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Putting the Story into Action

Ben Johnson (in red shirt) with other members of the Community Action and Social Justice Coalition.

Ben Johnson is not just interested in discovering people’s stories—he’s interested in changing them, too. A sociology and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies double major set to graduate in 2015, Johnson recently spent nearly a year working with Occupy Our Homes DC, a housing justice movement that fights foreclosures and evictions in the metro D.C. area. “We would do canvases to reach out to homeowners and see if they wanted to fight back against banks,” says Johnson. “I worked with one woman who lost her job in the recession, and her house went into foreclosure. She found a new job and was making payments, so we worked with her to put pressure on Fannie Mae to reverse the foreclosure.”  

In addition to working with individuals, Johnson and his fellow activists organized community petitions and sit-ins. “We staged a sit-in at a Chase Bank home loan office and even did a housing blockade once to prevent U.S. Marshalls from moving a family,” he says. “This ended up giving them another four months in their house.”  

Johnson first got interested in Occupy Our Homes DC not as an activist, but as a writer. “I discovered Occupy because I was writing a newspaper article on it,” he says. “I spent about a week investigating and taking notes, and really liked what I saw. I wanted to get involved.”

His participation in the Occupy movement was a turning point for Johnson. Originally a journalism major at AU, the Occupy movement inspired him to make a change. “I really like telling people’s stories and talking to them about their life experiences,” he says. “After taking some general education classes, though, I felt that sociology had a much better approach to telling people’s life stories. You’re able to learn about their day-to-day lives through world histories and interviews.”

Johnson believes that his sociology coursework, combined with the women’s gender and sexuality studies program, will give him the perspective and experience he needs to implement change. “As a social activist, I think understanding power and how it functions on a structural and dispersal level is really important,” he says. “AU’s gender studies program is providing me with a really good analysis of power. This, combined with the sociology program, is an ideal match.”

Though he is driven and dedicated, Johnson credits much of his perspective and ambition to his professors at AU. “I’ve had some really smart professors who not only care about the academic work that they do, but really care about using their academic work to implement social change,” he says. “I think that’s something that makes these programs in particular pretty great.” 

In the future, Johnson plans to work as a field organizer for a social justice organization such as Unite Here or the United Automobile Workers. Through this type of work, he believes he can inspire change by working with communities. “True change comes from a social movement composed of ordinary people willing to do extraordinary things,” says Johnson. “As a field organizer I would be engaging regular people and working to empower them to confront issues, like housing inequality. This type of work is where I can best contribute to a collective effort for change.”