to develop and improve sustainable relationships with local community partners through direct and indirect service and civic engagement opportunities for students. While working directly with students, I aim to help them find a spark for citizenship and ways to integrate community engagement in their everyday lives even after leaving Ohio State.
Why is engaging the community important to you and your work?
Engaging the community is central to the work I do. Beyond simply connecting students to local nonprofits, I view myself as being a liaison between the needs of local community partners and the community stakeholder that is Ohio State. We know that volunteers are central to helping nonprofits execute their mission, but Ohio State has a lot of other resources to offer as well. Ohio State is such a large and complex member of whatever community we are in, being able to forge relationships with local nonprofits that are sustainable and genuine is key to ensuring we promote responsible community engagement efforts. As a land-grant institution, I believe that Ohio State is not living up to its mission if it is not actively engaging in the community. I try to carry out that mission in my day-to-day work with community partners, as well as with students looking to serve alongside communities.
What lessons have you learned from the community that have helped you as a university staff member?
My experience as an AmeriCorps member had the most profound impact on how I view community. Before joining the team at Ohio State I was a part of AmeriCorps NCCC. While I was in my role in AmeriCorps, living and working with communities to address their community identified needs, I learned a tremendous amount regarding how to work best with community partners and how to truly be an active member of a community. I try my best to use my previous direct service knowledge and current institutional knowledge to help community partners secure resources that will help them accomplish their missions, while also helping students understand effective service strategies that are responsive to community needs.
What has been your favorite moment from your community-engagement work?
Wow! I don't know if I have an overall favorite, when I reflect on this question three distinct memories come to mind;
1) Working with OSU Votes to increase the turnout for the 2018 midterms. Voter turnout increased by 29 points compared to the 2014 midterm turnout data. We will know our 2020 turnout numbers in spring 2021!
2) Through the Nonprofit Immersion Program, two students partnered with Neighborhood Services Inc., a food pantry located on 4th street, to create a sustainable fundraising event called The Hunger Run 5k. The Hunger Run has now become the yearly project that the NPIP students partnered with NSI work toward, this year The Hunger Run will be a virtual 5k event at the end of April.
3) Every time I have advised a group of students to Ghana through Buck-I-SERV alternative breaks, I'm continuously impressed with the Akumanyi Foundation, as well as the student participants on those trips.
What advice do you have for other staff members who are interested in getting involved in community engagement?
My advice for other staff members who are interested in getting involved in community engagement is to first identify what your "Why" is and build off that. Everyone has the capacity to contribute in some way, whether that is through donating your time, your talent or your treasure. Our capacity to give back will shift over time as we grow and evolve as individuals but there is always a way to make a positive impact.