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Michelle Johnson

What is your official title?

I am one of the Co-Founders and one of the Executive Directors at Fire. I used to be the only Executive Director, but now we have a shared leadership model, which is really much better. I am also a Community Historian for the State of Michigan. I see myself as a public historian.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

A typical day, if I’m lucky, I wake up early, but don’t get out of the house until 10:00 or 11:00am; I like to work at home, especially in the morning. Both jobs allow me to work from home in the morning returning emails and researching, promoting Fire on Facebook, coordinating artists, youth and teachers; it’s a lot of coordinating people! I also coordinate people across the state with my Community Historian gig. I am working with people in Detroit, Saginaw, Ottawa County, Kalamazoo, Marshall, Houghton, Niles, Battle Creek, and Albion. In the fall I’ll add Mecosta, Flint, Grand Rapids, Adrian, and Cass County.

My life is connecting up with really cool people in all of these places. I’m working with cultural producers, teachers, artists, and then professional historians and people who are in charge of museums and historical centers. I’m working with 10 year olds up to 87 year olds who spent years trying to preserve a 1915 document. My whole day is spent facilitating what other people want to see done. I’ve been lucky enough that have jobs that align with what I believe in and what I love so I can give myself 100%.


What is Fire?

It’s an arts and cultural non-profit formed almost 10 years ago. Our primary area of focus is really on this notion of creative justice. It’s facilitating for people from all walks of life, but especially those who have been partially or fully marginalized – young people, LGBT, black and Hispanic people, elderly, poor people, artists – all of those folks who don’t necessarily have a place at the table, that’s who we focus on. We believe very strongly that all people benefit from the concept of creative justice when they identify with their authentic self – what is it that that individual loves to do?

A piece of that is to get the skills to become their best authentic self. Another piece of it is after you have the skills, to have the opportunity to articulate what you love. For me, I’ve always loved music. From the time I was eight or nine years old, my best friend and I used to make radio shows on our made-up WBOJ. I’d make mix tapes and play all sorts of kinds of music, and I was pretty good at it. It took until starting Fire for me to start to get the skills and the opportunity to become a DJ. Someone might have a passion for something, but need the opportunity to see that passion develop. For a musician it might be access to a recording studio. For a culinary artist, it might be growing a vegetable garden, for an artist it might be walls to put up visual art. The difficulty in understanding what Fire is, is that everyone identifies with their authentic self in different ways, so we want to keep our description very broad.

After acquiring the skills, we promote sustainability. It’s one thing to do what you love, but it’s sometimes difficult to be able to sustain it. We are raised with the notion of first, do what you have to do, then you do what you’re good at, and then if there is any time left in your life, then you do what you love. The sustainability piece is trying to shift the paradigm so you’re saying first, I have to do what I love! The sustainability part is so hard because society isn’t built that way.

The last part is to facilitate it for something or somebody else. It doesn’t have to be a person; you can facilitate clean water or ways to clear up the pollutants in the earth. It’s not only human-centered. It’s just about connecting with what is important to you.


Tell us about the programs available at Fire.

We have two ways that we try to address that. Largely, the creative justice model is a living breathing model. People asked us what our model was, because it worked so well. We went ahead and quantified the model, created the five areas, you know, did all the things we were taught to do in grad school. Most of the time, we don’t sit down and talk about the model, we just do it. For our youth students, we talk about what do they love to do? All of our youth programming is youth led and youth driven. We do what they want to do. This summer, they want to dance, they want drumming, culinary arts, music production, singing and running; we’re going to have to find some running coaches! Last year, they wanted to do theater, so that is where we focused our effort. We do workshops accordingly. You want dancing; we’ll bring in dance instructors. You want drumming; we’ll bring in drum instructors.

We also have a creative justice workshop that we do. It’s a set of conversations about each component of the model. What does authenticity mean more broadly? Look at it through the lens of Latino folks and queer folks. How are these questions of authenticity operating in the present? Then we’ll do another workshop focused on skills, and follow through the rest of the model.

We just got a very generous grant in Kalamazoo to bring the creative justice model to Millwood and Loy Norrix, so we’ll be working there and having a class here in the evenings, a multi-generational class. We’ll be doing short stories, essays, and talk about some great cultural inspirations like Sandra Cisneros, Frederick Douglass and Audrey Lorde. It’s called the Great Writer’s Project, and the idea is to study these great writers, but then to become great writers themselves.  We kick that off in September.


What does being a Community Historian entail?

What I do as a community historian is work with people in a wide range of backgrounds in history. They could be curators or historians of museums, people who have documented their genealogy, or people who are interested in history. I think what a good Community Historian does is recognize that the people I work with have vast resources, and uses the traditional ways of documentation and verifying resources to create a narrative we wouldn’t have otherwise. If you’re just looking at one of those areas, you really start to lose out on a lot of the greatness of the history. I am blending academic strategy and interest with the community interest. It’s so folks in each of these cities can be involved in the story. I like to engage people in the process of researching the history, and sharing their own stories.


Can you tell us about your background/passion?

I was born here in Kalamazoo, but was raised in Saginaw. Saginaw was like a microcosm of the United States. Indigenous people settled there first, then the fur trade comes in, then we get a little salt and coal going, then the lumber industry, which brought my mother’s family there, then auto. Then everything bottomed out. GM left and left this horrible environmental mark on Saginaw. It was devastating. It’s had a difficult time of reinventing itself I think.

There is a river in Saginaw that divides the city in half, not just physically, but also racially. There was an enormous amount of racism and classism when I was growing up there in the 1960s and 1970s; I was the first black child in my elementary school. I had grown people calling me names and throwing things at me. Integration was not easy.

I think very early it lead me to start questioning things. I was also a tomboy, so my questions were around race, gender, class. When I got out of Saginaw and went to Michigan State, I was looking for the world’s answers. I started to understand the systemic structures, and learned that it wasn’t just Saginaw that had problems. After asking all of these questions, I wanted to find the answers. The first answer I thought it was, was young people, so I pursued education. Then I thought it was minority/majority group relations, so I went to James Madison at Michigan State, which was a pre-law program. Then I thought “nope, the problem is individual; we can’t change these big systems, we have to change the individual.” So I went into psychology.

Then, I stopped. I was away for about a year and a half, and thought you know what, I probably won’t figure out the world’s problems, but I need to figure out what I love to do. And that was my humanities classes. I always loved reading and loved philosophy. I changed my major to humanities. I stopped trying to figure out the solutions to the world’s problems. First and foremost I wanted to be my authentic self, even though I didn’t know what that was at the time! I started to get more of an interest in history. My senior project was looking at the connection between the ways that people understand their history and liberation; I wanted people to understand their past so they could go more confidently into their futures.

I moved to New Mexico for two years working in recycling; somehow I am still trying to figure out the world’s problems. Now, the problem is the environment. They didn’t have a bottle deposit law, but we did here, and I thought, “Oh, we need to recycle!” I still wanted to go back to grad school, though. I was faced with this decision around “Do I want to pursue recycling and run a plant branch, or did I want to go to the University of Michigan to study history?” I picked Michigan. I wasn’t sure if I made the right decision for years.

I did my dissertation in African American Environmental Culture. Zora Neale Hurston’s work was a major area of focus for me. My second year into my first job as a professor at the University Of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I got a fellowship to go down to the University of Florida to study and get behind her work, and go to the communities that she collected folklore in. It was a turning point for me. I was on the Wisconsin Humanities Council and was getting all of these cool grants from people who were doing these oral history projects. I was like, “Wait, I don’t want to be reviewing proposals, I want to be doing them myself!”

I started working in the community in Florida to put on a play, Polk County, that Hurston had co-written that had never been produced before. We did it in the county that she collected folklore in; that was it for me. When someone gave me a key to the community center to practice this play, it hit me; “This is what I wanted to be doing.”

I forgot about it for about a year. I came back to Michigan to do an extensive oral history project on blacks and Latinas in Saginaw; it’s about a 500 page document of interviews. I was teaching at Michigan State and Grand Valley, and around this time I moved to Kalamazoo. I was keeping all of these balls in the air. I was also working for the State as the Freedom Trail coordinator. It felt really clear to me that if Fire was going to grow, Denise, Fire’s co-founder, or I going to have to take a step back from their jobs, so I did and committed my time to Fire.

That’s the journey! Fire is an applied history project. It’s taking all of the things that Denise and I have believed in over the years and co-created it with other people. I didn’t have many safe spaces in Saginaw, and we wanted to create a safe space for all people with Fire.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

I love the trees and the hills; I love the land of this place. I love coming down Westnedge Hill. There are so many incredibly talented people in this city. The pure vibrancy is wonderful. I truly believe that per capita that we are competitive with a place like New York. I think that if you doubled or tripled the size of Kalamazoo, you would have an equal number of smart talented creative brilliant people. We have so many talented people, from age seven to 87, across all races, and of different sexuality and classes. It’s just a really creative place.


What kind of music do you jam to?

I am a DJ. I’m DJ Disobedience on WIDR. I have a show called the Slip Back Soul show. I do R&B, soul, jazz and blues, and my cutoff is usually 1989. I like reggae a lot. If I was to pick one, oh I don’t know I can’t just pick one, I love soul and jazz. I’m hoping to open for George Clinton when he comes. My show is from 11:00-1:00pm every Saturday morning. When I first started, it was on at 7:00am; that’s how I knew I loved it. There wasn’t anything else that I would get up for every Saturday.


How do you take your coffee? Or do you?

I drink tea, but I’m a water drinker. I have to have fresh lemon or lime in it.


Do you have a go-to spot in Kalamazoo?

Fire! You always know that you’re going to see some great art, and when there is a performance going on here, it’s incredible.


When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

So many things if you can imagine. I wanted to be a lawyer for quite a long time. I didn’t believe I could be a DJ. I went up against all kinds of gender stereotypes, and when I was young, I really bought that women couldn’t be DJ’s. I wanted to change the world; I wanted to be able to prosecute people who were abusive, and help poor women get an opportunity to make a better life.


Who would play you in a movie?

People would always say, “you look like Lisa Bonet”, you know, any light-skinned black woman. I would love Angela Bassett to play me in a movie.


If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?

Denise and two other women poets did this whole show, and the theme was “If I could talk to my younger self, what would I say?” I have a poem about it called Baby Girl Warrior. This poem is basically saying, look inside and around rather than above. Look to yourself, be just, read the words of people who want to make the world a better place. Know that there are other people like you out there. People will throw stones and call you names, but you are part of a bigger tribe.


What is the future of Fire?

We just had a strategic planning meeting. I think the future of Fire needs to be the shared leadership model. I think it’s imperative that the organization stays true to its founding principles. I think the future of Fire in the best possible scenario is that this model is something that people see something in outside of Fire and outside of this neighborhood; the creative justice model isn’t just for Fire. We should all benefit from it. I hope that Fire will be more sustainable. I hope that people will continue to see the longitudinal benefit of the organization. My dream is that one of these crazy young people is going to be leading this organization someday. I know that there are more artists that are going to come through here that will change the face of art and of Kalamazoo. My dream is to be at the Grammys or the Emmys or the Oscars one day with one of our incredible students here who have followed their dreams. I want this organization to continue to make an impact in this neighborhood the way it has. I hope that it continues to be looked to as a model for justice, and that it has a broader impact state-wide and nationally.


How can people get involved?

The website, thisisfire.com. We have a pretty heavy Facebook presence, and you can always reach us by email. Most of the time, we are here at the building, too.


Michelle, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Michelle and FIRE on facebook. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.