A DEI Interview with Erica Johnson (Class of 2017)

Over the summer, Erica Johnson was at the forefront of the social media campaign #ExposeMitty, advocating for reform on the Mitty campus to better serve students of color and address various problems that past Black and Latinx students faced. We spoke to her about her time at Mitty, the summer’s outpouring, and her perspective on the DEI initiative Mitty launched to address concerns expressed. Johnson was a member of the Class of 2017.

A DEI Interview with Erica Johnson (Class of 2017)

To start off the interview, what have you been doing since graduating from Mitty?

I am a senior at the University of Southern California, and I ultimately want to get a PhD in sociology and probably become a professor. 

Since high school I have really just launched myself into a lot of spheres regarding social activism and advocacy, continuing the work that I did at Mitty which actually inspired me to pursue sociology. I have just been creating a voice for myself, creating a medium through which I can express that voice, and working at the points in society that I think need to be changed.


Moving to #ExposeMitty, what were your reactions or emotions when you were reading the feed?

I know the student who began ExposeMitty, personally. I’ve grown up with this family, and we went to elementary school together. But even before ExposeMitty became a trend, I was already tweeting about how certain people weren’t there for me in the space and the capacity that they should have been as educators, as mentors, and as people. 

And then the trend happened, and I was like, “Well, let’s get to it.” And so I had to dig into the darkest places of my mind and unsuppress a lot of those thoughts that I had about Mitty.

I realized I didn’t have the opportunity to air out my grievances after I graduated. I knew that this was my time because it was so necessary. I took it upon myself to be a little bit more radical in that I made sure I posted a picture of my face. I said my full name. I made sure that they knew exactly who was talking because a lot of people were coming under the guise of anonymity.

I was in MAP. I was in jazz choir. I was in Speech and Debate. I was in newspaper. I was in Life Corps. I led Kairos, and I was in Mr. Brosnan’s graduation speech. I was in performing arts. I was known on my campus. I was very much known, and I left feeling like my Mitty experience was a good one, and it was a good one. I definitely will say that I would not be where I am today without Mitty. 

However, I realized that I was covering up a lot of the negative experiences that I had behind the positive ones—behind my Speech and Debate trophies, jazz choir, certificates, and newspaper articles, behind closed doors. It wasn’t as good of an experience as it may have been for a white student, and so that’s why I felt like I needed to take the opportunity to let them know, because I knew that would create a conversation among someone of importance in the administration. That’s really what I wanted to do; I wanted to start a conversation.


Did you feel any trepidation when you were sharing? 

I was very fearful; but I wasn’t as fearful as I was when I was in high school because back then I very much felt like whatever I said or did would be under a microscope. I’m in college now, and there’s nothing that I’m saying that isn’t factual. 

I’m not regretful of anything that I said because it was very necessary. I wanted to wake them up. I wanted them to understand that I was serious, and that I was mad. And so after the fear subsided, I was just motivated. 

I decided to collaborate with a team to get our message across in the most effective way possible. 


How did you hope that Mitty as a community would change because of ExposeMitty?

I had always thought I would send my kids to Mitty because I went there, it was a great school, and it’s a great community. In speech and debate, I had a really awesome time being able to showcase my voice. With jazz choir, I let my heart sing through music. Writing for the newspaper was a way for me to catalog my voice. Life Core allowed me to get in touch with my faith. I enjoyed all those clubs because I genuinely loved them. Those experiences were really good. 

 In thinking about that, I considered, would I want my kids to feel like they weren’t being supported by those who are supposed to look out for their protection?  Would I want my child to be in an AP class without any black peers? Would I want my child to walk around campus after school and be stereotyped by the security guard? No, of course I wouldn’t want that.

I’m trying to be as honest as possible, in terms of what I feel and in terms of what I experienced. This is so important because if you’re not honest no one will ever know what you’re going through. 

Even though I’m no longer in that community, I think about the students who come in and the Black students who are still there, and I want to create a better community for them. That’s really the basis of all my work and my advocacy––it’s about making this world a better place for our young children. 


Could you elaborate on specific trends you may have seen towards students of color when you were at Mitty?

I noticed a lot of profiling of people of color, both on campus and off campus, where my Black friends and peers were [asked] to talk about their parents or their home life. And it’s like –– I come to school to do school. We don’t need to talk about where my dad is or what my mom does or why I can’t be picked up on time after school. In all honesty, those conversations felt aimed at having leverage over us. That was very much a point of conversation for a lot of Black people at Mitty. 

I just think that Mitty had a culture of profiling and stifling the expression of people of color on campus. It’s no secret that people of color, especially Black women, are seen as much more mature than what they actually are. Even as a kid as a 15, 16, 17, and 18 year old, I’m still a child.

I also know that a lot of my peers have had trouble with that three inch rule with the hair. I was assured that this was in no way, shape, or form directed at African American students. Yet the African American students were the first people who seemed to be breaking that rule. A lot of people of color were dress-coded for wearing certain types of clothing when the white students were not told anything. 

I don’t know if white students in my classroom during my years at Mitty ever experienced those types of things to the extent that I did or my peers did, but I definitely saw a disconnect between the way that white students, and even Asian students, were treated in comparison to Black and Latino students on campus. 

For example, in my junior year, a sophomore girl and boy posted a video of my friends and me, saying that they felt like they were back in the hood. Instead of being protected, I was reprimanded for using an administrator’s full name in an email after I posted a picture of it on Twitter. And I was just like, What about me? What about the psychological trauma that I have from this incident? What about the people who did this? I remember I was crying, and I was thinking, “Why am I crying? Why am I apologizing for using a full name to bring awareness to the racism that Black students experience on this campus?”


During your time at Mitty, you were a member of BSU, right? 

The BSU was my safe haven. It afforded me the opportunity to be in a classroom full of Black people, which was an opportunity I’d never had. I was basically the face behind BSU; nearly all of our activities were being created by me and my friend, the club president. 

But I wish that we were provided with more and had focused more on the expression of happiness in the Black community rather than always focusing on sad videos of discrimination. 

I feel like apart from the meetings, the real BSU was the people that hung out at the Outreach Office during lunch. Those were the people that made the Black Student Union because of the fact that we would just hang around and be a joyful community. I wish the BSU was more of that type of community where we could come together to just celebrate our Blackness.

However, I didn’t really miss out because I still had that community, you know, during lunch and on campus before and off. I think that it happened the way that it needed to happen, and it really brought us closer. 


Did you feel like there was any outlet on campus for students to voice their concerns?

If anything, it would be speech and debate. That was where a lot of us aired out our grievances against the whole world. In my experience at Mitty, a lot of students were just a little too scared to talk about anything negative regarding this school—not only out of fear of being reprimanded by the administration, but also by peers. 

A lot of students really love Mitty. They’ve had parents who have gone here, and they’re very embedded in the culture and the community. And so, you know, people really didn’t like to hear about the school’s need to change. But if there was ever a club where you could really talk about what was going on, it was definitely speech and debate.


Do you see particular reasons why ExposeMitty happened specifically at this high school instead of other schools around the bay?

I think that it happening with Mitty was indicative of toxic aspects of Mitty’s tight-knit community. 

We love to sing; we love to hold hands and put our arms around each other and sway. When I first came, I remember sitting in a line on the floor of the gym, and then all of a sudden we started singing and dancing and just putting our arms around each other. And I was just like, Oh my God, because I had previously come from a public school. I really grew to love that aspect of Mitty, especially as a senior, where I got the chance in Life Core to make the dances and to be a part of that lively group. 

But I do think that that same culture prevented people from talking about Mitty’s problems because the community is so tight-knit, contributing to the silencing of students. I think that is what hindered a lot of students from wanting to speak out because it makes them second guess themselves, thinking “Oh, wait, am I really having a bad time when Mitty makes itself to be such a great school?” 


Why do you think that Mitty was one of the first Bay Area schools to have such an extensive racial reckoning?

Mitty was one of the only schools that had this specific space that white students would actually categorize as the place where the minorities hung out: the outreach office. This very fact is indicative of the racism that was prevalent on that campus. 

I hope that people understand that there was a reason why this space existed. I do believe there is a culture of racism and suppression at a lot of private schools. I don’t know why exactly Mitty was the one that had the hashtag, but I do think that it’s very telling that it was the first one. When you think of Mitty, you think of well-rounded, educated students who are going somewhere in this tight-knit community that is very focused on culture. Of course, you’re not going to really look and see the things that might not ascribe to that perspective that you have. That in itself makes you blind to a lot of the things that I’ve been talking about and that a lot of my peers have experienced.


What happened immediately following ExposeMitty? Were you involved with the administration?

The alumni task force spent a lot of time making sure our demands were palatable for the administration.

We wanted to have a follow up conversation with Mitty because we didn’t want this to just be a one time thing for us. The people on the thread did not say what they said to harm Mitty. They did that with the intention of trying to create change. And so, for it to just kind of stop with that first conversation that we had wasn’t enough. I wish the most outspoken alumni were more included in the initiative. We want to follow up with them a lot more.


How did you try to make your demands reasonable and doable? 

One of the demands that we had was to have a mental health counselor for students who have to endure some of the things that we had detailed. We asked for at least one Black academic counselor. We asked for more Black teachers. We asked for them to remove the aspect of the financial aid program where they make students on scholarship do extra work. We asked them to remove the three inch rule. These are not rash demands. 

So many people were calling us ungrateful. I’m disappointed, but I am grateful for where Mitty got me. I am not grateful for how it got me there. I am not grateful for having to have experienced racism or in having to thicken my skin in order to go to school every day. 

We tailored our language in order to not seem aggressive because we didn’t want that to prevent us from being heard. We wanted to be understood. We knew that coming off as angry wouldn’t be useful. 


The administration has said that they’re interested in long term sustainable change, which is why they are not rushing. What do you think about this?

I do agree that, you know, the speed in which we wanted things to happen maybe wasn’t feasible for them. But in the end, we demanded such quick time frames because we wanted to hear that our concerns would be taken into consideration and that they would try to implement those initiatives that we stated as best as they could. That’s all we wanted to hear.

We wanted them to know that what Black students at Mitty are going through is real and that we need change to happen.

I would want more from them, but I do realize that things take time and that there is a process so that’s fine. I believe that whatever needs to happen will happen.


When we talked with Ms. Caputo, who’s our current principal now, she emphasized this need for transparency. What is your opinion on this topic of transparency at Mitty? 

I agree with Ms. Caputo’s statement on the importance of transparency and admire how she has handled this whole matter because it’s evident that she wants things to change. I believe her when she states this sentiment. I really appreciate her desire for transparency because it’s important for us as alumni to know exactly what Mitty is doing to change the culture, but also for you as students and for parents to know what’s going on on campus.


Mitty talks about treating everyone in the image and likeness of God. Do you see a reflection of these Catholic values? 

You can have Catholic values and still be racist. If we’re based on Catholic values, if we’re all made in the image and likeness of God, why am I not being treated the same way as my white peers? It may be real for the white students, but it’s definitely not real for the Black and Brown students. I will tell you that as somebody that has experienced racism firsthand. 

Catholic values will not shield the fact that Black and Brown students and any other students of color still experience racism. If anything, these values should underlie why we need to change the culture of Mitty.

Mitty needs to be equitable. They need to help Black students and protect them and bolster them. And that’s the only way that Black students and people of color who experienced racism will ever be in the same playing field as white students.


Is there any message you’d want to share with, first of all, all the students who currently attend Mitty and then also more specifically to the Black and Brown students who are currently at Mitty?

Speak up. Always speak up because there will always be somebody that sides with you, that believes in you, that thinks that what you’re doing is important. 

Don’t tolerate anything that you think is wrong because you think that no one will support you. There’s always somebody that has your back. You just have to find those people, and they exist. They exist in the administration. Mr. Rojo is a great resource for students; he’s a person that people can look to, for how to mold and harness that voice that you have and make it so that you can enact change. 

Find the resources in the administration, find those allies, find those friends in administration and faculty and teachers and students and parents. Find those people because when you have more people who believe in what you say, you’re always stronger together. 

Talk to the people that you need to talk to in order to make the change that you want to see.


In the broadest sense, what is your ultimate hope for Mitty?

I want to see Mitty put their students first. I want to see Mitty hear the voice of these students who are crying for change. I want to see them assure students that there will be a change from their experiences, and that they’re valid in their experiences and emotions. 

I would like to see Mitty hire more Black teachers, more Black educators, and more Black administrators in general.

I want to see more discussions of these issues of racism that goes beyond just talking about racism in religion classes. I want to see assemblies on how to deal with what’s going on in the world because as we’re moving towards this racial reckoning, I think it’s important that Mitty sees the importance of individuals bringing up these issues. 

I want to see Mitty care more about their students and care more about their students outright and outwardly.


Are there any final comments you would like to share? 

First, I would like to say that I’m very grateful for my experience at Mitty. As I said before, attending Mitty allowed me to attend USC, to find my Blackness, and to find my voice in so many ways. 

I would like to tell the students to be vocal because as long as you’re speaking the truth, as long as it’s a truth that brings about change, that’s all that matters.

I would like to thank Mr. Rojo for always making me feel that I could be something, that I could be someone. I would like to thank Dr. Wilson for coming in and being that role model in the Black community that we didn’t have, as well as a lot of the other teachers who stood in line with the concerns that we made. I’m thankful that Ms. Caputo is taking ExposeMitty seriously and that she wants to see change. 

I hope that with time, Mitty starts to implement the things that we said, that they deal with these types of matters because they’re important. 

Lastly, to my Black and Brown students, I want you to know that I stand with you; there are a lot of people that will always continue to stand with you. Just stay true to who you are and make sure that your voice is heard.