Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

Laura Ruth Johnson
Laura Ruth Johnson

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

September 17, 2008

Professor to address educational aspirations
of Puerto Rican girls, women living in Chicago

DeKalb — Laura Ruth Johnson spent five years as the director of the Family Literacy Center in Paseo Boricua, a Puerto Rican community located in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.

Although the women ranged in age from 14 to 45, they all shared two things in common: a child younger than 7 in their care and the desire to earn a high school diploma.

Now an assistant professor in NIU’s Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment, Johnson spent years asking questions of the women, first as a center employee and later as an academic scholar.

Her discoveries about their challenges and their life trajectories, as well as her insights on how they learn the skills of motherhood, soon could turn into a book. She believes they also could spur policymakers to make it easier for young mothers to complete their education by allocating more funding for infant and toddler care in high schools.

First, however, Johnson’s incredible stories of the women of Paseo Boricua will enlighten women who attend her presentation at noon Friday, Sept. 26, in the Chandelier Room of Adams Hall. Men also are invited. NIU’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and the Women’s Resource Center are co-sponsors of the event.

The speech is titled “Repaying the Sea: Conducting Community-Based Research in Chicago’s Puerto Rican Community,” referencing a Puerto Rican myth that instructs people who remove natural things from the waters to throw some money back in.

“It’s my title when I talk about reciprocal research relationships,” she says. “My job is not just to take information from the community but also to develop relationships, to see the things they see are needed, to provide them with a voice and to use some of the implications identified in the research to help transform the situation.”

Welcome to the neighborhood

Johnson began her ongoing project in 1993, the year she was hired by the Family Literacy Center after being “bumped back to substitute” by the Chicago Public Schools. She had little knowledge of Puerto Rico, but had minored in Latino studies and had studied the philosophies of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, whose ideas influenced the center.

Soon she met the women and learned their many and various reasons for leaving high school early, including dissatisfaction with the public school system, lack of child care and a strong family identity that at times placed motherhood over education.

She witnessed their challenges to balance family responsibilities, jobs and, now, school. She realized the employment obstacles confronting women with no diplomas. She saw the meager financial support.

She heard their yearning for self-sufficiency and economic stability. She watched them learn social skills, such as working in groups and practicing patience.

She also glimpsed their potential.

“One of the things we can’t underestimate is that they didn’t really see an opportunity for them to return to school for education, and to do so was just … well, it can’t be underestimated. So many take a high school education for granted,” she says.

Among the women was the future recipient of a master’s degree in social work. Another would go on to work with community colleges. Others escaped dysfunctional relationships as they gained independence. Some came to realize a different sexual identity and sought out a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community.

The majority became strong advocates for the project, and some plan to start their own educational counseling programs for Latinas.

“Ten years later, there are still friends among that community,” she says. “They have a very strong social network for each other. They help each other find jobs. They help each other with child care. It’s really neat to see they’re still in contact.”

Johnson left the center in 1998 to continue her own education but later returned to conduct research on the educational and familial experiences of the women in the program.

“They tear up when I ask, ‘What was your proudest moment?’ It was getting their diplomas. Now they can hold their heads high. They have this sense of confidence and pride in themselves,” she says.

“A lot of literature out there, and the images in the popular media about Puerto Rico, emphasize the negative, the dropout rates. While those things are important, we need to be mindful of the realities and show the positives, especially with the young mothers,” she adds. “I’ve learned so much from them about what it means to be a mother. A lot them were raising brothers and sisters from a young age and are very savvy in their skills.”

Challenges persist

Unfortunately, the job has become more difficult.

Of the four public high schools in Chicago designed for pregnant teens open in the 1990s, only one remains. Meanwhile, the center is now connected to Pedro Albzu Campos Alternative High School, which caps the age of the diploma seekers at 21.

Johnson, who joined the College of Education faculty in 2006, hopes the eventual publication of her book will prompt more funding for similar programs with no age limits.

“It was really nice to have the intergenerational element to some of the classes,” she says. “One of the takeaways for them was an emphasis on culture. It gave them a sense of pride of who they are, and they share that with a lot of people. It doesn’t end with them.”

Johnson’s association with Humboldt Park also has not ended. Despite a job in DeKalb, she still lives in the neighborhood and cannot imagine moving.

During the summer, she taught a class there in community research for NIU graduate students.

She’s also working to interview 25 more women about their experiences and the long-term impacts of the program. This will include focus groups with women from different graduation years – an interaction that might nudge some into mentoring relationships, Johnson says – and with family members, including children who now are grown and can discuss how the school experience of their mothers shaped their own educational expectations.

“I’ve always gained strength from living and working in this community. These organizations are really community-based, in every sense of the word, and started by people who live in the community and grew up in the community,” Johnson says. “For me, I like to focus my work on people going about their daily lives and how people negotiate complicated factors. I feel I’m really part of solutions that are meaningful to people. More of that work needs to be done.”

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