June 23, 2015

On Friday, June 12, University of Virginia (UVA) student Martese Johnson was cleared of charges brought against him in March of this year. On the surface, Johnson was another underage college student arrested while attempting to enter a bar late on St. Patrick’s Day. However, in the midst of a national crisis of race relations between law enforcement and young black men, there is more to the story. Johnson is a black male, he was confronted by three white officers who threw him to the ground and handcuffed him, leaving him confused and bloodied.

Johnson spoke publicly about his arrest and vindication with remarkable clarity.

“I think that race was definitely a factor in this situation, but I don’t believe it was the only factor. I think that part of what happened with me can’t be blamed on the officers. It has to be blamed on society as a whole.”

His clear voice comes from a place of candor. In a Washington Post article, Johnson was open about his childhood in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side. He was honest about his discomfort upon arriving at UVA, a historic, southern university with a majority white middle- and upper class student population.

“I was uncomfortable… Freshman year, I was the only black male in my entire dorm building. It was one of the first times I had to endure being in a place where I was the absolute minority.”

Johnson also has an exceptional internal voice of candor – one that allows him to be true to himself. In high school, he chose to play volleyball instead of the more popular basketball and football. At UVA, he’s majoring in Italian because he finds the language beautiful. (Johnson also majors in media studies.) Initially all of his collegiate friends were white, but he worked to find a role serving on the Honor Committee, where his status as a minority could serve to improve race relations on campus.

“After the most terrible year that we possibly could have this past year, it taught us we need to be more transparent and speak up when something is wrong.”

Johnson shows us how to use a clear voice – inside and out – to encourage growth and positive change.