Equity, Inclusion, and Beyond: The Path and Persistence of Wil Johnson


Hiro Hirano-Holcomb, Staff Writer

Student, army medic, para educator, teacher, consultant – these are just some of the many roles that Wil Johnson has filled in his life up until now. His career path has been filled with twists and turns, decisions and falling outs, all of which led him to the work he does today as the Director of Equity and Inclusion. And yet, from the first email I received from him last school year after I had invited him to come to an Impact club meeting, I was always curious, as many who meet him are, about the unique spelling of his first name; Wil with only one L.

“So, the joke I tell people ongoing is that I couldn’t afford the other one,” answered Wil Johnson. He went on to reveal it wasn’t always the case.

“I had a friend who would always ask me when I said my name was Wil, ‘Is that with one L or with two?’ And I’m like two, because one sounds weird. Why would I have one L? But then we didn’t have a huge budget in our organization, but I also wanted to make sure that all the officers had business cards when they were out talking with people. I’m the type of leader who takes care of all the people who work with me first, then take care of myself. So I printed out business cards for all of our officers and I finally get to mine, you know how when you’re printing something and it’ll print like the first part of something and then last part of something? So all of my business cards that I printed out had “WIL” in this kind of faded way and the last part just had the logo of our organization and I’m like, “I can’t even afford two L’s, I’m just gonna go with one from now on.”

With all the jobs and career paths that Johnson had went through, that he originally wanted to be an artist might come as a surprise. A frequent doodler in his youth, he drew attention from teachers for not paying attention in class in favor of drawing on notebook paper. He thought about architecture and digital design but eventually, a teacher in high school discouraged him from going into art as a career due to the lack in economic opportunities. However, the artist within him is still satisfied with the work he currently does.

“I look at myself as a culture architect to where I get to come into situations and say, ‘ok, how is this working, is this something that’s going to have a solid foundation that we can build upon, or do we need to draw up something totally different that works for everybody that enters this space?’” asserted Johnson.  “So, I definitely feel like I get to practice the art of education and culture so I’m still an artist in that regard.”

Although he has explored many fields over his life, working within education was what Wil Johnson first considered for a potential career. “When I went to Georgia State University for one semester, my long-term goal was to be a teacher,” explained Johnson.

However, his goal to become a special education teacher was a short-lived one. “I saw this special on like Nightline, one of those types of shows, and it showed special education teachers being hit, bit, attacked by students, and I’m like, I don’t wanna go to school to get attacked! I’m like, no there is no way. I’m never gonna teach special ed.”

Discouraged from education, both the career field and the institution itself as a university student, he left school and was recruited by the Army. As a medic within the military, Johnson was trained in emergency medicine and following his service, explored options within the medical field. His sights had been set on working in physical therapy rather than continuing within emergency medicine. That goal, however, was one that was also short-lived, with the realities of life getting in the way. “I was studying the pre-recs for that, but I was also working the graveyard shift at a manufacturing facility with an 8 o’clock organic chemistry class. That did not gel well,” said Johnson. “I’m typically not one to give up on something but I felt that it was time to really rethink my pathway.”

Straying away from the field of medicine, Johnson started to wonder about the effectiveness that individual organizations and clubs have to create change and meaningful impact. He had always been involved in many kinds of clubs and organizations through colleges and other means throughout his life, including within the leadership capacity, and he realized how greater communication and unity between organizations would have the capacity for more impact on a larger scale. Those thoughts eventually led him on a path of a degree in Communications at the University of Washington-Tacoma. But outside factors kept him from working in the field. “In 2008, there was this little thing called the recession,” said Johnson. “With only volunteer experience, I was competing with people who had higher degrees, masters, doctorates level, there were people with a lot of experience, so those opportunities were not available to a brand-new graduate at that time, so I was at a loss for what I was going to do.”

Without much room to be picky, Johnson started seeking employment from elsewhere and eventually, he was connected to a school district that did not have any openings for people, such as himself, who did not have any kind of teaching or administrative certifications. All but one position required some kind of certification: a Para Educator. When he decided to take the job, he struggled for some time about if being a para educator was the career that he wanted to continue to pursue. But the experiences he gained learning to connect with students with developmental disabilities proved to be a fulfilling job. He told me a story about an experience he had working with a non-verbal autistic student who exhibited behavioral issues such as aggression.

“One thing that really resonated with me is whenever I or anybody reacts in a certain way, that action or that behavior is communication. And so I had to pause and reflect for a second, ‘ok what are we communicating to the student and what is the student communicating to us?’ This student may be nonverbal, however, this student understood what we were saying and what we were showing and so let’s really empower this student with a way to communicate with us effectively that doesn’t result in us always getting harmed or the student harming themselves,” said Johnson.  “So I worked with some people throughout the school to help improve our opportunities to communicate and we were able to reduce the aggressive behaviors of a student drastically from having around 100 incidents per week to four to five a year,”

After some encouragement from his peers, he received his master’s in education from the University of Washington Tacoma with a special education endorsement and began teaching special education classrooms. Looking to create more impact as a classroom teacher, Johnson became a department chair for the special education department of a school in the Edmonds School District. He was able to expand his work as an implementation coach at the Center of Strong Schools at University of Washington – Tacoma. This work led him to become interested in consulting which is when the shift to equity and inclusion work took place for him. There were also outside factors that led him into more DEI centered work.

“Special education is I feel even the core of equity and inclusion work because were working to meet specific student needs and make sure that students are supported within their learning. I had always been in conversations around what diversity and inclusion meant but had not always had the opportunity in a professional capacity to do it,” said Johnson. “When George Floyd was killed, that to me was just a string of a number of events that had been going on for at least the past 10 years plus because I want to say 2012 was when Trayvon Martin was killed, and granted it wasn’t by police, but when we talk about the justice system, was there justice in that situation and why was this kid singled out? And so we have these things occurring where lives are being lost because we aren’t talking about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in ways that people are engaging. I felt at that point it was definitely a catalyst for me to get into the work.”

In the summer of 2021, Wil Johnson was interviewed and quickly hired for the newly created position of Director of Equity and Inclusion at the Snohomish School District following the intensified discussions surrounding race and equity that took place in 2020. “After George Floyd was killed, there were a number of organizations and districts that were like, ‘oh my god, we have to do something’, and it was like yeah, we’ve been saying this for years!”

Along with his work in DEI, special education, and experience with communications and the military, he also credits being extended the opportunity through the connections that he made over the years. “I think the biggest thing has been asking the right questions, talking to the right people, and consistently showing up,” said Johnson.

As for his time working as the Director of Equity and Inclusion at the Snohomish School District, it has proved to be a rewarding job with hope inducing moments for the promise of kinder, more accepting educational environments. “I really enjoy about my job is that pretty much every day I have those moments where I usually get to interact with students or interact with staff where maybe they come to me with a question or they come to me with a comment, or we engage in a conversation, and it’s always just an open door where we can talk about any and everything, and how do we grow our mutual learning, but those opportunities that I get on a daily basis are a true treasure in this role.”

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows when the job is to discuss the controversial. Immeasurable amounts of stress and a seemingly endless fight for equitable schools in the face of intolerance within the heated backdrop of polarization fills his days. “The thing that I really struggle with – I won’t say that, I guess I can say that I dislike it, it just adds to the challenge of the work that the core of the work that I feel we do is so highly – I don’t know if I’d lead with politicized,” pondered Johnson. “But it seems like the things we’re addressing are whispers. So, it’s like, oh we’re gonna talk about race today. We’re gonna talk about sex today. We’re gonna talk about politics or religion.

The stress of taking on work within equity and inclusion is also one that is often draining and taxing to both mind and body. Johnson is no exception. “I could actually feel it with the tension in my shoulders, the tension across my chest, and as an African American male in my late forties, you get tightness in the chest it’s like whoo, doctor, what’s going on? Well, your hearts fine but do you have any stress in your life? Ha! Uh, do I have stress?’” recalled Johnson. 

“There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done, we know that every day people are being harmed for a number of reasons,” said Johnson.

Many echo these sentiments in a world of hyper-connectedness where we are all too aware of every injustice and every harm done within the minute, even the second of it occurring. There never seems to be a shortage of things to do and fires to put out. “But at the same time, we can’t bear the weight of the world right now,” pointed out Johnson. “It becomes a struggle when we look at the vastness of the problems if we don’t reflect on what our current capacity is.”

So how does he make the work sustainable? “Understanding my own capacity and doing what I can. And if I know that I have done the best I can within my role, it helps me to sleep at night,” Johnson said.

As for young people who want to work within the realm of DEI, he tells me that the first step, before doing anything else, is to get to know yourself. “Go up to a mirror, just kind of stand there and look at yourself for a second, and really reflect on how, as an individual, you are showing up,” emphasized Johnson. 

According to him, authenticity and genuineness are deeply valuable in working in the field of DEI. And a necessary part in being able to show up as your most authentic and genuine self is to understand when your ability to do so may be limited. “…identifying those spaces where we feel we might not be able to show up as our true self, where we might not be able to speak our truth,” continued Johnson. “Then unpack[ing] what it is that needs to be addressed. And some of it is dependent on the space. Is it the system itself that doesn’t allow for my voice? Or is it the people around me where I don’t feel comfortable being myself? Or do I not even know myself enough to speak with my true voice?”

Much of the work that Wil Johnson does is frustrating, fulfilling, deeply personal, and based on a vision for a better future. So what does that vision look like for him? “For students and staff to be able to walk into spaces open and receptive and leave better for the experience is what I would envision if we had fully inclusive classroom,” he explained. 

However, Wil Johnson is more focused on what he, as an individual and collectively, can do in the here and now to make schools a better place for everyone.

“I want to have the opportunity to connect with people and have them leaving better for the intersection of our time together. It’s just that simple. We met, are you leaving better or worse?” asked Johnson.

“Better, let’s make it better.”