ENCINITAS — Jessica Johnson remembers in fourth grade when she tried to lead a student walk-out from a classroom where her teacher was about to dissect a frog.
“It didn’t matter that no one followed me out the door,” she explained. “The difference was that I was a little kid who cared, and other kids saw that. It was the ripple effect.”
Johnson is now 32, and founder and executive director of the nonprofit Jeans 4 Justice.
She attributes her lifetime of social activism to the influence of her father, a math professor, who instilled a sense of responsibility for the environment.
“My father composted,” she recalled. “During the mid-1980s, I learned to recycle by washing aluminum foil and Ziploc bags.
“My sister was 16 years older than me and was always a feminist and total activist. I feel like I had a purpose for as long as I can remember.”
Today, Johnson is inspiring a younger generation of social activists through Jeans for Justice’s BE IT (Bystanders Empowered In Transformation) high school program.
By strengthening self-esteem through activism, Johnson says teens also become less vulnerable to abuse.
“We want to move our target audience from the empowerless to the empowerful,” she explained. “The way to do this is to inspire them to care. When they start to care about the world and themselves, they start to have healthier and happier lives.
“The villain in the world today is apathy. If we look inside ourselves and the choices we make in life we realize it starts with us.”
Johnson uses bullying as an example, explaining that many young people are reluctant to get involved because of various fears that can include rejection.
“We are advocating that students listen within and speak their truth,” Johnson said. “When we listen to our intuition we are in alignment with our truth and have a healthier sense of self. This leads to healthier and more authentic friendships and relationships with peers.”
Cardiff resident Nigel Benjamin participates in the high school program as a mentor. Daughter, Cayla, a student at High Tech High North County in San Marcos, served as an intern for Jeans 4 Justice.
“It really helped Cayla realize that she was a person who could change the world and do things to change the life of teenagers and adults as well,” he explained. “Being around role models has propelled her and she has taken on roles in school and in her life to encourage people to be who they are and not necessarily fit into the mold. Through self-empowerment she is able to seek more outlets to deal with stress and put dreams and hopes into action.”
Last week Cayla served as a facilitator on Challenge Day at High Tech High North County, a program where schools provide a safe, confidential environment for students to share their opinions on whatever topics they choose. This can include stress, depression, suicide, violence and sexual abuse.
“I’m proud because Jess gave her the tools and experience to allow her to step into the role of facilitating these conversations,” Benjamin said. “She’s taking that on as a leadership opportunity to help students learn their own truth and express their concerns.”
Johnson also targets college students through LEAD IT, a grassroots program designed to empower young adults to make positive shifts in their lives, inside of their social circles and out into the campus community through experiential leadership training and service learning projects using art, film, fashion and fitness.
Last year she launched a community-based program called LIVE IT, which gives participants of all ages the opportunity to understand why their life matters by serving as a coach, captain or member of a team in taking on the issue of sexual assault awareness and prevention. The goal of the program is to give participants an opportunity to overcome their fears, experience something new and exciting, and be part of meaningful, authentic communities.
“When you look at people who changed the world, they overcame great obstacles and came out on the other side,” Johnson said.
For more information, visit jeans4justice.org.