The next time you are on a campus tour at the University of Memphis, make sure to visit Smith Hall. After the tour guide showcases the exhibition dorm room, ask them to introduce the Assistant Area Coordinator (AAC) there. This may cause an eyebrow to raise, but the guides are more than accommodating.
On the first floor in a small office hidden around the corner of the dormitory's desk and lounge area, sits Kanesha Johnson, the AAC for Rawls and Smith Halls—adjacent, all-women dormitories in the middle of campus off Patterson Street. Her credentials may not sound extraordinary, and when you meet her, she may not come off as important as one of the four candidates for university president.
Nevertheless, she is an unsung, success story in Memphis.
Johnson, 22, graduated from the university in the fall of 2013 with a B.A. in political science. She was the first in her family to graduate from college in addition to being the first in her maternal family to graduate from high school.
A Raleigh-Egypt High School alumna, Johnson, was raised predominately in North Memphis, surrounded by poverty, drugs and gangs during her upbringing.
"I grew up in a single parent home with my mom, brother and older brother," Johnson recalls. "The neighborhood was pretty rough. Frequently, there were gun shots and my mom did not allow me to go outside. My brother was also in a gang."
Living in an unstable home and being engulfed by poverty and violence seemed normal to Johnson. However, what truly impacted her childhood was her mother's schizophrenia, something Johnson never understood, but could recognize the signs and symptoms.
"I always knew something was wrong," Johnson said. "It wasn’t until I got older and went through counseling on my own that I knew that's what was going on with her. We tried to offer her help, but she would not accept it."
Yet Johnson's older sister could not allow the 12-year-old to remain in such an environment. In 2004, Johnson's sister won custody of her and enrolled her in a near-by school in Raleigh. Johnson's mother was only granted weekend visitations to see her youngest daughter.
"I was actually really happy to be out," Johnson said. "I often think how things would have been different if I would have stayed."
When Johnson was 16, her mother died from an unknown illness. Johnson says she continues to struggle with the "what ifs" from her childhood, and often regrets the time she missed with her mother.
"It's more so lost time that I can't get back," she says. "But I know I would not have been able to have done some of the things I did. But of course, I miss my mom."
Johnson continued to struggle with finding stability in unhealthy environments. After her mother's death, she was removed from her sister's care and adopted by her now foster parents. Even though it seemed she had finally been in a safe and loving environment, Johnson struggled with building genuine relationships while discerning if her adoptive parents were the true benefactors in her life.
"I was always under the impression that if someone was nice to you and did things for you, it was never for 'no reason,'" she said. "I did not think that people were just kind hearted. I always thought 'In the long run, you are going to want something from me.'"
After graduating from high school and entering the university, Johnson lived in Richardson Towers during her freshman year. Oddly enough, it was residence life, Johnson says, that helped her overcome forming and building genuine relationships with other people.
On move-in day, Johnson met her roommate. The two rarely talked or socialized outside of the room, until over spring break, when Johnson could not go to her family's home in Rossville, and she found her and her roommate stuck on campus. After one television show and a few laughs, the two sprung conversation which turned into a five-year friendship today.
"The people who are in my life that are genuinely good to me, they don’t have to be and they choose to be in my life. That’s something I didn’t have with my family," she added.
Johnson says staying in Memphis was more beneficial than leaving for school because she had the opportunity to continue working with the Department of Children Services while the state paid for her tuition and housing. She also says she was scared to leave the only family she had known, her adoptive family, since rehabilitating her life from the effects of her painful past.
"The Memphis I knew growing up was cold, hard and dangerous," Johnson says. "Now that I have graduated and have seen more of Memphis, it makes me want to help that side of Memphis because someone who was like me is still there, and she thinks staying there is OK."
Throughout her college career, Johnson was a member of Black Scholars Unlimited, Tiger Leadership Institute, and she joined a sorority. These organizations along with many people she has connected with within and outside the university have shaped her prospective plans for the future.
"I want to be a lawyer and give back to my community," Johnson declares. "I have met a lot of different people who have given me a different view of Memphis. It is not gang-land. Memphis has its problems just like any other city. It's a very beautiful place and there are great people here."
Johnson is only an example of what Memphis needs. She uses her past to encourage others even as the AAC for Smith and Rawls Halls. It's not in her job description, but she does not mind giving students tips on how to maintain good grades and habits in college. Prospectively, it is practice for the mentoring that she will contribute to her community back in North Memphis.
"A lot of those kids don’t have someone who can say 'I'm from here, I went through the same thing you went through and I've made it,'" Johnson says. "It's very hard to reach those kids when you really cant relate to them."
As for right now, Johnson is a motivational speaker for ConnectTennessee, an initiative with the Department of Children Services to prepare foster kids for college. She hopes, as she continues to be an example for Memphis raised children, political and educational leaders will become more transparent and approachable towards their constituents, building relationships that will create outreach programs for the families and children in impoverished communities.
"Actually go to those neighborhoods and talk to the people who live in those neighborhoods. They are a community and they do not welcome outsiders," she said. "Start small. A lot of native Memphians have been hurt and lied to for a very long time. It's about building trust."