Dodge Q&A: Sharnita Johnson

March 11, 2015

The Dodge Q&A series is designed to introduce you to Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation staff as they share what they’re learning and thinking about as they visit with nonprofits around the state. They’ll also reveal a few things about themselves you might not have known.

Today we talk to Sharnita C. Johnson, Dodge’s new Arts Program Director. 

You grew up in Detroit, and spent most of your career in Michigan working to strengthen communities and improve outcomes for children and families. What should people know about Detroit?

Sharnita Johnson Small

Don’t believe everything you read. It is a very unique community that has changed a lot, even in my lifetime. Both of my parents were born and raised in Detroit and both sides of my family migrated there from the South, so I have a very long history there. I have lot of entrepreneurs in my family – my father owned a small grocery store, my brother owned a restaurant, and my relatives on both sides were real estate developers, shop keepers, and owned and operated small businesses. Growing up, I didn’t know that everyone didn’t own a business.

At 139 square miles, Detroit is very large geographically. Manhattan, San Francisco, and Boston can fit inside Detroit with 20 miles to spare, and we have less than 1 million residents, so I don’t think people understand the scale of the City. It’s very much a community of neighborhoods and when you have the type of population decline Detroit has experienced, like many urban centers over decades, you’re going to have a lot of vacancies and blight.

What a lot of people might not realize is that, in many instances, the vacancies are a result of the foreclosure crisis. So many people with all of this equity in their homes re-financed and got caught up in exotic loans and lost their homes as a result. And a lot of Detroit neighborhoods were decimated. Layer on that a high unemployment rate, a troubled school system and disinvestment, there are issues that come with that, like crime and blight. Despite all that, we’re a proud and scrappy people.

There’s a lot of conversations around the revitalization of Detroit. I don’t talk about it that way. It’s really a “re-establishment,” because there were lots of restaurants, shops, clubs, etc. that closed during the economic downturn and for other reasons. I’m personally excited about the reinvestment and investment in Detroit, but I also lift up that there are a lot of businesses and people that have been in Detroit were never going to leave and plan to stay in the City. Those people should be considered part of the conversation and their needs addressed, too. I do hope that people who believe that there’s no creativity, entrepreneurship, or that Detroit is dead should visit there and understand that cities are living, dynamic, changing places.

You’ve been travelling around the state visiting with Dodge arts grantees since you started about a month ago. What are your first impressions of New Jersey’s arts scene?

I feel like a kid in a candy store. I’ve been blown away by the quality of the arts leadership here. I’ve had the opportunity to see three theater productions that were amazing. The facilities, including the musems and arts centers, are outstanding. I’ve been extremely impressed already and I have barely scratched the surface. I probably won’t have any weekends or nights where I don’t have anything to do in New Jersey.

What are you learning?

There is a huge commitment to quality here. I’ve found the arts in New Jersey are just as strong as the arts in New York. There’s a lot of artists that are in both worlds, and just as many who are dedicated solely to work in New Jersey. The commitment for most organizations to work with young people and their relationships with schools is very impressive. And there’s many that are dedicated to working with community-based groups and really trying to think about how to step outside of their walls to go into communities. And some of them struggle with that.

What sparked your passion for the arts?

I’ve always been a reader and a writer. And I grew up in Detroit, so Motown was always around. Plus my mother was a big jazz fan, my brother was in a band and I grew up in an era when we had music in school, so I learned to play the piano. And I took dance.

And I was lucky enough to have teachers, especially in college, that had passions for literature, art, and music. I think my love for the arts was solidified in college as a result of a class called “Theatre Detroit” and traveling to London with one of my professors and several other students where we went to plays — sometimes two a day for a week! Those early experiences helped me understand the importance of arts and culture.

How do you nurture creativity in your life and work?

I practice Transcendental Meditation. Although I’ve been a little bit in and out of practice. It’s recommended you do 20 minutes twice a day. Sometimes I can’t get the second one in. It’s very grounding for me — just to be still.

I am also in several book clubs. I’m in one book club with several librarians, so you have to read the books because they know when you’re faking!

Do you have a favorite author?

I have an affinity for William Faulkner that stems from a college course I took that pretty much killed me. I have also always loved Shakespeare, and I especially love seeing modern adaptations of Shakespeare performed. Lately, I have been having a love affair with Langston Hughes.

What are you reading now?

I just started The Round House by Louise Erdich so I will have to get back to you. I just finished The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. That is a really powerful book. It’s the story of an enslaved African woman growing up just before emancipation. The book I read before that was The Warmth of Other Sons by Isabella Wilkerson, about the great migration of Blacks from the south to the north. Again, very powerful.

For a little while, I would read three books at a time. Recently, I have defaulted to books on CD. And I feel guilty about that.

Do you have a secret talent?

I am a strong advocate for the “Power Nap.” I am a professional napper and I can pretty much nap anywhere. I’m a big advocate of nap rooms at work.