In this special interview, we speak with the former editor of Nectar News and non-profit owner, Nicole Johnson, to learn more about her pursuits four months into the quarantine and post her organization’s 10-year gala celebration. Nicole Johnson is the Founder of M.O.V.E. a New York-based culture shift organization that provides community leaders with the resources needed to address social issues creatively in schools, communities, businesses, and institutions. In this interview, Nicole also addresses online learning for students and weighs in on the long-awaited rising of this generation’s Civil Rights movement.
Nectar News: I’ve seen a situation recently during lockdown where I became concerned about the welfare of the children, because everything’s online, we are continuing to reveal the racial disparity and the digital divide. The private schools have been able to continue with distance learning, teachers who know how to use it, and the kids all have access to high-speed internet. Have you seen any of that kind of disparity with online learning?
Nicole Johnson: Plenty. We’re always saying this is an unprecedented time, but what’s unfortunate is we knew all of this about our classes in marginalized communities that are not given the resources that they need, as they grow up navigating inequity. We were aware of those things, so shame on us for not acting sooner. We are a reactionary people who always move to make changes when we are embarrassed or at our wits’ end. M.O.V.E. actively pursues public schools because of those issues, and we seek to serve specifically our over-aged and under-credited schools. We bring our work and our joy to those classrooms because of how under-resourced they are. I think this was just an unfortunate uncovering of what already was.
Nectar News: Can you tell us more about your experience as a contractor with DOE?
Nicole Johnson: It’s been interesting serving as a DOE contractor. We’ve been asked to continue our work, thank goodness, in this new online world. We are in online classrooms in different ways, but our participation often depends on how interested and how much capacity the teachers have. So, if the teacher is not willing to receive help from an organization like M.O.V.E. (or others like us) at this point, their students just don’t get additional services. The teachers who are interested, tend to be the high performing teachers, so they’ll bring us in to support their outstanding efforts. Even the high performing teachers are overwhelmed right now and some feel that there’s a sense of hopelessness. Despite it all, we are still trying to bring joy to classrooms. I bring my poetry, my ukulele, a new song track, exercises for healing, and of course the MOVErs and leaders in my organization. We do our best to create an environment that is conducive for learning from home, helping students feel seen and heard.
Nectar News: Tell us more about M.O.V.E. and how the organization supports aspiring leaders?
Nicole Johnson: We provide resources, we develop platforms, and we provide encouragement for influential leaders in their communities so that they can do the work that they are designed to do. We call all of our leaders are MOVErs, and they MOVE for a variety of different causes and initiatives, anything from Autism to Celiac Disease to Cancer research. Some MOVErs are addressing large scale social issues like bigotry, intolerance, racism discrimination, poverty and food justice. We’re all very interested in being socially responsible artists and creatives. And I, as Founder, give a great deal of my time and resources to other people as they become leaders. I’m interested in empowering and building the capacity of these leaders so that they can continue to be impactful and influential.
Nectar News: Can you tell us a little bit about how M.O.V.E. has grown in the past 10 years?
Nicole Johnson: Over the past 10 years, it feels like we’ve been an organization that simply brings joy to communities. It’s organically developed into that and I’m very happy about it. It’s more of a culture and a community more than it is an organization and I’m actively trying to shift the organization to be a cultural initiative rather than a business. Our 10-year celebration gala was last September and 10 years later, I am at a crossroads where I can say I’d like to become a M.O.V.Er myself, and I have an initiative myself that I want to invest in. We’ve created such a database of leaders that we’re all actively helping one another build capacity.
There are 50 main MOVErs right now working in quarantine but upwards of 700 people who consider themselves MOVErs and have worked with the organization. The creativity pieces or projects that we’ve produced range from dance pieces, to spoken word shows, films, to campaigns, curriculums and events. Anything that you can create around a social issue, M.O.V.E. seeks to provide you with the resources to do it. And the way that we’ve grown is really in our partnership with the Department of Education and from the support of all of our members who have been with us for the past 10 years.
Nectar News: Can you give us an example of some of the main M.O.V.E.rs and what their projects are in the last, let’s say six months?
Nicole Johnson: Definitely. So in the last six months, we have developed a relationship with a coalition called WEPA. WEPA (We Engage in Prevention Awareness) is substance use and misuse coalition that found us through a partnership that we had at the Department of Health. One of our main MOVErs who started the MOVER for harm reduction effort back in 2010, Marissa O’Brien, started the effort to navigate her own substance use and misuse challenges. She’s now five years sober as of June 16th and in the past 10 years, she has led the M.O.V.E. for Harm Reduction effort hosting sober parties, developing films that help us to understand harm reduction, informing youth about the negative effects of substance use and misuse. During quarantine, her main M.O.V.E. work is with WEPA who has put her and another M.O.V.E.r on a $13,000 contract to engage with students in the Bronx online world, around substance use prevention and intervention. Anthony Sanchez is another MOVEr on the contract, a Bronx native, and really outstanding with the kids in our online rooms. Anthony is on the contract to engage with students via social media challenges and song production. Right now in the quarantine, we’re doing a lot of social media and the work with WEPA is primarily around a campaign called “Social Distance Social Connection”
Nicole Johnson: We also have a variety of initiatives are around health and wellness which really fall in line with the needs of this quarantine. Brennyn Lark, Steven Bryce, Myla Marino, and Carlita Ector, four outstanding MOVErs who specialize in health and wellness have been hosting online Zoom meditations, conversations, and mental health conversations. All of the events are providing people with tools and practical activities that can help us to maintain our health. M.O.V.E. though is also about dance. It began with dance for me at least and so a lot of our dancers are hosting online classes consistently! We have a lovely M.O.V.E. calendar that all the MOVErs can jump into and Emily Hart, Emily Chamberlain, Mark Nunez, Lindsey Corbett, Marco Vaccaro are dancers that are all bringing us joy through their dance activities through Instagram Live and zoom.
Our movers are just getting so creative right now. I’m surprised that we all have so much energy, and I do my best to kind of rally the troops, inspiring them to do what they do best!
Nectar News: And you’re obviously so passionate about it, and just so engaged with the people, and supportive, and you are ultimately an educator and a leader. Thank you for everything you’re doing. I just love watching it and seeing the posts on social media and just, you lead by example. And that’s why I think people love you and they want to follow you and they trust you. You have to establish trust and that’s so important. And you do that in your group of cohorts. Teaching the next generation is also so important, which is part of our mission at FLOBEL with our intergenerational mentoring. It must be especially hard for kids these days because they’re doing distance learning for the first time, sometimes with their nuclear families who they never see, maybe. There are kids that are in at-risk situations. Do you see the effects of this in classrooms.
Nicole Johnson: Yes certainly. Coming from city government, I’m entirely sure that we consistently allowed these disparities to persist, and we never engaged in active prevention measures. We never engaged in efforts to look back and audit how our communities are growing in response to our social service initiatives. Measuring our results is often simply for the benefit of the department’s records, rarely for the benefit of the actual people served. On top of that, civic inefficiencies in the city will be the death of us all. M.O.V.E. was often unable to do our work pre-quarantine due to the city’s horribly inefficient vendor payment system. It’s our personal complacent attitudes and our collective complacency across city departments that lead to our kids struggling. It’s entirely our fault. We shrug our shoulders because of the amount of work, or the amount of backlog, or the vastness of the problem and now, we can’t shrug our shoulders anymore because we’ve run into a huge stop sign that is pausing the world as we know it. And so, yes, I see it in classrooms. I see how unfortunate it is. I also see how small my organization is in the midst of this. Physically I can only get MOVErs into six, seven, eight classrooms a week, and we just have to do what we can right there in those rooms. MOVErs have their reach and they have the capacity to touch those around them. If I can invest in them and give them enough energy to show up in their communities and in their Zoom rooms and in different spaces, then that’s all I can really ask for. The education problem is ridiculously unfortunate, and it’s about time that someone finally rung the alarm.
Nectar News: Oh, amen. And I think that’s one of the things that’s coming out of this, is it’s laying bare the problems that have existed and are now exacerbated by the requirement to do distance learning. And so what do you see as a possible solution to that problem? What do you think is the best solution or solutions?
Nicole Johnson: I definitely think it’s going to be multifaceted. I don’t believe that it solely sits with government services. I do think that we’ve created a nation of potential philanthropists that are not as active as they should be in crisis. This wealthy island of millionaires and billionaires could be investing on a consistent basis into the wellbeing of the communities that they are surrounded by or that they live in. As I’ve navigated city government and I witnessed the civic inefficiencies first hand, I personally think at this point there is no taxation that will force adequate budget allocation. You can tax the people but the moral statement of a city budget still depends on the leadership and in many instances, I don’t trust leadership. I’m unfortunately discouraged at this point that my tax dollars don’t go to initiatives that actually benefit the community. I think there is potential and strength in philanthropists investing in their local community. I’m entirely sure that in the midst of taxing those who are a part of the 1%, that funding somehow in my opinion always gets lost. Help for the most marginalized communities, somehow, is no longer available after tax increases and it’s disheartening. So if I, by the grace of God, become a philanthropist and I have access to a large amount of funding on an ongoing basis, I’m going to be interested in investing in the 10 schools in my area. Straight up. Get the money to the students and stop with the middle men. If I’m involved I know that those 10 schools will directly benefit. Through the bureaucracy of city government, and state government, and federal government, it’s like these large loads of taxation that are currently falling upon the middle class somehow disappear. Where does the money go!? It’s ridiculous. It never gets down to the right places. And then all of a sudden we’re facing budget cuts for hospitals, and for educational activities like SYEP. I really do think these civic inefficiencies will be the death of us. When funding comes in, it’s allocated incorrectly or in the interest of the people who are currently in power, who are not people of color, not from marginalized communities, and not interested in funding education.
NN: What is SWEP, by the way?
Nicole Johnson: Yes, the Summer Youth Employment Program.
Nectar News: Oh, okay, yes that’s so important. I think, to employ students in the summers and the downtime. And that’s one of my pet peeves is the fact that there are no jobs for these young people coming out of high school and college.
Nicole Johnson: Exactly. If they don’t have access to understanding the potential of employment and even just the mechanisms and the practice of being employed in their senior year you just don’t know what to do after that. And then this just perpetuates the inequity. SYEP was one of the first programs cut from the budget during COVID. Do you see what I mean about leaders and their power to shift budgets? Why did we cut that program? I understand we’re trying to shift budget, but it doesn’t seem like that would be the program that you cut for students. It’s hard to justify in my head.
Nectar News: What happens to the education system in the midst of these civic inefficiencies? From your experience, do you think the government believes in investing in the education system?
Nicole Johnson: They’re interested in having education as a part of the American structure, but if we don’t recognize and act upon the need for specific allocation of a budget that relates to the inequities that historically marginalized students are facing, then we’ll just continue to have an allocation of the budget that’s irrelevant. Black and brown people working in the system (city, state, federal government) have a tough time making change. It’s absolutely exhausting because of the dissonance in values. It is oh so important to have their voices in government but I’m the type of person looking for an immediate change because I see my kids every day. They need funding now, not in the next fiscal year or some distant future. Right now at this moment, I think that there’s a need for philanthropists who have a larger sense of the inequities to stand up and to invest directly into communities. I understand the government is obligated to do these things for us, but I’m the type of person that believes someone the first time they show me their true colors and I’m not going to waste time expecting things from them that they clearly aren’t willing to give. So until we get better leaders I’m looking to philanthropists for the big change. Things might get tricky when it comes to supporting students, we might need to donate resources to avoid confusion with the proper channels for schools receiving large amounts of funding, but we are in a state of crisis and we have to function like that. I do believe in the taxation of those who are most fortunate, corporations, and the 1%, and of course abolishing these ridiculous tax cuts that corporations receive is a must. Abolishing of those things on a very institutional level must be done but I know that these structures are hard to dismantle and restructure. In the midst of COVID-19, you never know what could happen and we have to be prepared to grab the vulnerable peeps before they fall too far down instead of waiting for the government to change.
In addition to the structural institutional changes and more engagement from philanthropists, we also desperately need a cultural shift. Meaning the people of America have to demand the things that they no longer have, or that they have never had. The things that they deserve. We should ask for it friend! And do this boldly. More like we should take it at this point. The way they did in the civil rights movement in the 50s. Where people would put their bodies on the lines, in the midst of silent protests, creating such catalytic moments in the world and on our screens that caused everyone to say, “Oh, it looks like this is a monumental issue. It’s time for the shift”. It’s time for us to think of breast cancer as an illness that requires us to rally behind survivors or supporting those who are disabled, rather than casting them out. Or helping those who have been unjustly traumatized by brutality because of the color of their skin. It’s a very cultural, catalytic shift that has to happen and our conversations and presence is all a part of it.
Nectar News: Are your protesting during this time?
Nicole Johnson: Yes! We have to do it all I admit. I’m marching primarily with @Cityworkers4Justice as a former city worker and with my own company later this summer. We plan to stage a civil rights demonstration produced to shift the values and behavior of police officers and white allies in the United States. The demonstration will be symbolic of Black communal mourning and the cultural shifts and edification needed to heal Black souls from centuries of unwarranted brutality and oppression. The silent protest asserts that the culture shift begins in each of us. I’m also engaging in upwards of 15 conversations online weekly with different churches, schools, and organizations about inequity and racial reconciliation. Most proud of the opportunity I had to interview black Broadway artists with The Growing Studio and Playbill. We hosted two live streams helping viewers understand the cultural shifts needed for dismantling racism in the entertainment industry. Very solution-oriented discussions. Episode 1 and Episode 2.
Nectar News: Yes, glad to hear about this and I have a few more questions about education. I think we agree that there’s a lot of problems and there are going to be a lot more problems as this thing rolls out. We’re only in the second or third month and the repercussions are going to be historic in a negative way, but there’s also a lot of opportunity for a paradigm change, as you’ve said. And hopefully, people will wake up culturally to what we don’t have, and ask for it. So, let me ask you a question. What would be your model of a system that does work? People were in the past pointing to places like Sweden or Norway or Germany. So what would be the model in terms of education, the system specifically for education under the Corona response, perhaps?
Nicole Johnson: I know that this sounds wild, but I believe that there is power in an individual school body navigating the lives of their children. I’d love to see us go all the way back to school house mentality. I do believe in a centralized curriculum but I also recognize how state government and the city government have the power over funding that they have rightfully and/or wrongfully taken from constituents. I believe requesting funding according to what each school needs is a good idea, similar to the Fair Student Funding Formula that is currently in place. I just believe the democratization of the funding process on the local level, the individual schoolhouse is the most important change. Developing school budgets similarly to the participatory budgeting process is interesting to me and something I’d put my efforts behind if given the opportunity one day to strategize and roll it out in a particular community. Ideally, in some sort of participatory budgeting process where parents and teachers and students can actually talk about the needs of their community, we might be able to cater to the direct needs of students, not the assumed need. So aside from things like plumbing and electricity and admin, there are ways that we could utilize the school’s budget to actually support what students are interested in. If they want a health and wellness yoga room, and they’re able to say, “there is $200,000 for student and parent initiatives available this year,” and students get to vote and declare, “I’d like to have a yoga room, or I’d like to have additional after school programs, or I need a career engagement space, or a library.” Weirdly, we’ve engaged with schools that don’t have libraries. If the kids knew that they deserved those things, or that they could have those things by simply asking we’d have different looking schools.
Nectar News: What type of education do you think kids need right now? Vocational, creativity, and innovation, and in regards to redistribution of the budget during COVID what do you think is best with the potential increase in distance learning. Do we give block grants to local school districts? What do you think is the most efficient?
Nicole Johnson: I’m interested in resources, primarily. I will provide you with a laptop, or provide you with access to a library, or provide you with a musical instrument before I give funding directly to a school, because giving funding to a school during this time will somehow pad someone else’s pocket, and we’ll never get to the kids in my opinion. I just don’t trust the system. During this time, resources should be given directly to students. Then in response to the other part of the question… I do actually believe in the vocational/manual labors and the critical thinkers/creative types. I won’t even call them cogs. People who are interested in being mechanics and plumbers, hospitality specialists are what this nation needs. We also need innovators and strategists. I think that they’re both needed in America and extremely valuable.
Nicole Johnson: I think that we have students who are interested in being both, and sometimes a combination. I’ve always wanted to work in a diner myself. I would much rather not be thinking critically all the time, but I do have the aptitude for it. That being said, I want each type of kid to take on all the skills they can. I’m very big on the idea of, “you can work at a diner, but you also need to think critically about who you’re communicating with, and how you communicate with them so that you could get the best tip”. Vice versa, you can create the biggest new surge of electronic devices, but you also ought to learn how to mow a lawn and fall in line with a team. I’m all about every kind of form of labor. I find them to be necessary and they build character. And I think America is great at that. At giving us options and value… Well, we’re not good at valuing people, but…
Nectar News: Especially teachers, we don’t value teachers enough that’s for sure.
Nicole Johnson: Right or marginalized communities or manual laborers. The second all the grocery store essential workers are gone or the people who work at restaurants take off and such, we’re all like “what is happening to the world?” And so, it’s just unfortunate that we don’t tend to appreciate the people behind the labor and what it provides us with. It creates a world for us. So, I wouldn’t pick one or the other, but I do think that our schools can cater to both kinds of future citizens the creative innovator and the manual laborer/essential workers. As long as we look at them and think about them individually, as the schoolhouse mentality would do, then we can foster whatever it is each kid wants to become rather than them meeting some singular standard. Eventually, a kid is like, “you know what? I like this part or this characteristic of myself, can I make that profitable somehow? Can I make my passion a part of my livelihood and my financial sustainability?” And that’s our job as educators, to help student navigate that very long journey to finding out who they can be as a citizen.
Nectar News: That’s beautiful. Live your best life. That’s what I’ve heard. Right?
Nicole Johnson: That’s what you’ve got to do and teachers and after school programmers help you to do that.
Nectar News: Well, I think teachers are essential workers, and we have to respect them more and pay them more, and honor them more, and support them more. So, thank you for all that you do and have always done. And I am such a fan, you know that. I can’t wait till you run for president.
Nicole Johnson: I don’t know about that, Dan, but thank you so much always for the support.