In African American religious culture, there is a formulaic trope known as the call story. Narratives spun by preachers about the moments in their lives when they were called to preach, call stories typically involve a crisis—a near-death experience, the loss of a loved one, a low point in one’s life—when a higher power speaks to and calls the person into service. Over the years, I’ve heard many a call story from preachers whose rousing sermons crescendo with tales of sitting down by a riverside, a tree, a rock, or some other majestic natural formation while reckoning with their past and contemplating their future, being pressed by some otherworldly force to step up, speak out, and stand firm in the obligation to spread the good news—to heed the call.
My call story is less dramatic and perhaps even a bit banal, but nonetheless just as compelling. It all began on a cold but sunny January 14, 2020, when I received a call—not from God, but from the WittKieffer search firm, about an “opportunity.” Turns out that the opportunity was becoming a candidate for the deanship of the School of Communication. I took the call as a courtesy but quickly rebuffed the caller, providing a laundry list of reasons why I was not interested and how I was enjoying my sabbatical. The voice on the other end of the line listened patiently to my travails before posing one haymaker question: “Are you at a point in your career where you are simply interested in accumulating more accolades, doing your own research, and performing, or are you at a point where you want to support the careers of others?” I was gobsmacked by the question—and a little offended by what I believed was a false binary—and responded accordingly:
(Clutching my pearls) “I’ve never been only interested in my own career. I’ve always been a big-tent person.” (Silence) “Okay, then,” the caller said. “That’s information for you as you ponder this opportunity.” Still, I stated my disinterest and indicated that I would not be applying. Yet the question haunted me.
Fast forward six weeks later. I was in Sydney, Australia, on my annual writing retreat. I got another call, this time from a managing director of the firm, who just wanted to chat once more about the opportunity because the window for submitting a letter of interest was closing. “People who pursue these leadership roles typically shouldn’t have them,” the managing director shared. “But people like you, who are discerning and have done a lot of self-reflection, should at least go through the process. It doesn’t mean you’ll get the job, and if you get the offer it doesn’t mean that you have to take it. But you’ll never know unless you go through the process. You don’t want to look back and regret not at least exploring this opportunity.” Only an agent of God could be so crafty with that one provocation. Needless to say, I took the bait.
We all know well what happened next. As I was interviewing for this position, we devolved into an economically devastating global health crisis, a stark national reckoning with anti-Black racism, continuous attacks on election integrity and democratic norms, and a swelling distrust of the truth. The prospect of leading this school through a series of ongoing catastrophes had me feeling like my call story was out of sequence—my crisis came after the call. And as I became more and more overwhelmed and angry at this cruel joke the universe had played on me, the voice of my grandmother came to me in an almost inaudible whisper: “Be still, child, and know.” And in the quietude of my own self-pity, I had to wrestle with knowing that I had no right to complain, that I had been called for a reason, and that, indeed, my 20 years at Northwestern had prepared me for this moment. The barrage of challenges crystallized my convictions, and I found that what I wanted for the school—a more equitable distribution of opportunities and resources for our students; better racial and ethnic representation among students, faculty, and staff; a culture of support, encouragement, and mentorship; and a chance to heal from the inside out—was exactly what we needed, what I needed.
Since it was announced last June that I would be the seventh dean of the School of Communication, I have been overwhelmed by your support and encouragement. Our National Advisory Council greeted me with open (virtual) arms and has pledged to assist me as we put diversity, equity, and inclusion at the forefront of our work. Our alumni, who saturate all industries, have been reaching out to connect more with our students and faculty, some of whom you’ll meet in this issue. Those folks who have become disengaged from or disenchanted with our school will, I hope, read a little about me and where I come from and consider reconnecting.
I want anyone who identifies as a member of an underrepresented group to know that we’re doing the hard work of confronting past sins, holding ourselves accountable, and taking decisive steps toward making this school stronger—especially for our Black students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
This issue highlights them—us—and makes a demonstrative statement that we’re building a community keen on amplifying voices so often silenced, perspectives historically ignored, and differences rarely celebrated. This year has forced us to be a new kind of school, but we are choosing to be a better one. Indeed, we are heeding the call and taking advantage of the opportunity.
E. Patrick Johnson
Dean, School of Communication
Annenberg University Professor