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Kalima Johnson: From Brooklyn to Senegal and Back

  • Kalima Johnson TFA 25 Headshot

In August 2011, Kalima Johnson left the United States for the first time. Growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York, from an early age, her goal was to go to college and leave New York far behind. Now she found herself in Dakar, Senegal, working in an orphanage, and she saw clearly the importance of educational equity.

Kalima made the trip during her junior year at the University of Albany. She told the school’s newspaper that though she witnessed children begging in the streets, she also experienced the boundless hope of students who had access to a classroom. “I see education as the only escape for the poor,” she said shortly after returning to New York — where she now felt that her leadership was needed more than ever.

In 2013, after graduating, she entered the classroom as a Teach For America corps member and taught special education in the Bronx, New York, one of the nation's most economically disadvantaged districts. This placement, along with her experiences abroad in college, instilled in her a drive to ensure that all children have the opportunity to receive an excellent education. 

During the fall of 2015, Kalima attended LEE's Exploring Public Leadership Series, which introduced her to new ways of thinking about her leadership development and the different career routes she could pursue to continue making an impact for students. With support from a LEE coach, she applied to three jobs and received three offers before ultimately accepting the 2016 LEE Policy & Advocacy Summer Fellowship.

As a Policy & Advocacy Summer Fellow, Kalima worked in the office of New York State Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez. That position helped her land a full-time role with the New York City Council, in a district not too far from the one she grew up in and where she once taught.

Kalima believes that to create truly lasting change, policies and legislation must have an understanding of the people they impact — and be developed alongside them. She is deeply committed to improving policies that she says are failing the nation’s most vulnerable populations — from social services, to housing, to correctional policies — all of which contribute to the injustice of educational inequity.

And as possibly the biggest sign of her commitment and leadership in her community, the girl who couldn’t wait to get out of Brooklyn just moved back to Brownsville to get more politically engaged.