Mary Johnson: A Powerful Advocate for Educational Justice, 1955-2024

Mary Johnson, a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and groundbreaking advocate for parent power and educational justice, passed away at the age of 68.  Over her lifetime of organizing and advocacy, she helped hundreds of parents in southeast Los Angeles navigate the complexities of special education rules, led successful campaigns to change school district policies, and served as president of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Parent Collaborative.

Mary was born in Dover, Delaware on July 21, 1955 to Viriginia Bessix and Royal Swan.  After her mother passed away when she was just 2, Mary and her six siblings went to live with her grandmother, Emily Bessix, who placed a strong emphasis on the importance of education.  At age 13, Mary moved to south Los Angeles with her older sister Elizabeth,  She attended Fremont High School and later graduated from Washington High School in 1973. 

In 1978, Mary married Ronald Johnson Sr., and began to build a family.  She raised four children with fierce love and joy:  LC Johnson, Ronald Johnson Jr., Earvin Johnson, and Mya Johnson.  Mary was a vital presence in the lives of her eight grandchildren—Kaitlin Chikwendu, Jeremiah Aguilar, Brihanna Johnson, Aailiyah Johnson, Kyara Johnson, Jade Johnson, Ronald Johnson III—as well as her two great grandchildren, Mazi Chikwendu and Hendrix Chikwendu.

Mary Johnson shined maternal love, guidance, and support toward her growing household and her extended family from across the country—her siblings, Ralph and Rose Bessix; her in-laws, Greg, Winifred, Leonard, and Kim Johnson; and the Wilson family.  She opened her home for family members, made sure they were well-fed, and was always there to help with any problem they might be experiencing.   

Mary’s commitment to provide for others is legendary in South Gate and Lynwood.  For many years, she led an effort to distribute turkeys on Thanksgiving–serving up to 500 families.  Working with other community groups, Mary coordinated an annual Christmas gift drive, collecting more than 3000 toys one year.  Importantly, these efforts stretched across African American and Latino families—indeed, Mary’s community work always supported multiracial coalitions and understanding.   

Mary Johnson at protestMary Johnson is best known for her work as a parent advocate for quality education.  Mary was fond of saying that she redefined the role of parents in public education–from holding a bake sale to holding education officials accountable.  She was a gifted learner who took it upon herself to read and understand state and federal educational policy and then communicate key insights to other parents.  Mary became an expert in special education rules and served as an informal guide to countless moms as they worked with teachers to develop individualized educational plans for their children.  She attended workshops at UCLA to learn about California’s curriculum frameworks and then created her own parent workshops to teach other parents how to know what a high quality lesson looks like.  In more recent years, Mary Johnson partnered with Pepperdine Professor Anthony Collatos in teaching future teachers about how they should build strong and trusting relationships with the parents of their students.  

Mary Johnson was a powerful community organizer and advocate for educational justice.  School superintendents, state officials, and educational researchers across the nation knew her name and took her calls.  And, she remained deeply grounded in the community where she lived and raised her family.  Alongside her extraordinary family, she leaves a legacy of empowered parents who understand the school system better and who know how to work together, across lines of difference. 

Speaking of Parent-U-Turn, the group she founded and led for many years, Mary Johnson said: “What I like is that we see everyone willing to help each other.  … People call us all times of night, all times of day.  We don’t ever turn them away.  I think this is where the trust comes in.”  

Mary Johnson built trust, enacted love, and advocated fiercely.  All who knew her have received an extraordinary blessing.  She is clothed in dignity and strength. 

A memorial service for Mary Johnson will be held from 4pm-8pm on Saturday, April 20 at Holy Redeemer Lutheran Church, 1415 Blaine Ave, Bellflower.