Interview with Johonna McCants

Dr. Johonna McCants, a high school teacher in the District of Columbia public school system, has over 15 years of experience teaching youth and adults about identity, oppression, and social change. She has taught at the University of Maryland on diversity and social justice, prisons and policing in American culture, and youth organizing. Dr. McCants earned a Ph.D. in American Studies and a Graduate Certificate in Women’s Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park.

Dr. McCants is co-teaching Restorative Justice: The Promise, the Challenge with Dr. Carl Stauffer. The course will take place during session 3 (May 26 – June 3, 2014) of the Summer Peacebuilding Institute.

SPI: You have taken courses for several summers at SPI, including after you received your PhD. What is it about the Summer Peacebuilding Institute that drew you to come here for a part of your academic training?
Dr. Johonna McCants: In 2009, while finishing my doctoral dissertation, I began searching online for practical training in the issues I was writing about. I discovered CJP (the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding) and SPI and quickly fell in love.

I was attracted by the integration of theory and practice, the variety of courses, the diversity of participants, backgrounds of the instructors, and that the program was housed at a Christian university. I participated in Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) at SPI just a few weeks after receiving my PhD. The STAR experience, which was phenomenal, kept me coming back for more.

SPI: What do you bring to the Restorative Justice course at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute?
JM: I think my main role as an instructor is to facilitate — to draw out the lessons, insights and stories from the participants of the course. At SPI, everyone is a teacher and a learner. I also bring the insights I have gained from my experiences over the years as a cultural worker, community organizer, and high school teacher. I currently teach at a large high school in a Black working-class community — the same geographic area in which I live and attend church. My current teaching experience is helping me to imagine restorative justice practice outside of formal RJ programming. Specifically, what does it mean for me as a teacher to have a restorative mindset?

Other experiences that have influenced my thoughts on restorative justice include:

  • A 2007 Open Society Institute fellowship to start a project engaging young people in anti-violence organizing and challenging incarceration and criminalization. I conducted research on the transformative justice movement and worked alongside organizers in that movement.
  • Courses I taught at the University of Maryland while working on my PhD, such as an African American studies course called “African Americans and the Contemporary Prison Crisis.”
  • Several trainings in popular education and facilitation from organizations like Training for Change.

SPI: What’s your favorite part of SPI?
JM: Definitely, the people! I enjoy learning from people from different parts of the United States and countries all over the world, hearing their stories and developing new relationships. I also like reuniting and reconnecting with people I’ve met during previous times at SPI.

SPI: These days people are talking more and more about the need for practices to keep yourself mentally, physically, and spiritually healthy. What are one or two things you do to take care of yourself, keep from burning out, and just generally enjoy life?
JM: Swimming helps me mentally, physically and spiritually. Sometimes, I pray or meditate on a particular Scripture while I swim laps. That allows me to integrate a number of disciplines. I also enjoy spending time with my fiancé. He is a lot of fun and a great storyteller so we spend a lot of our time laughing!

SPI: Anything else you would like to say about what you are doing now or connections with CJP or SPI people.
JM: I feel extremely honored by the opportunity to co-teach the SPI course with Carl Stauffer. I have so much respect and admiration for all of the instructors at SPI, as well as all the participants. It is exciting that the “boundaries” between instructor and participant are so porous. I think this says a lot about SPI as an egalitarian learning community.