Turning Georgia Blue: An Interview With Dr. Tarece Johnson

Dr. Tarece Johnson’s recent election to suburban Atlanta’s Gwinnett County School Board is in part a product of a changing Georgia. At age 44, she is the first Black and Jewish woman elected to the board. To put her election in context, the county’s first Black school board member, Everton Blair, was elected as recently as 2018. 

She’s part of Georgia’s “Blue Wave,” including January’s victory of two Democratic senate candidates in the Georgia runoff election, which not only flipped the balance of power in the Senate, they also delivered two historic “firsts” from that state to Washington: Georgia’s first Black senator, Rev Raphael Warnock and the state’s first Jewish senator, Jon Ossoff. Along with President Biden’s winning Georgia in the presidential election, these Senate victories signaled a sea change in the demographic and political character of the state. 

Georgia’s new electoral dynamics bear particular significance in a state that was once at the heart of the Confederacy and a bastion of racial segregation. 

But Johnson’s victory is more than just a sign of larger change: it’s the well-earned debut of a rising political star whose message, achievements and life story speak directly to the past, present, and future of race, class, and aspiration in America. Johnson is an author, educator, advocate, activist, and co-founder of the Multicultural Jewish Alliance. Johnson spoke about her journey with Aayisha Ruby Gold.

ARG: For our readers who may not be familiar with the history of your district in Atlanta Georgia, how would you describe it?

DTJ: The district is one of the top 20 districts in the United States in terms of both academics and diversity. Initially our county was predominantly white and conservative, and over the past 20 years, it has changed dramatically, becoming an extremely diverse county. It’s like an international Mecca: 30% Black, 22% Hispanic and 12.5% Asian. It’s beautiful.. So, this is where the board flips. Karen [Watkins] and I are two African American women— she’s biracial, Asian and Black and I’m Black and Jewish. The communities voted for us, because the communities wanted representation and change. 

ARG: Why is representation on local governing bodies so important? 

DTJ: During my oath speech I mentioned all the struggles I had to endure–I want students to know they can do it too. Because if there’s no one who looks like you, then automatically you internalize this feeling that you don’t belong. For people who’ve been able to break those barriers, they’ve given other people who look like them a sense of hope. 

ARG: When you delivered that speech, you spoke about attending public school — the lunchroom lady who recognized your hunger and gave you ”extra” food to eat. How did the people working within the institution you attended as a young girl lift you up during hard times? 

My district was in Title 1 in Texas, a very poor, majority black area. So my school was led by a majority-Black faculty. They were in tune with who I was— they had empathy. The people who looked like me helped me because they understood it. Sometimes the teacher doesn’t have to look like you, but they must have empathy. They have to have consciousness. For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement, they have to understand that the students are impacted every time there’s a killing. And if you’re a teacher, specifically a white teacher and you go into a classroom and ignore what just happened in society, you gaslight your entire classroom. 

Teachers must find the best way possible to help their students through it–this builds trust. And if they know you care about them authentically, students focus better in class, which brings extraordinary results. 

ARG: What would you say to teachers who find it challenging to relate to students’ plights? 

DTJ: It’s so important for our teachers to engage in cultural competency education. Because if they live as a white person in a society that is built and rooted on the oppression of Black people and the benefit of white skin, it’s hard for [white educators] to really understand. So they must engage in anti-racism, anti-bias training. But it is also important for them to speak to their students,hearing their stories and listening to them, building that bond.

That includes Black educators, too. We have so much internalized racism because of society. Particularly around colorism, a whole other reality that some people don’t really talk about even within our own community. 

ARG: As the first Black and Jewish woman on the board, what do you think the Board needs to do in order to create safe and thriving schools?

DTJ: I would love for the board in general to support all religions and their holidays, giving Jews and Muslims accommodations for their major religious observance. I am very engaged in my Jewish community. I teach Sunday school at Sinai Temple. For me, living as a Jewish person and holding myself accountable to our Jewish values means always seeking justice, and [being] called to do the right thing. Not politics, or what’s ”popular,” Living my Jewish values guides how I lead as a board member.

ARG: Let’s talk about your campaign itself.

DTJ: It was difficult because I didn’t have a lot of money. The most challenging part was asking people for money when they’re struggling and losing their jobs during this pandemic.  I didn’t have personal finances to contribute. So I did depend a lot on donations, and I didn’t get a lot. But I was authentic and ambitious in serving the people. They trusted me. I don’t like politics, but I want to make a difference. 

ARG: How did you feel when you won?

DTJ: When I won I was really emotional. I said ”Mama, I made it!” I made it for the generations of people before me who were forbidden to read. For my grandmother who couldn’t get a school education. My mother graduated with a high school diploma. I wanted to make them proud.

ARG: What forces do you think propelled you to victory?

DTJ:  I didn’t know I was going to beat this lady who was in office for 47 years. She had money and donations and buildings named after her, name recognition. 

But it was the power of the people. Politicians are going to have to change. It’s no longer the Republican and a Democrat—we’re moving away from the party system and people are now looking at values. What can you do to create a safe and better future for me and my children? So regardless of party, let me figure out who is the best person that represents my values. 

ARG: As a new board member, have you heard from anyone—teachers, students, people of the community—about changes they’d like to see?

DTJ: Parents talk about the issues around the discipline of Black and brown students that are treated differently than our white students. So the expectation is eliminating the disparate treatment. They want equity. The students want ethnic courses where they can learn history and everything related to them. Teachers want a seat at the table when it comes to decision-making, to be valued and included. 

ARG: What would you like to build towards during the time on the board?

DTJ: Intercultural, multicultural global exchange, where our students are learning the real facts about history, facts our students have to struggle with, hard realities. They will grow and evolve and bond, learn how to not repeat history, and create[ing] a better world.

 Aayisha Ruby Gold is a proud Jewish mother and member of the inaugural Jews of Color (JoCl) Philanthropy.