The Work is the Work with Brian Johnson

by Elizabeth Rowe (She/Her)

The Work is the Work

Interview about The Work is the Work with Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson is the CEO of Equality Illinois, an organization that has been fighting for LBGTQ+ civil rights since 2016. However, inspired by his tenures as a first-grade teacher in Baton Rouge and a Teach for America Corps member, he has fought for equity in his leadership as the Vice President of Regional Impact at the Leadership for Educational Equity, where he recruited teachers to run for public office and launched community organizing initiatives across major cities with his leadership in, with his history of leadership in nonprofits, including as the executive director of Teach for America in Los Angeles. Brian fostered educational excellence and diversity in our public schools, drawing from his extensive social justice and LGBTQ+ advocacy experience. His book, The Work is the Work, is a testament to the ongoing fight for justice across realms like environmentalism, anti-racism, and community empowerment. It is inspired by his daughter and the next generation of change-makers. This week, we interviewed Brian.

We know you were inspired by your time as a teacher, but can you tell us more about how that experience has shaped your career and perspective on your work?

My journey in the first-grade classroom of North Baton Rouge has been nothing short of foundational for everything I have pursued since. Growing up as the son of an Army officer and a public school teacher, I spent my formative years attending neighborhood public schools. This upbringing, steeped in the values of service and education, laid the groundwork for my acceptance to Princeton University.

My time at Princeton was transformative. I prided myself on being a good progressive, well-versed in the writings of Jonathan Zel and academic research. However, I was acutely aware that, as a middle-class white kid, my understanding of injustice in America was grounded more in data and abstraction than in real-life experiences and relationships. This realization propelled me to seek a path that combined my father’s dedication to serving our country and my mother’s passion for teaching. Thus, I found myself signing on to teach in North Baton Rouge.

The student population in my classroom was 100% Black and nearly 100% low-income. It was here that I truly fell in love with my students, fellow teachers, and the parents of my students. Through these relationships, I began to see firsthand how comfortable we, as a country, are in perpetuating inequity and injustice on the most vulnerable among us. This realization struck me deeply and has continued to inform every aspect of my work since.

One of the core lessons I’ve drawn from my time in Baton Rouge is the essential nature of relationships and relationality in the pursuit of social justice. You can possess all the greatest data, research, and policy white papers, but without genuine relationships within the community, your instincts will be lacking and your leadership will fall short of true solidarity.

To lead effectively and compassionately, it is crucial to immerse yourself in the community, build relationships, listen to stories, and understand where help is needed. It’s through these connections that one can move beyond abstract understanding and engage in meaningful, impactful work.

In essence, my experience in that first-grade classroom taught me that the path to justice is paved not just with knowledge, but with empathy, relationships, and a deep understanding of the lived experiences of those we aim to serve. This lesson continues to guide my journey, reminding me that true progress is built on the foundation of human connection.

As you reflect on the number of different hats you’ve worn since Baton Rouge, are there key throughlines, lessons, or principles that you would emphasize as the listeners, whether they're individuals or organizations, are looking to make meaningful contributions to causes that they're working on in several different spaces? Do any of these rise to the top for you?

After 25 years in my field, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on the deeper questions that have been a throughline in my career. These are the questions that no one explicitly helped me wrestle with, and they aren't the technical ones—like how to cut a universe, determine a win number, or write a great law. Instead, they are bigger, existential questions. Questions like, how do we do good work well? How do we fight for justice with peace in our hearts? How do we work to repair the deep brokenness of the world from a place of our own wholeness?

These reflections inspired me to write my book The Work" Each chapter is focused on a different lesson I've learned over the years. Two key lessons stand out the most to me.

First, seek to understand before tackling a problem. When entering a community, it's crucial to listen first, rather than approaching with preconceived notions about what needs to be done or even with cerebral questions about which policies to address. Instead, go in and ask the Ruby Sales question: "Where does it hurt?" By listening to community stewards and members, you gain a genuine understanding of the issues at hand.

The second lesson, which I end the book on, took me the longest to internalize: the essential nature of making room for joy. The work of fighting for justice is a long slog—I've been doing it for 25 years. The only way to sustain this effort is to embrace joy. In fact, one of the most subversive things you can do in the face of inequity is to claim your community's joy.

In essence, my career has taught me that the path to justice is not just about knowledge and action but also about empathy, understanding, and joy. These lessons continue to guide my journey, reminding me that true progress is built on the foundation of human connection and a joyful spirit.

In your life, in social justice, and in the LGBTQ+ movement, without giving too much away, could you share a pivotal moment or story from the book that really sort of encapsulates or gives a sense of what you really dig into in the book?

At 30 or 31 years old, I was leading Teach for America in Los Angeles. Every day, I was raising millions of dollars, supporting hundreds of teachers in some of the city's most overburdened schools. Despite my dedication, I found myself on the edge of burnout, running as fast as I could just to stay in place. In this state of exhaustion and desperation, I stumbled into a neighborhood bookstore, seeking something—anything—that could give me hope, direction, and inspiration.

As I wandered through the aisles, I came across an old Indian Hindu religious text called the Bhagavad Gita, a book I hadn't read since college when I majored in religion. I bought it, took it next door to a restaurant, ordered a beer, and started reading at the bar.

In the first two chapters, I encountered a line that struck a deep chord: "You do not have the right to the fruit of your actions. So act for action's sake." This was exactly what I needed to hear.

When we care deeply about outcomes because they matter so much, it's easy to burn out. We constantly worry if we're working hard enough, strategically enough, or if there's more we could be doing. This constant state of anxiety can be exhausting. On the other hand, there are those who become complacent, feeling the problems are too big to tackle, so they don't even try.

What I realized from the Bhagavad Gita is that the sweet spot for fighting for justice and peace in your heart lies in the work itself. Each day, we should strive to be as strategic, hardworking, relentless, and focused as possible on creating the beloved community we envision for the future. And then, let the work be the work. Don't get overly wrapped up in whether you're failing or succeeding.

This doesn't mean outcomes don't matter. It means that fretting about them can drain your energy and detract from your ability to think strategically about your work. By focusing on the actions themselves, rather than the results, you can find a sustainable path forward, maintaining your dedication and your peace of mind. This balance is crucial for long-term commitment to justice and making a real impact.

How do you prioritize and balance your advocacy efforts between issues such as environmental justice, LGBTQ+ rights, and anti-racism?

I often reflect on the wisdom of religious thinker Frederick Buechner regarding vocation and calling. He emphasizes the importance of finding the intersection between your heart's greatest desires and the world's greatest needs and staying there. What resonates with me about Buechner's idea is that both sides of the equation matter.

For a long time, my focus was solely on addressing the world's greatest needs. I didn't take the time to ask myself what kind of work, what types of teams, and what daily tasks truly sang to my heart and drew out my greatest talents and contributions. Conversely, there are many people who focus primarily on their heart's greatest desires without considering the world's greatest needs.
The key is finding that sweet spot where what you love to do meets what the world needs most. When you find this balance, you can sustain your efforts over the long haul.

Building on this, Parker Palmer offers another layer of insight. He suggests that we focus less on whether we are effective and more on whether we are being faithful to what we have to bring to the world. If you focus solely on effectiveness, you may limit yourself to small, easily measurable tasks and well-trodden paths because these are the only things with guaranteed results.
Instead, ask yourself the bolder question: Am I being faithful to my unique talents, strengths, experiences, and perspectives in this fight? By doing so, you can bring forth bold, fearless, visionary work and drive real change. You might not win at every step, but the world becomes a better and brighter place when more people ask this question.

In essence, finding your true calling involves balancing your passion with the world's needs and staying true to your unique contributions. This approach not only sustains you but also ensures that your work has a profound and lasting impact.

Reflecting on your tenure as CEO of Equality Illinois, what initiatives or achievements are you most proud of in advancing LGBTQ+ civil rights in the state?

I've been the CEO here for eight years, which feels like a lifetime in our fast-paced field. One achievement I'm particularly proud of, rooted partly in my history as a teacher, is what I believe will be our most impactful contribution in the long run: a couple of years ago, we became the fifth state in the country to require the teaching of LGBTQ+ history in schools.

This curriculum goes beyond the civil rights movement to include figures like Albert Cashier, a trans Civil War veteran from Illinois; Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; Alan Turing, the codebreaker who played a crucial role in World War II; and Bayard Rustin, a key figure in the civil rights movement. It also covers the fight for marriage equality and iconic activists like Harvey Milk and Sylvia Rivera.

The importance of this initiative is profound. Most LGBTQ+ individuals are born into families that don't share their identity, meaning we often miss out on having our stories passed down through generations. My loving grandfather didn't sit me on his knee and tell me the rich history of our community—I had to learn it in the same spaces as straight and cisgender kids did, in the public square.

By teaching LGBTQ+ history in schools, we ensure that LGBTQ+ youth have role models to look up to and stories that resonate with their own experiences. Simultaneously, straight and cisgender students benefit from understanding the diverse fabric of leaders who have shaped America. This inclusive education fosters a more comprehensive view of our shared history.
When I think 20 or 40 years into the future, envisioning multiple generations of students graduating from Illinois public schools with a deep understanding of the contributions made by LGBTQ+ individuals, I see a better future. A future grounded in a deeper recognition of the dignity and worth of all people, shaped by the knowledge that our leaders come from all walks of life.
This initiative isn't just about history lessons—it's about creating a more inclusive and empathetic society. By recognizing and celebrating the diverse contributions of LGBTQ+ individuals, we're building a foundation for a future where everyone’s story is valued and respected.

As someone who has had leadership roles in both education and LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations, what insights from your experiences would you share with educators aiming to create more inclusive environments for LGBTQ+ students?

First and foremost, I want to say thank you. If you are an educator today working to hold space for youth, you are doing the brave, hard, courageous, and vital work of saving kids' lives. It's not about doing it perfectly, but about showing up every day and making a difference. That is hero's work.

Let me share a story to illustrate the importance of grounding our work in real experiences. I was once talking to a Republican state legislator who, if I recall correctly, ended up voting for the inclusive curriculum bill. He asked me, "Brian, I just don't understand why we have to talk about the private and personal lives of historical figures. Why can't we just focus on their public contributions?"

I responded, "Representative, what was Abraham Lincoln's wife's name?" He quickly answered, "Mary Todd Lincoln." I followed up, "And what was Martin Luther King Jr.'s wife's name?" He said, "Coretta." Then I asked, "What was Jane Addams' wife's name?" He hesitated and said, "I didn't know Jane Addams had a wife." And I replied, "Exactly. Because we are willing to erase LGBTQ+ people's lives in ways that we are not willing to erase straight people's lives."

This conversation highlights a critical point. We routinely acknowledge the personal lives of straight historical figures, yet we often erase the personal lives of LGBTQ+ figures. This erasure extends to our educational system, where inclusive representation is essential.

When we talk about acknowledging diverse families in schools, there is often a concern about sexualizing youth or discussing sexual orientation prematurely. My daughter is a kindergartener in our neighborhood public school, and I can tell you that the children's books she reads often depict straight families. These books, showing a mother and a father, do not teach her about straight sex any more than a book showing a family like ours would teach her about gay sex.

The point is about fairness and visibility. All we are asking for is that our families, identities, and role models be treated with the same dignity and honesty as those of straight and cisgender individuals. By including LGBTQ+ history and diverse family structures in our educational materials, we provide all students with a more complete and honest understanding of the world.
Educators, your role in this effort is invaluable. By creating an inclusive environment and curriculum, you help ensure that every student sees themselves reflected in their education. This not only fosters a sense of belonging, but also prepares all students to appreciate and respect the diversity of the world around them. Thank you for your dedication and commitment to making our schools a place where every child can thrive.

The Work Is the Work emphasizes the importance of community support in advocacy endeavors. Can you discuss a specific instance from your experiences where community mobilization played a crucial role in achieving a positive outcome for a social justice initiative you were involved in?

Let me share a story we're in the midst of right now. In 2019, a couple of my board members at Equality Illinois took me out for lunch and revealed that they had been former sex workers, which I did not know. They urged me to look into how sex work is treated in the law, emphasizing that current policies were literally killing people.

We could have taken the traditional route: commissioning research, hiring a law firm, and reading white papers. And eventually, we did engage in some of that. But I wanted to start differently. I asked my board members to connect me with current and former sex workers so we could hear their stories directly.

For a year, we conducted deep interviews and focus groups, paying participants to honor their time. We asked them the Ruby Sales questions: Why did they get into sex work? What were their fears and hopes? What did they love about their work? If they could change the lives of sex workers in their area, what would they do?

Through these conversations, we not only collected meaningful stories but also began building strong relationships. Fast forward to 2024, and we now have the Sex Worker Advisory Group (SWAG), led by an Equality Illinois board member who is a former sex worker. This group has been instrumental in engaging with elected officials across the state. We've held hour-long briefings for nearly 60 to 70 legislators on the importance of decriminalizing sex work.

Although we are far from fully decriminalizing sex work, the relationships we've built with current and former sex workers are our greatest asset. These individuals have lent us their stories and are working with us on the front lines to chart a path forward.
I am deeply confident that we will eventually reach a point where Illinois protects its sex workers by taking sex work out of the shadows and integrating it into the traditional economy and public spaces. This will ensure sex workers can be safe and their rights protected. By listening and leading with empathy and understanding, we are paving the way for meaningful change.

Do you have any tips for our listeners on how to approach building and sustaining effective partnerships with stakeholders, policymakers, and community members to advance the goals of equity and justice?

I'm thinking about a recent bill we passed that now requires every healthcare professional—doctors, nurses, therapists—to take cultural competency training when renewing their licenses. It took us a while to get to this point, but the key to our success was doing the hard work of building relationships, exactly as your question suggests.

We started by listening to our community stewards who shared their experiences of not being treated respectfully in medical facilities and offices. These negative experiences made them reluctant to seek healthcare. We then asked ourselves, who else might be facing similar issues?

We reached out to immigrant rights groups, disability rights groups, religious communities, and various civil rights organizations representing racial and ethnic groups. We shared the stories we were hearing and asked if their communities had similar experiences. They did. Together, we asked, "What can we do?" This led to the formation of an incredibly diverse and broad-based coalition.

Our coalition went up against powerful opponents, including the Illinois State Medical Society and other medical groups. These groups were not necessarily opposed to cultural competency, but were nervous about increased state regulation. We acknowledged their concerns but emphasized that the harm being done to our communities was too great to ignore.
We persisted, slowly building more champions and supporters, culminating in the support of the Senate President here in Illinois. His backing was invaluable in getting this legislation over the finish line.

Our approach was to go slow so we could eventually go fast. By grounding our work in real stories and reaching out to others to share how we were hurting, we built the necessary support to pass this important bill. Now, with cultural competency training required for healthcare professionals, we are taking a significant step toward ensuring that everyone receives respectful and inclusive care.

This journey underscores the power of relationship building and the importance of listening to and amplifying the voices of those directly affected by the issues. It’s a testament to what we can achieve when we come together, share our experiences, and work toward a common goal.

Are there any podcasts, TV shows, books, or movies you’re into right now?

You're about to see the full range of my eclectic nature with one podcast, one book, and one TV show recommendation. I’m increasingly drawn to Dan Harris's 10% Happier podcast. He delves into the power of mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhist practices in everyday life and work. Listening to his interviews and trying out the practices he suggests has made me a more attentive and grounded leader. It's not about achieving a 100% improvement but making enough progress to show up more presently for my community and our allies.

I recently finished The Sunbearer Trials by Aiden Thomas, a Mexican American trans author. This YA book features an indigenous Mexican trans demigod who participates in a series of trials with other indigenous demigods. It’s an incredible read—fun, engaging, and deeply meaningful. Aiden Thomas has created a captivating story that offers representation and excitement in equal measure.

After a long day, one of my favorite ways to unwind is by watching Girls5eva. Created by Meredith Scardino and executive produced by Tina Fey, this comedy follows a one-hit-wonder girl band from the '90s as they try to make a comeback. It’s hysterical and heartwarming. Starring Sara Bareilles, it’s available on Peacock and now on Netflix. There are few things I enjoy more than pouring a glass of wine and laughing along with this show.

I hope you enjoy these recommendations as much as I do.

Thank you for joining us and thank you for imparting all this wisdom and knowledge to our readers. Have a question? Drop us a line!