Meet our Participation Design Strategist, Antonnet Johnson

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At the Participatory Budgeting Project, we’re thrilled to welcome Antonnet Johnson to our team as a Participation Design Strategist. Antonnet joins us through a prestigious fellowship from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). The Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows Program pairs recent doctoral graduates in the humanities with nonprofits across the country. We’ve enjoyed getting to know Antonnet, and are very excited to introduce you!

Antonnet, can you tell us about your work story?

In high school and early college, I was more politically active with local groups. As the balance of work and school became more challenging during the last few years of undergrad, I stepped away from that a bit.

After I graduated with my undergraduate degree, I worked as an underwriter for chiropractic malpractice insurance, but found myself craving more challenging work. So, I applied to and landed in a PhD program in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English in Tucson, Arizona.

Initially, I was getting exactly what I wanted from that environment. I was teaching writing and thinking about ways of bringing collaborative and critical pedagogy into the classroom.

I then started to move more into design work, Co-Founding the Usability and Play Testing Lab at the University of Arizona. As I began to design and test curriculum and technical writing, I felt more excited by practical work outside of academia, which led me to apply for the Public Fellows program.

How do you describe critical pedagogy?

That’s a big question. The concept has shifted a lot, and people have different ideas about what it can look like. Broadly, it’s a philosophy of teaching that rejects the neutrality of the classroom by placing value on the ways student knowledges and experiences reflect and shape the world around them. The goal is to develop critical awareness by facilitating the process of connecting those knowledges and experiences to the social and cultural structures that they shape and reflect. Ideally, students take that connection beyond the classroom to work toward changes they want in the world.

Interestingly, critical pedagogy has roots in Brazil just like PB! Paulo Freire was an educator and activist in Brazil, and he wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which is widely considered a foundational--if not, the foundational--book on critical pedagogy.

How did your research agenda evolve throughout your program?

My dissertation came to be about identity performance in tabletop games, which sounds far from where I started, but the connective tissue is my interest in understanding how people come to believe what they believe. In the classroom, it was about getting students to understand how their lives are shaped by political, cultural, and social forces. In the context of games, it’s taking something that seems simple—playing a game—and asking how one’s understanding of what it means to play a game informs whether and how they play. To me, this is an important thing to consider in terms of the way games are designed. It sheds light on why people continue to play games that sometimes directly conflict with their own values.

What first sparked your interest in exploring something outside academia, and how did you first learn about participatory budgeting (PB)?

I’m a person with a lot of interests, and I’ve always been comfortable with the possibility of leaving academia after finishing my PhD. I wanted to explore academic options first so I found ways to engage alternatives to academia through the context of my teaching.

One example of that effort is the work I did through the Usability and Play Testing Lab. I became familiar with user experience, usability, document design, and process mapping through curricular planning for business and technical writing courses. At the time, a makerspace had just opened at the University of Arizona’s Science and Engineering Library, and I saw that as an excellent resource for students to connect those concepts with other projects and people--to take them beyond the confines of the classroom. Building on what was already there, I co-founded the Usability and Play Testing Lab and served as Director until I departed.

I really enjoyed connecting people and collaboratively proposing and creating tests to help a variety of community members (researchers, artists, and designers) improve their work. While teaching at Purdue University, I continued to cultivate that interest, particularly, in my Games and User Experience class. I found the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows Program while doing research about alternatives to academia, and that’s when I first learned about PB and PBP.

Can you talk about your work at PBP, and what you’re most looking forward to?

At PBP, I’ll be assessing, designing, and piloting new processes for supporting PB in schools as well as running user experience testing to support the design of innovative technology tools that can be used for PB both in and out of schools.

So much of my professional development journey is returning to the question of what’s meaningful to me and identifying how the different ways that can look. At PBP, it’s working to design accessible and scalable processes to support the meaningful and challenging work of growing participatory democracy and advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion.

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