From the many, many voices
By Brett Levine//Photo by Lindsey Tillman
For many people “synchronicity” may be little more than a Police song on a classic ‘80s station, but for Kashara Johnson it is a term that seems to accurately and succinctly sum up the opportunities that she has tried to capitalize upon in her life. The understanding that she needed to be able to support herself professionally led her to Google “how to make a living as an artist” before changing her major from Neuroscience to Graphic Design. While this may seem like a radical decision, it led to an even more unexpected outcome.
“I responded to a comment on Twitter by (founder of Role Models not Runway Models) Carrie Hammer, and this led to a three-year internship as her social media manager.” Johnson doesn’t overlook the irony of being a young, Alabama-based African-American woman working with a New York-based brand. “Carrie is incredible. Right from the outset she made it clear that we could work together using Skype, and that distance wouldn’t be a problem.” It wasn’t, and cemented her belief that graphic design, and creativity in general, could and should be used for social good. “I have five basic principles that I use as guidelines for the arts projects I work on today, and the number one requirement is that it is driven by social good. I also believe that creativity should be collaborative, and that it should build community.”
These principles form the foundations through which Johnson purses a range of short- and long-term projects that straddle a range of creative practices including video and film, documentary, podcasting, and still photography. It began with a Google questionnaire. “I started something I called the ‘Fail Forward Project,’” Johnson explains. “I had a questionnaire that simply had three questions asking that people tell of a time when they had failed at something, what it was, and what the outcome was. While I thought it would only go to a really small group of my friends, somehow it got shared a lot more widely—not viral—but people really took the time to answer the questions very honestly. Now, there is a lot more mainstream attention being paid to the complexities surrounding the idea of failure.” What makes Johnson’s approach so exciting is that apart from being grounded in notions of social good, her projects are also formed in foundations that are non-judgmental. The Fail Forward Project positions failure as a necessary precursor to growth.
In “The Transparent Project,” she shares the stories of 17 “immigrants and internationals,” as she terms them, living and working in the United States. Johnson strives to reflect both the diversity and inclusivity of her subjects, bringing their individual humanity to the fore. Subjects include a family from Mexico whose children receive protections under DACA, and a student who describes herself as “third-culture”, meaning that she is the child of parents who were themselves migrants to another country—India to the US via the United Kingdom. In the Transparent Project, Johnson humanizes and creates intimacies within individuals describing and sharing deeply personal experiences of difference, displacement, detachment, longing, engagement, and integration, creating complex narratives of being and becoming.
Johnson also harnesses the power of digital media to reaching audiences through “The Undiscovered Worth,” which she describes as telling honest, in-depth, accessible yet moving stories—one element of which is a podcast. “I had an instance recently in which I learned that an ex-husband had listened to the story that his former wife told in her podcast,” she begins, “and without saying too much more, it was clear these weren’t things she had shared with him. It was an important moment for their relationship. It made me know that now I want to do a follow-up episode, so I can speak with people to learn how these defining moments can influence or change their lives.”
In many senses, it may well be that it is Kashara Johnson’s fascination for neuroscience that is manifesting through these various projects. Each focuses on a concrete set of human relations, underpinned with the expectations of honesty, legitimacy, and transparency, approached with senses of dignity and respect, and positioned with the belief that these projects can contribute to the common social good. It is as if Johnson is interested in our shared brain, rather than the single one. Perhaps the worth she has discovered is in her ongoing passion for communicating these stories, and the power they have to connect. Hers, theirs, ours, yours—local, native, immigrant, visitor, other—each of these is just a word to situate a story someone wants to tell, and for now, Johnson is someone who wants to bring these stories to life, through, in her words, “listening and sharing personal stories,” and “curiosity and gratitude.” If you want together, Kashara Johnson wants to talk.•