Welcome to The Dean’s List! The Dean’s List will profile up-and-comers in Memphis who are certain to be the next group of leaders in the nonprofit, corporate, government, and faith communities. The Dean’s List is curated by Kevin Dean.
Though only 42, Adriane has had a varied career in academia, nonprofits, and foundations that revolves around her passion for equity in education. The South Memphis native left Memphis as a young girl, attending boarding school in the Northeast before attending college at Wellesley. A few years later, she earned her Ph.D. in education policy studies. She worked in education in Washington, DC. before joining the staff at West Virginia University. All the while, Adriane was watching the changes and challenges of Memphis from afar.
“I was at a crossroads. It was clear that I was not cut out for academia, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to return to D.C. to play the federal policy games,” she says. “At the same time, I was following the merger process in the news and was deeply disturbed by discussions that could have been taking place in 1954 or 1973.”
She made the surprising decision to return to Memphis to immerse herself in the difficult discussions taking place in Memphis involving race, gender, equity, and education. Today, she’s helping to shape policy discussions, serving on the board of Girls, Inc., and has earned a reputation for being an unapologetic force in education and social change. In the small amount of free time she has, she blogs at her site, JustAdriane, where, among other things, she writes letters to Hillary Clinton about women’s issues.
Adriane is an inspiring example of a native Memphis returning to her roots to make sure Memphis is an equitable, educated, and growing city. We picked Adriane Johnson-Williams for her passion for change and her commitment to social justice and civil rights in Memphis.
I assume you didn’t always aspire to be in education policy. Did you have other aspirations?
I once wanted to be a French professor specializing in post-colonial literature. I also wanted to be a Broadway performer.
If you could describe your feelings about Memphis in three words, what would they be?
Home, trauma, and promise
You’ve become known in Memphis as a change agent for educational institutions. Why is education such a critical issue for you?
It’s deeply personal. I don’t believe education is the solution the way many people do. But I know it opens doors. Well before it opens doors, it shapes people and communities. The level and type of education we provide is an indication of what we as a society value. It communicates what is expected of us. When I was a professor, I taught that education has 3 purposes: social, political, and economic. The social purpose of education is to shape us into what our society thinks we should be. The political purpose is to prepare to engage in our democratic-republic. The third is to prepare us to participate in our economic system. If you think about education this way and then reflect on public schooling in Memphis, you see a place that thinks of many of its children and future prisoners, who cannot and should not vote, and who should occupy the margins of our economic system if they participate formally at all. The adults in our community are the result of our investment in education. I want us to want something different and work toward that.
Much of your career has been devoted to tackling issues of institutional racism’s impact on public education. What do you see as important design flaws in education that impacts children of color?
We assume that the definition of kindergarten readiness is somehow transferred to mothers during the gestational process, and we then penalize children and judge their parents when children show up “not Kindergarten ready”.
We fail to see children as whole people with parents who are whole people and design schooling to address only one—at most 2—aspects of who children are.
Memphis has one of the most effective school-to-prison pipelines in the nation. All of our systems are complicit. The Memphis Police Department, Shelby County Sheriffs, the Juvenile Court, especially the Shelby County District Attorney, who seems to be on a mission to destroy black lives, are engineered to imprison and control brown bodies. And no type of public school—SCS, ASD, charter, municipalities—is blameless in cooperating.
Name three people in Memphis that you think will help change this city for the better.
Melissa Perry, Lead Information Manager at Seeding Success, is unique in the nation. The work she is doing to help us use data effectively and ethically in out-of-school time spaces puts this city at the forefront. I hope we are smart enough to keep her happy and take advantage of what she has to offer.
Terri Lee-Johnson of Zoleka Birth Services and Birth Strides is shining a light on maternal health and the role of lay women, doulas, in reducing infant mortality and promoting the well-being of mothers and children. I am convinced her approach to community-based supports gets us back to the basics of that village it takes to raise a child. Sometimes the solutions we seek are already present, but we have to be willing to challenge our own mental models and let the work happen.
Tracy Hall, President of Southwest Tennessee Community College, holds one of the most important positions for the future of this community. I don’t know her, but I have heard her talk about what she is trying to do here. Her success would be transformative for this city. I hope she is receiving all the support she needs to get the job done.
How do you characterize your current work?
Working with local nonprofits to help them better pursue improved outcomes for children and families living in poverty and to hold themselves and each other accountable for quality work.
What’s the one Memphis restaurant you couldn’t live without?
Well, I can cook, so I can definitely live without a restaurant. But I absolutely LOVE Bounty. The food is great. The service is amazing, and family style just feels right.
Who has the best dessert in Memphis?
When I lived in D.C., I had a ready answer for that question, but I don’t have one for Memphis. The Cheesecake Corner is fabulous, but Michael Patrick at Rizzo’s can really show off when it comes to desserts. Then, of course, there is that piece of chocolate Nutella heaven at Bounty. I can’t choose.
What makes Memphis different from other cities?
As much as I have heard the opposite recently with the Memphis Massacre anniversary, Memphis struggles to remember and recognize the long-term effects of our deeply white supremacist history. It feels like we’re on the cusp of something great, and I am beginning to hear the sounds of remembrance and restoration, but there is a resistance to our truth. I imagine it is fear of retribution because we are a retributive community. We believe in punishment. Perhaps it is a fear of the loss of power and privilege. While these things are true in other cities, especially Southern cities, the degree to which we’ve adopted niceness has shackled our abilities to speak some harsh truths and challenge each other to do and be better.
What area of town is your favorite and why?
I like Midtown. Shocking, I know. I like porches and sidewalks. I like the progression from public to semi-public to semi-private to private space. I like impromptu wine with my neighbors and the option to walk to Overton Square or Cooper Young. It feels like what I’ve come to know as a city.
What can Memphians do to make a difference in our community?
Be honest. Acknowledge systems at work and stop focusing on individuals. Stop judging. Start seeing people as whole people with whole complex lives. Ask questions instead of assuming we know the answers. Ask more questions. Talk to children. Listen to what they say. Act in ways the promote justice.
We will be an amazing and prosperous city when we see every human being in our boundaries as valuable and a contributor. We will take a leap forward when we admit that we celebrate and over-compensate mediocrity and repress true potential. We will be unstoppable when those in power acknowledge their limits, choose to learn, or choose to pass the baton to the next generation.
What is one thing you’re most excited about for Memphis?
I am excited the silos are beginning to crack. I am thrilled that we are beginning to recognize that we are interdependent. I see little pieces of evidence in unexpected corners even in the face of continuing injustice.