Yakima Johnson: Principal, Union Leader, Author

For Black History Month, AFSA is proudly spotlighting a few of the women and men who lead our nation's public schools. Please join us in celebrating our colleagues during this important month.

“Demographics do not determine your destiny” is the motto that Newark, New Jersey, native Yakima Johnson strives to pass on to her students. Newark’s average income is low, its unemployment rate high. Now, as principal of Grover Cleveland Elementary School, she is committed to helping her students recover from the dramatic learning losses of the pandemic and to rise above the many emotional consequences.

Even in the best of times, many Newark students required extra attention. For years, Yakima has put a special focus on after-school opportunities.  As the founder of an organization called Girlz Group and a board member of another called Butterfly Dreamz, she has helped dozens of young women with goal setting, the college application process and job seeking to help them rise above their circumstances.

“Looking back at my own childhood, I saw how important it was for me to mentor young girls in particular,” she says. “I didn’t have any of that myself. I believe that God has destined me for this role, and that belief drives me every single day.”

With startlingly refreshing candor, she details her own early experiences as a child of poverty and of a single parent mother. “I had very little guidance and became a teenage mom and almost dropped out of school,” she says. “I want to share my story. I want to help young girls who may be heading towards that same road of confusion to stop and ask themselves the same life-saving question I eventually asked, ‘Who am I?’”

Yakima points to Terri Mitchell, a high school friend from a stable, two-parent household, as someone who represented “greater possibilities.” When Yakima was ready, Terri, by then a teacher, showed Yakima how to fill out her FAFSA form. Yakima looked back on a time when her mother was working at a facility for disabled adults. “She brought me to ‘Bring Your Daughter to Work Day’ and I was more affected than I knew. Later, I realized I wanted to be a special education teacher.” She did that, devoting herself to “very delicate students in the most restrictive environment.”

Even as the single mother of two daughters, she turned her life around, and she credits “a village of relatives” with helping to look after the children so she could succeed. She earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in education administration/supervision, and became a teacher, vice principal and principal.  While taking a memoir-writing course 10 years ago at New Jersey City University, she began to write her own story.  Today, her memoir, "Who Am I?: A Girl from Newark" is available through Amazon Books.

Once she was on her new path, she says, “I was totally driven. I refused to be a statistic.” She is now a 23-year veteran of the Newark Unified School District.

Today, Yakima and Terri remain inseparable. They were both appointed principals at the same time, in 2021, and run schools a block apart. Coincidentally, Yakima was appointed to her first principalship at Grover Cleveland Elementary School, which both of her daughters attended.

“It can be hard these days,” she says. “Teachers have suffered pandemic trauma, too, and some of them have lost loved ones. Coming back as if nothing happened to them is unsustainable. We constantly seek resources to help them deal with what they’ve been through.”

Much of her own sustenance comes through reading. She is influenced by educators Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and Baruti Kafele. For pure joy and inspiration, she read Michelle Obama’s "Becoming" and is now reading "The Light We Carry." She says she is also sustained by traveling as much as possible with her husband, Taj Jackson, a police officer. They make it a point to take four trips a year, most recently visiting Cancun, Mexico.

Being in a union has very much influenced her professional career. She served on the executive board of the City Association of Supervisors and Administrators (CASA), AFSA Local 20. “Unions help you grow as an educator and leader,” she says. “They give you the resources.” But above all, she says, “There is the camaraderie, and camaraderie is what helps you navigate a challenging professional world.”