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Staff Snapshot: Johnathan Perkins, equity advocate and podcaster

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Over the past few weeks, the Black Lives Matter movement has taken center stage in the media with unprecedented international protests around the systemic racism against Black people in the United States. And while the anti-racism movement is relatively new to some people, it’s been a central focus and passion in Johnathan Perkins’ life for years — both personally and professionally.

A law school graduate, Johnathan spent five years working at a major law firm before deciding that he wanted to pursue a more personally fulfilling path. “I loved being a lawyer, but I wasn’t working on projects that gave my life meaning or helped develop and grow my passions,” he says. He initially followed his interest in higher education to Harvard’s general counsel’s office, but despite finding his work engaging, he knew he wanted to leave the legal field and focus specifically on race issues. He left Harvard and began to offer speaking and consultation services on equity, diversity and inclusion.

Around the same time,Johnathan started the “Black&” podcast with his sister, April Perkins. “Black&,” which has thousands of subscribers, focuses on current events and social issues through the lens of race and racism. “April and I are both podcast fans, but we struggled to find one on race and racism produced by people of our generation and with a similar perspective,” Johnathan says. “We are both millennials, and many of the shows that were out there at the time tended toward a more dated perspective on the ever-changing racial climate in this country. We offer clear, frank and honest advice — particularly to white people — relating to anti-racism, whiteness and practical advocacy. We’ve been fortunate enough to have interviewed a number of wonderful guests, including the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, among others.”

In 2019, when Johnathan saw an open position at UCLA to serve as special assistant for Jerry Kang, vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), he knew it was the perfect merging of his three primary interests: the law, higher education and equity issues. Since then, he has helped to advance equity throughout UCLA — making an impact, along with his EDI colleagues, that has spread well beyond the campus. 

In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and related protests, EDI’s role has become more crucial than ever. “Within a 72-hour window following the recent protests, BruinX (the research and development arm of the EDI Office) planned, designed and hosted a Zoom workshop. ‘Building and Facilitating Reflective Spaces’ was attended by over 600 professors and administrators within the UC system,” says Johnathan. “Passion, insight and that type of flexibility and ingenuity is vital to effective advocacy and leadership. I’m truly proud of our work within EDI.”

Johnathan’s advice for how members of the UC community can work to ensure that this moment continues a momentum of catalyzing badly needed change is to “embrace this passion and don’t let it fade.”

“Find a group of folks who share your understanding of the issues and passion for solving them. Keep in regular contact and attend general body meetings together. Trade notes on your experiences combating racism and resources (like “Black&”) from the established individuals and organizations already in the fight. Take your cues from Black and Brown people, and the organizations we create and support, which are already engaged on these issues,” he advises. 

“One of the biggest concerns that today’s activists have relates to the sustainability of our efforts. Groups like Showing up for Racial Justice and White People 4 Black Lives have seen a dramatic uptick in membership and participation in the wake of the recent murders and activism; however, leadership within those groups remain concerned that this surge will fade and things will return to the status quo,” he says. “In order to sustain and build upon this movement, we must make a deliberate effort to stay connected with organizations and activists that are fighting this fight every day — and also with one another, person-to-person.”

Meet Johnathan

Name: Johnathan S. Perkins

Title: Special Assistant to the Vice Chancellor

Department/Unit: Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI)

Location: UCLA

When did you start working for UC? September 2019

In five words or less, what do you do for UC? “Help build equity for all” — the EDI motto 

Why do you love working for UC? I love working for UC for a number of reasons. Under Vice Chancellor Kang’s leadership since its inception five years ago, the EDI Department at UCLA is the national leader in equity issues within higher education. Our work has been cited and implemented at universities and private companies around the country. Adding to that important work has been a real thrill so far and I’m quite eager to continue the push forward. In addition, despite all the often-challenging equity work still left to be done, the spread of diverse and often unheard voices in leadership positions is another thing I absolutely love about working for UC. I hope that aspect of the job will only grow and improve.

What’s something people don’t know about you (such as a hobby or passion outside of work)? Many people in my professional life don’t know that my sister and I host a podcast on antiracism. Our pod has been met with enthusiastic support, since we started the project over a year ago. I also love really horrible reality TV. (Yikes.)

Who’s your dream dinner guest (living or dead) and why? If I could have dinner with one person, it would have to be my father, who passed away two months before my 12th birthday. My father’s life and career were dedicated to race relations and reconciliation, just like his father’s before him. The seeds of many of my passions were originally planted by my father before he died, and I would give just about anything to hear his perspective on the way the racial climate in this country has changed since then. He would certainly be shocked, but not surprised, that folks are still marching and protesting with the same demands as they were when he was a boy.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received? Remember who you are. 

The BruinX Zoom workshop “Building and Facilitating Reflective Spaces” is available upon request. Contact Rusty Klibaner for access. Check out all episodes of the Black& podcast on Johnathan’s website.

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