Written by: Clay Turner

“There are parallels between school and prison,” Johnisha Graham said, reclining on a red sofa at Nexus Coffee and Creative, coffee mug in hand. When she spoke of prison, she meant her time there as a correctional officer. It was there that she saw what real life was like for inmates, which is completely different from what one sees depicted in shows like Orange is the New Black. “How long have you been in?” she asked a young man one day. To which he said, “I’ve been institutionalized my entire life—from youth to now.” This made her wonder if he had ever had role models who had pushed him to succeed. If he had, maybe he still wouldn’t have been in the prison system.

This type of interaction is ultimately what led Johnisha to pursue accessible education for all. Having grown up in Lake Village, Arkansas, a small rural town, Johnisha was the youngest in her family, with two older sisters. She attended Lakeside High School before graduating from the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) in 2015 with a degree in family and consumer sciences.

After graduating from UCA, Johnisha wanted to help people through service, so she worked with Common Ground Montgomery, an inner-city/urban youth ministry that serves communities in Montgomery, Alabama. Through her internship that summer, Johnisha helped with their eight-week summer camp before assisting with their community end-of-summer showcase. This experience made such an impression on Johnisha that she decided that she wanted to work for a cause greater than herself.

She went back to Arkansas, where she started working for the Arkansas Department of Corrections as a correctional officer, where she realized that incarceration was lucrative. As Johnisha saw with the young man who had been institutionalized his entire life, the prison system can become a vicious, inescapable cycle for some, perpetuated by those within, such as other correctional officers who become apathetic towards the inmates themselves.

One thing Johnisha saw while at the Arkansas Department of Corrections was how important it was to lead with respect. “Respect is everything,” she said. Here she witnessed how powerful it was for inmates to develop relationships with the other detainees—the difference between building community or being alone.

This principle of leading with respect was also applicable within the school system, where Johnisha found herself in July 2016. After being accepted to work for City Year Little Rock, Johnisha left the Arkansas Department of Corrections to work as an AmeriCorps member, serving on a team to assist students in improving attendance, behavior, and course-work achievement.

By leading with respect, Johnisha built lasting connections. “Ms.G”, as the students called her, worked as a Corps member the first year before coming back the next year as a team leader. Through this experience, Johnisha was able to develop her leadership skills and learn how to manage her expectations. “Your way is not always the way that it needs to get done,” she said, “I was viewing people through a fixed lens and learned how to change this—it was a hard lesson to learn, but it made me better.”

Through City Year Johnisha heard about the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. On the second day of City Year training, Dean Skip Rutherford came to administer a workshop on the educational background of Little Rock School District. At the time, Johnisha thought, “Who is this white man and why am I so intrigued?” She realized then that the Clinton School could help her along her path to improving education and answering that one burning question she encountered while working as a correctional officer, how do we capture the attention of kids who are falling behind?

Johnisha enrolled at the Clinton School because she believed all students should have access to education, and public service was a way to achieve that. In order to continue her journey, Johnisha elected to do her first-year public service project for ForwARd Arkansas, a public-private partnership between the Arkansas State Board of Education, Walton Family Foundation and Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, which aims to promote equity in education to improve student achievement.

This past fall, Johnisha ran into a past student from City Year who told her she was graduating early. Another student told her she was getting her GED and that she had her own place. “You want to make interactions worthwhile,” Johnisha said, “you don’t know when you’ll see this student again. Their situations are all over the place, moving them to different places.”

It is clear that Johnisha has made a lasting impact within Little Rock, Arkansas and Montgomery, Alabama.  Having mentored countless students through City Year and Common Ground Montgomery, she has already provided the mentorship to many who may not have had it otherwise. And that in itself is what her public service is all about.