About Amber Lauren Johnson, Ph.D.: Amber L. Johnson is Professor of Communication at Saint Louis University (SLU), where they serve as Interim Vice President for the Division of Diversity and Innovative Community Engagement. A politically and creatively engaged scholar, Dr. Johnson is also co-founder of the Institute for Healing Justice and Equity at SLU and co-founder of the traveling social justice museum The Justice Fleet. Their most recent book is the collected volume Gender Futurity, Intersectional Autoethnography: Embodied Theorizing from the Margins, edited with Lore/tta LeMaster.
Dr. Johnson’s research has been recognized for its innovative autoethnographic approaches and emphasis on community engagement. Their recent accolades include a Presidential Citation for Outstanding Commitment to Social Justice and the Scholar / Activist Award from the Critical / Cultural Division of the National Communication Association, as well as The Dr. Norm White Award for Engaged Scholarship and Service from Saint Louis University and the Dr. Terry Leet Researcher Award, which honors community-based research dedicated to the advancement of racial equity.
Dr. Johnson earned their Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University in Communication Arts and Sciences with a minor in English and Creative Writing, and holds an M.A. and B.A. in Communication Studies from Saint Louis University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we have a brief overview of your academic and professional background? How did you first become interested in critical / cultural studies and its relationship with the study of media, social movements, race, gender, and sexuality?
[Dr. Amber L. Johnson] People think I had this master plan. I did not have a master plan. Every degree was a product of someone saying, “Hey, you’d be good at this. Do you want to get this degree?”
When I finished my graduate degrees, I was most interested in autoethnographic inquiry. I had an experience. I was in Nelly’s music video, and I went back a decade later to see what was happening with the video on YouTube. I was talking with a colleague about starting to look at comments on social media and how comments are a massive amount of data that we have access to in the public space that we can use. I asked, “What does it look like to do research using those comments?”
I went back to that video and the comments were so disgusting. It made me feel like I had to write about it. I think that might have been the first paper I published on sexuality. While I was looking for materials to include, I found Elizabeth Bell’s call for people to insert their bodies into their textual research compelling. I decided to answer that call and be vulnerable. Because of that, people reached out to me to do more work around sexuality and gender.
The work that I did with Mark Orbe and Angela Cooke-Jackson was the longest and biggest stream of work centered around sexuality, sexual health, and gender at the time. We were studying memorable messages. What are the messages you hear growing up that influence your sexual behavior now, who gave you those messages, and why did they stick? Surprisingly, parents were the most influential group. We don’t think about how influential parents are in that realm, but they are.
Fast forward. When I started coming into my own gendered understanding of myself, I started to research how gender impacts the body. I started working with Lore/tta LeMaster and Miranda Olzman often around issues of gender. That’s probably the most rewarding work I’ve done. I can see, when people read Gender Futurity or when they read our articles, there’s a lightbulb that goes on, or they see themselves, or they feel like, for the first time, a textbook speaks to their actual lived experience versus talking around it or past it.
We sent the book to Julia T. Wood, who has been the pioneer of gender communication research, and we asked her to endorse it, and her response was great. She said, “I really wish you much success but I cannot endorse this book.” I said, “Then we did something right.”
I would say the process has been very organic, and it’s rooted in my experience, and it answers to the dearth of scholarship from these perspectives. That work is just missing, so we filled the gap.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You have been recognized for and have strongly and personally advocated for the use of autoethnographic methods. Specifically, you have worked with a critical approach to autoethnography you call “autocritography.” For our readers who may be unfamiliar with these approaches, could you explain what autoethnography is and how it compares to, or differs from, the “autocritographic” methodology you put to work in your research?
[Dr. Amber L. Johnson] Autoethnography is writing the person into research. Your experience, your body, your voice becomes the data. You write your stories then you analyze them for your audience, in real time. I used a layered approach. I have all of these voices. I have my analytical voice, my researcher voice, my theoretical voice, and the voice of the person who experienced this thing. Autoethnography can be used for anything. It can be used for noncritical reasons, it can be used for critical reasons. There’s no limit. You can write an autoethnography about anything you’ve experienced.
Autocritography is a term created by Michael Awkward. It is the specific use of personal narrative to address how you’ve arrived in the scholarly space and why you do the work you do. It’s a distinct connection between, “I experienced this thing, so now I study this thing.” Going back to the Nelly video, when I read those comments, I had a visceral reaction and felt, “I have to talk about this.” That shaped my entire career. That’s why it’s autocritography.
[MastersinCommunications.com] A running theme through your writing has been exploring ideas of futurism and futurity, which you have explored in relation to queer and intersectional identity. For example, you recently published the co-authored book Gender Futurity, Intersectional Autoethnography: Embodied Theorizing from the Margins, with Lore/tta LeMaster, with whom you also wrote the introduction for and co-edited the recent special issue of Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, “Speculative Fiction, Criticality, and Futurity.” Can you tell us more about the futurism, the idea of futurity, and the role they play in your work?
[Dr. Amber L. Johnson] As a critical scholar, I’ve been wrestling with the question, “What are we going to do next?” We have been trained to deconstruct, dismantle, and point out — at the most basic level, illuminate — these systems of power that are causing harm. Once we illuminate all of these things, then what? When community-based participatory action research became influential, I saw this segue into action-based research. Then, I noticed with my work with The Justice Fleet, what I was doing was not really collecting data at all but using research to build capacities for humans to be able to imagine their own different future. That’s a different kind of work.
In teaching research methods classes and asking students to identify what paradigms they belonged to, my students did not see themselves in the critical, the interpretive, or the postpositive paradigm. They said, “No, I want to use my research to make an actual difference in the world.”
I spoke to Timothy Huffman and said, “Can we think about adding two new paradigms that get at that idea of taking action and creating capacity for our future?” We created the action and futurity paradigms. Action is everything from the critical paradigm in addition to doing something with that data. If you illuminate the water crisis in Flint, you also have to fix it. You can’t just talk about it. For me, that’s about pouring back into communities to allow us space and entrance into their lives.
The future paradigm is similar to the action paradigm, except we are helping communities generate the capacity to imagine their own different futures. What are we working toward that we might not be able to accomplish right now, but that we can get to? So futurity, for me, is about speculating on what could be, drawing a uniform path to get there, and then going and doing it.
One of the cool things I’ve found through my scholarship is visionary fiction. Adrienne maree brown essentially made the argument that sci-fi writers have written our futures into their books, and if we go and read those books we can see evidence of their ideas coming to life. If that’s the case, if the people who write sci-fi are literally building our future for us, why not give that tool to our organizers and our activists? If our organizers and our activists know how to write these short stories and these sci-fi novels, then they will create a future for us that is just and that is equitable and that has the opportunities for humans to flourish.
If that’s the case, then what’s the researchers’ role in doing that? It’s to create informed sci-fi. So “Transfuturism” for me is literally that. I painted my data, but in these paintings is a glimpse of the future that is liberated in terms of gender identity. It’s really about, if you can dream it, if you can build it, if you can think it, if you can imagine it, then why not make it true? It’s about showing alternative ways to exist that piggyback off of bell hooks in “All About Love,” and which are not centered around power and domination but liberation and freedom.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you talk a little bit more about what inspired you to do this special issue, Speculative Fiction, Criticality, and Futurity, which collects the work of what you term “scholar-activist-artists”? What do you see as being some of the advantages of using socially engaged creative work, and particularly speculative fiction, as a critical methodology?
[Dr. Amber L. Johnson] That special issue came out of an NCA panel where we were asking, “What is the future of critical / cultural studies?” I randomly said, “I think we need more science fiction and more imagination in our work. We need to publish it.” Greg Dickinson, who was the editor of Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, was on that panel. I looked at him and said, “Greg, let’s get a special issue that’s full of science fiction and art.” He said, “Let’s do it.”
That’s the first time in the history of our discipline when we were able to just have fun. That was such a joy to put together. It is the most fun thing I’ve ever edited for our discipline in my entire life. I think it just speaks to what is possible if we just have some imagination. I think if you asked any of the authors in that text, “Did you ever imagine this happening in a top-tier communication journal?” they would have said, “Absolutely not.”
For me, that is the work of futurity: literally building capacity for our disciplinary partners to think differently about scholarship. The special issue itself is a case study in futurity, while it’s also housing all of these futuristic ideas as scholarship.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you perceive creative work in communication studies as something that is gaining traction or legitimacy in the field, within or beyond cultural studies, or have you perhaps met resistance from parts of the discipline in advocating for creative critical practice as a form of academic work?
[Dr. Amber L. Johnson] I haven’t met resistance. I do think it’s being accepted. I do think it’s happening in other places and spaces. I think of Nettrice R. Gaskins’ work in STEM. She writes her own algorithms to make art with. She takes pictures of famous people and puts them through this algorithm that she writes herself and makes the most beautiful art. That, to me, is the future. Painting our data is the future. Instead of telling people, “Here’s the statistical relevance of this study,” write a short story about it. I think what that does is create space for other people to understand our work more holistically.
While we can read scholarly articles in Communication Monographs that explore abstracted theory, we can also read a really cool short story that teaches you these high level, theoretical, abstract thoughts by grounding it in narrative. I think it is going to gain headway. I think it’s going to keep growing, and I hope we see more of this sort of aesthetic, critical paradigm. But, no, I haven’t met much pushback at all.
[MastersinCommunications.com] At Saint Louis University you are cofounder of the Institute for Healing Justice and Equity and founder of The Justice Fleet. Can you tell us a little bit more about these organizations and the work that they do under your leadership?
[Dr. Amber L. Johnson] I’m founding director of The Justice Fleet, which is a mobile social justice museum. We have three exhibits: “Radical Forgiveness,” “Radical Imagination,” and “Transfuturism.” “Radical Forgiveness” and “Transfuturism” are both virtual. [You can experience and learn more about these exhibits here: www.thejusticefleet.com/exhibits]. “Transfuturism” was also on display at the St. Louis Museum of Art. “Radical Imagination” is about capacity building. How do we give people the capacity to imagine beyond constraints and build the communities that they want to live in?
The fourth initiative of The Justice Fleet is “Grief Gardens.” We’re creating these safe, green, public spaces with five essential activities. We use rage therapy, sound therapy, play therapy, art therapy, and horticulture therapy to help people tap into their grief and start their healing process. We’re fundraising right now to build two: one at SLU, and one on the North Side in Saint Louis. For that work, we basically go anywhere people ask us to come. We do whatever they want us to pop up with. That’s fun. It’s hard work. It’s emotionally draining, but it’s fun.
I am a co-founder of the Center of Healing Justice and Equity. The founders of this center are four professors in the fields of law, public health, psychology, and I’m in communication. We are trying to dismantle all of these systems of oppression that lead to trauma. We want to create conditions for people to heal, while also pushing the narrative that equity has to be humanized, so it has to be human centered. Those who are most impacted by something should be the ones creating the solutions, and it can’t just be about policy. You have to change the structures, and the people, and the culture.
For “Healing Justice” we need to not only provide access to healthcare resources, we have to also provide multiple types of healthcare. We think about mental health, wellness, physical health: multiple modes of healing. We have to not just say, “Here are these resources and you have to go use them,” but also advocate for them and work to make them available to people in their communities, in their backyards, so they can access them. Then, we need to urge people to leverage these resources; whether you have to give them the day off so they can address their health needs, or tap into what incentivizes them and build from there, healthcare equity is rooted in understanding the diverse population you wish to help and meeting them where they are at.
You need to be able to take care of yourself. Healing Justice is about creating a culture of wellness and wholeness that does not exist in this country. Those things kind of rub against capitalism, because capitalism doesn’t like either of those notions.
Overall, at the “Institute for Healing Justice,” we do a lot of research, and at The Justice Fleet we do a lot of action-based work in the community. [You can learn more about these organizations and access their educational resources at www.thejusticefleet.com/ and ihje.org/].
I’m also Interim Vice President for Diversity and Innovative Community Engagement at SLU, and our website has a lot of really good resources: webinars, and also definitions and core values. We have a long list of words, framed around how we define these issues in 2022. For example, pushing our definitions of “accessibility” toward universal design or “radical rest.” That’s also an invaluable resource [which you can access at www.slu.edu/diversity]
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have any advice you might give to students interested in creative or politically engaged scholarly work who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
[Dr. Amber L. Johnson] Don’t let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do. Make a way and do it. You are the future. Our discipline has to change. If people are in the way of that change, then kindly get them out of the way and do what you have to do. Don’t take no for an answer. I wrote the rhetorical ethnography methodology as a Ph.D. student and my original committee told me I couldn’t make up a method for my dissertation. Why can’t I? Yes, I can, and I did. I never published it because I was so exhausted by the end of it, but I was the first one.
If someone says, “I don’t think you should do that,” and you feel in your heart that you want to do it, then you do it. Obviously, if every single one of my committee members had said, “That’s ridiculous,” I might have listened. If it’s just one person, don’t let that person stop you from pursuing your dreams and changing our discipline. There are people who will support you. Find your people.
Thank you, Dr. Johnson, for sharing your insights on critical autoethnographic research, gender and sexuality, struggles for social justice, and creative and community-based scholarship!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.