2010 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW Major: English Education
Age: 32 | Chicago, Illinois
Education Coordinator, Hostelling International-Chicago
"Reaching 900 students each year is a lot, but we'd like to see these programs in every single high school in Chicago."
Megan Johnson develops and leads educational programs for Chicago's youth focused on combating stereotypes and encouraging communication across global and local cultures.
During her first year in 2003, Johnson reorganized Hostelling International-Chicago's Cultural Kitchen program and partnered with the Chicago Public School system. By incorporating teachers into the process, this educational youth outreach program expanded its reach from 80 to 600 Chicago students annually. Participants engage in cultural awareness-building lessons and research a country that is new to them, as well as meet world travelers and cook an authentic meal at the hostel. Bringing a new and distant culture into the lives of her students was rewarding, but Johnson soon realized a greater understanding of cultures was needed within the city.
"We would complete Cultural Kitchen and students would say, 'Wow, I met a person from France who was great and I learned so much, but students on the south side [of Chicago] are losers,'" says Johnson.
Addressing this startling segregation among her students, Johnson developed Exchange Neighborhoods, a program designed to break down these cultural barriers.
"Chicago is very segregated," she says. "Everyone is in their own little pocket and nobody goes across borders. This breeds ignorance and fear, which can lead to violence."
In developing a curriculum for her new program, Johnson looked to the Peace Corps training manual, centering her lessons around showing respect when encountering another culture as well as deciding on aspects of one's own culture to be shared and more fully understood.
Once teachers and students have been fully prepped through several lesson plans, students set up a culture fair for Exchange Day, when participants travel to each other's high schools. Modeled after a typical science fair, students prepare culture stations, educating visitors about religion, fashion, hair, food and their neighborhood. They also visit a local church, restaurant or community center.
Following the exchange, students travel to the hostel to cook dinner, hang out and spend the night together. After breakfast and reflection the next morning, the students return to their schools as more open-minded ambassadors.
"I notice that when we go into a high school for the first time, we see all sorts of negative stereotypes," says Johnson. "If we go back to the same high school the following year, many of those stereotypes are erased because program participants go back to school and talk and make an impact."
Johnson serves as the representative for Hostelling International USA's involvement with IOU Respect, a post-9/11 initiative to get college-age students from the east and west to engage in dialogue. She was also a recipient of the UW-Madison School of Education's 2009 Outstanding Recent Graduate award. Johnson currently trains and supports the delivery of educational programs with more than 50 teachers and community-based organizations in Chicago, with an 85 percent retention rate. She hopes to continue to grow this number to reach even more students in the years ahead.
"Hostelling International Chicago does more good work with our educational programs than any other hostel in the country," she says. "These programs are necessary for creating more open-minded, caring world citizens and for helping to prevent violence among youth in Chicago. I hope to see the programs continue and to obtain additional resources to see them grow."