By Charleen Wilcox
Eboni Johnson attributes her experience as a student in Dr. Sarah Gershon’s section of WomenLead in Policy and Politics with enabling her to find her voice. Until that semester, in fact, Eboni admits that she was often so shy she would rather take point deductions than speak during her classes. But it was an assignment in Dr. Gershon’s class that finally helped her confront her fear of public speaking.
“It started when I had to present on an article written by Dr. Nadia Brown,” Eboni shares. “Giving that presentation was the starting point for finding my voice and sharing it. Dr. Gershon’s feedback encouraged me, especially when she told me, ‘Eboni, you have a lot to say.’”
“I’m still shy but I no longer allow it to dictate my decisions or deter me from opportunities,” she adds.
This assignment also helped Eboni—an African American studies major with a pre-law concentration—clarify how her passion for social justice, law, and the African American experience could be brought together in a profession: she’s set her sights on becoming a civil rights attorney. And it certainly didn’t hurt when Dr. Brown, an associate professor of political science and African American Studies at Purdue University, visited Eboni’s WomenLead class the following week as a special guest speaker.
“When Dr. Brown visited us, it really affected me. The way she talked about how black women are perceived in politics and society—I can relate to it. It affirmed my day-to-day experiences,” Eboni says.
“To see someone in Dr. Brown’s position, it made me feel like that could be me,” she continues. “I come from a small town, and I didn’t really see anyone who looked like me in positions of power. It really inspired me to start my blog and I’m still in touch with Dr. Brown.”
Eboni’s blog, Soulfully’s Thoughts, aims to educate, empower, and uplift her peers.
“I write poetry and political essays. One of my pieces is about the #SayHerName movement. It touches on police brutality, and the assumption of adulthood projected onto black children,” Eboni explains. “I take current issues and I find my voice in them. These topics also touch on the kind of law I want to go into.”
“I think about all the years I spent wondering whether I could really be a lawyer—and now I know I can be,” she adds.
In addition to her blog, Eboni accomplished a major feat this year when she published her first book at age nineteen.
“Three years ago—when I was in the eleventh grade—I made a vision board with the goals I wanted to accomplish throughout my life. It included me publishing a book, but I thought it would be something I would do when I’m thirty,” she shared.
Eboni’s book, Way Black Then, is an illustrated children’s book that seeks to tell African American history in a new way.
“I wanted to write a book that incorporated the themes I’ve been studying and that would educate young children about the true history of African Americans,” Eboni says. “I wanted young African American children to know that their history doesn’t start and end with slavery. I wanted to broaden their horizons on what could be.”
Earlier this year, the African-American Panoramic Experience (APEX) Museum—where Eboni interns as a researcher—hosted her sold-out book signing.
“The APEX Museum actually asked me what kind of book I would like to publish during my interview for my internship,” she shares. “They really encouraged me to pursue that and make it a reality.”
“I do a lot of research and writing for APEX. It’s helping me prepare for law school,” Eboni says. “I do research on mass incarceration, which Jim Crow laws still exist and why they should be repealed, as well as rhetoric and race. Words are powerful and they can affect how you view other people.”
“It’s been reaffirming everything I want to do. I’ve grown so much as an individual,” she adds.
Eboni points to these experiences as validating the kind of passion-driven work she intends to pursue through her career, as well as the necessity for pushing herself beyond her comfort zone.
“Do the things that scare you the most because those are the things that grow you the most,” she shares.
In addition to the presentation she completed for Dr. Gershon’s class, Eboni also credits the WomenLead program’s signature experiences for helping her grow her confidence even more.
“Being in WomenLead, it helped me face fear head-on. The experiences I’ve had in the program—from POWER Networking to our final poster presentations—allowed me to get out of my comfort zone,” she says. “The mentors were so nice and welcoming and made me want to tell them my story. It felt safe.”
“Even though we were in a room with CEOs and executives, they focused on us,” she adds. “I realized they are really here to hear from me, and I’m here to learn from them. Now I know that if you don’t take risks, you don’t know what’s out there.”