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Q&A with Kresge’s new Education Program Officer Ashley Johnson


Kresge’s Education Program recently welcomed Ashley Johnson as a new program officer. Johnson most recently served as the founding executive director of the Detroit College Access Network (DCAN), an organization that provides critical college access and success programming in the city of Detroit. Communications Officer Tracey Pearson asked Johnson a few questions to get to know her and to hear how she will approach her work at the foundation.

Q: How has being a first-generation college graduate shaped your perspective on higher education programs?

A: In addition to reading, researching and learning about the experiences of first-generation college-goers, I have lived experience that aligns with the stakeholders that the Education Program team is working to support. I know firsthand how important it is to provide first-generation students with programs and systems that remove barriers and create smoother pathways to a college degree. I have personally experienced and benefited from having a college degree, and I know firsthand that it can change the trajectory of a family, from poverty and stress to generational wealth, working in your passion and freedom. Now a mother of two, I know that my children will not have to go through some of the experiences that I went through as a child growing up in poverty. My lived experience provides me with an invigorating passion for supporting students with similar backgrounds to attain a college degree. I am delighted to have the opportunity to work in a field that I am passionate about and that aligns with my life trajectory, lived experiences and passions.

Q: What do you see as an urgent need in the education space right now?

A: I think there are two urgent needs in education right now. The first is to take advantage of the sense of urgency, flexibility and creativity that is usually not available to large social systems. The pandemic has caused an unprecedented wave of new flexibility and fast innovation in social systems that historically did not exist. Prior to the pandemic, it took years for innovation to take root in large social systems. It is critical that education system leaders and practitioners take advantage of this moment and shift and redesign education systems that truly center students and families and support them with reaching their educational goals. Specifically, education systems should take a deep look internally to analyze their processes and structures to distinguish whether they are creating, intentionally or unintentionally, barriers that harm the very students they are trying to support and serve.

The second urgent need is to support students and families with recovering from the negative effects of the pandemic. The pandemic resulted in trauma for many students and families due to the loss of family members, income and financial stability, housing, and a sense of normalcy, to name only a few of the barriers and challenges. I think one of our most urgent needs is to connect and align all human service systems (housing, transportation, employment, health, etc.) and education supports so that students and families are at the center and their needs are being met in an aligned and coordinated way.

Q: What interests you about this work?

A: To quote Nelson Mandela, I truly believe that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” There are so many things in our current world that need to change and improve. The more people who have high-quality educational experiences, the better chance we have at changing and improving our world. I am delighted that I have an opportunity to support students across the nation with completing college degrees and finding careers in their passions, which we all will undoubtedly benefit from, and which will change and improve our human experience and world for the better.

Q: How has COVID-19 changed the landscape for students seeking access to higher education?

A: COVID-19 has made many students unsure if college is still worth it. Most students did not have a great experience with high school online experiences during the pandemic. Also, many colleges still have not stated whether they will provide the opportunity to live on campus and attend classes face-to-face. Many students are not willing to take online classes again and do not see the value in attending school online again.

Q: Besides the Education team’s work, what other areas of Kresge’s work are you excited to learn more about?

A: All of them excite me! I would say I am most excited about learning more about the work of the Detroit, Human Services, Health, and Environment teams and the American Cities Program. I have lived in Detroit for over ten years and dedicated my early career to supporting Detroit with having a stronger educational system. I truly believe that some of the most talented people in America were born and raised in Detroit. I plan to stay and raise my family here, so I have a vested interest and excitement about learning more about the Detroit team’s work. Also, most educational outcomes are heavily correlated with access to high-quality human services and health services, so I would love to learn more about the work of those teams as well. Lastly, given the changes in our global climate, I would also love to learn more about the Environment team’s work.