#10: Humanizing social change with Dr. Tiffany Johnson
Or how losing hair and a PhD reality check ignited a new community
This is the third of my series of Impact Boss Profile interviews. My aim is to show various case studies of how passionate individuals all over the place have found opportunity to integrate social impact into both their personal and professional lives.
Dr. Tiffany Johnson and I first met through Instagram about a year ago. Yup, social media friendships are real y’all.
Tiffany reached out to me about getting my help shaping The Institute for Good Work, her then very-nascent nonprofit idea. We eventually ended up working together and have been supporters and cheerleaders for each others’ work since.
Tiffany’s day job is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech, and she has her PhD in Management and Organization from Pennsylvania State University. Tiffany shares more with us about her motivations behind The Institute for Good Work, the impact of her parents’ involvement in nonprofits, and what losing her hair (and my commiseration having stopped getting my period back when I was really stressed out as a teacher) taught her about wellness for academics, social change agents, and just humans in general.
Hannah: I’m so excited to dig into your personal story a bit more. What was your journey to academia and founding The Institute for Good Work? What opportunity did you uncover?
Tiffany: At the end of my bachelor’s degree program [at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign] I thought I wanted to go straight to graduate school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to study though, so in retrospect I luckily I didn’t get into the programs I applied to. My prior internship gave me a full time job offer, which I took.
While working there, I started to notice some interpersonal dynamics that had to do with diversity and inclusion in teams and organizations, which is what I ended up going to grad school to specialize in.
I think those things caught my attention because I grew up in a household where that was the what we talked about. I grew up in nonprofits. My dad did a lot of diversity and inclusion consulting and he worked for the Martin Luther King Center in my hometown, an organization that housed the Boys and Girls Club. My mom did some work at the YWCA in advocacy for women’s healthcare. So, in hindsight, I’m not surprised that the dynamics I noticed at my first job stuck out to me and ultimately became my research interests – I’d grown up around language and behaviors about diversity, inclusion, and wellness.
I’m super curious to talk more about that in a bit – the impact of your family. But tell me how this all led to your PhD . . .
So I decided to go to graduate school and get my masters in HR, thinking that that would be enough to whet my appetite and answer my questions – but I kept on having more and more questions.
I was still working full time at that point, and I had a really great professor in a diversity course, and I realized that I wanted to be doing what she was doing. I hadn’t realized before that there was a whole field of research just on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
I begged . . . er, asked . . . her to let me work with her on some research, and eventually (and gratefully) got into the PhD program and started studying management with a focus on diversity and inclusion.
But there was also a downside to your doctoral studies . . .
There was. In the first couple years of my PhD program I realized that I was not taking care of myself in the best way I could have. I didn’t really realize it at first, but I lost a whole bunch of hair by the end of my first year, and any specialist I went to said “basically it’s stress and stop stressing out.” But I mean, how do you tell a graduate student to stop stressing out?
At the same time, I was coming to terms with what exactly my PhD meant (side note: I was so late to the game when I got into my doctoral program). I had decided to get my PhD so that I could apply my research to organizations like those I grew up around. I thought “oh I’ll get my PhD, become a professor, and help those organizations,” but realized pretty quickly that there would be some competing demands with doing that if and when I became a faculty member.
I realized there was this thing called the tenure track, and I realized the pressure to publish in top tier publications. I felt that if I wanted to be a successful academic I needed to be publishing like a madwoman, and began to believe that doing so would need to come at the expense of my health and the expense of connecting my research with practice. I take responsibility for some of this interpretation. Again, hindsight is 20/20, and I realize *now* that there are ways to bridge research and practice as a faculty member, and that one can do this work without sacrificing their health. I guess it just took me a little longer to figure it out.
Anyways, little did I know, but that was at the beginning of the Good Work. Now, The Good Work (its formal name now that the 501c3 is done is The Institute For Good Work) bridges researchers and change agents who are dedicated to healing themselves and society.
Wow. I didn’t fully appreciate that wellness aspect, even though I know it’s important to you personally. I wish someone had told me about taking care of myself when I started my career as a teacher – when I legit stopped getting my period. It was so easy to get lost first of all in working stupid hours and getting burned out on there, but also in taking a lot of the non-academic things my students were facing with home with me, which definitely impacted my health.
Exactly. I decided to integrate the healing/wellness aspect because I would keep going back to asking myself “what have I been purposed for through my journey, and what is my motivation?” And the answer kept centering on these healing and humanizing elements. The world can at times get heavy as an academic, as a social change agent, and just as a human in general – and there’s so much burnout that can happen.
So what does The Institute for Good Work look like?
First of all, thank you so much for being one of the first people I spoke to about all of this. Your listening ear and support from that point has been really helpful and encouraging.
I still feel the infancy of the organization . . . so you know, we’re still in the brainstorming stages for a lot. At this point, we focus on holding spaces that not only bring researchers and social change agents together, but also humanize them in the process.
One way we’re doing that is through Soul Work Circle – a book club with a purpose. We keep these meetings small and intimate, and they include anyone who is trying to influence their communities/workplaces by being more socially responsible. We especially target researchers, non-profit members/leaders, volunteers, and aspiring academics/non-profit leaders. Some books we’ve read thus far are Awakening Compassion at Work by Monica Worline and Jane Dutton and all about love by bell hooks.
We use the book club meeting as a launchpad to start transparent and vulnerable conversations to break the ice. We hope that the special format we use allows people to start learning about potential synergies between researchers and practitioners so that they can facilitate relationships that go beyond the meetings. Right now, the circle is in Atlanta, and it’s small. We (my working board and I) are slowly figuring out how to grow the impact while maintaining the intimacy.
Not only do we want to hold space, but we want to serve and support social change agents and their causes, and we are coming up with some innovative ways to raise funds for the good-workers we aim to serve. Stay tuned!
I’m friends with – and worked with – your cousin Mike back when I lived in Chicago [Tiffany and Mike grew up in the suburbs]. He embodies a lot of the same values and spirit you do. Tell me more about how your family impacted your work.
Oh man – Mike is so cool and inspiring. Not only is he brilliant and hard working, but he’s funny. I’m lucky to be able to say he’s my cousin.
So, yeah, this is a great question. Let’s see . . . My dad and Mike’s mom are related, and then there’s my mom’s side of the family - all of which were in our hometown [of Freeport, Illinois]. Because of the size of the town, I’d say that community was a value for most there. For me, my grandparents were some of the greatest exemplars and biggest driving forces and motivating factors for a lot of what I value now. My grandmas had gardens, cooked, and/or swapped food with other families. My dad’s dad had very little formal education but he was very business-minded and was very well known and loved. His light was one of the brightest, and it was contagious. He was the ultimate humanizer.
Then, there were my parents. My dad always made us watch the news at night, made sure that we watched different documentaries and movies about really important leaders of civil rights movement. I don’t know if it was intentional or what - but my parents always had us (me and my siblings) in nonprofits all the time, so we learned about how they worked and the impact they made. Truthfully, I didn’t necessarily always enjoy it as a kid. But by the time I got into my internship and job and decided to go to grad school, the mindset around organizations being a tool for social change was ingrained in me.
I should also say that my family often had fun while doing all of this work! To this day, they’re often the folks that remind me to have fun (because I can get stuck in work mode sometimes). They’re great for helping me lighten up, and balance out.
Changing an ingrained system like the relationship between academia and community impact is a ginormous challenge. How did you scope out a realistic chunk of that challenge to tackle?
It’s really easy to be paralyzed by the big issue in front of you or the grandiosity of it all. Also, with social media, one of the downsides is that it’s easy to get distracted by what other people are doing. I’m no stranger to that.
What I have to do and what has been helpful, when I’m distracted by fear and social comparison – is go back to my story, and go back to my original motivation: “what is it that you have been purposed to focus on ... and why?”
How do you take care of yourself now?
Lots of ways. I’m learning that taking care of myself is a process that will change throughout different seasons. But recently I’ve been doing several things to facilitate consistent soul searching and quenching.
First, in terms of physical activity I run (less now than I used to, to be honest). Second, I’ve started getting back into yoga and mediation. Third, I am also a huge advocate for going to therapy. Fourth, I have a great support system with other women similarly aged doing all of those things and more, and that network is just so invaluable. Fifth, journaling has also been really helpful. Shout out to my therapist who recommended it – I now like to journal [almost] everyday.
Do you have a system for journaling?
I don’t have a really solid structure for journaling, but I do try to write at least 2-3 gratitudes. I’ve been using the Headspace app for my morning meditations and the yoga studio I go to (Sacred Chill West) offers meditation and journaling classes as well. I'm super grateful for them.
And that wraps up my chat with Tiffany. Follow her pursuits to infuse wellness and humor into her professional + personal life at @tikkidawnspeaks and stay engaged with The Institute for Good Work at @thegoodwork.