“It’s rare to find an African American whose life has not been touched by mass incarceration. It’s also sad that it’s become so commonplace within our communities that we just don’t talk about it,” says Dr. Avon Hart-Johnson, co-founder of DC Project Connect, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide crisis intervention and information resources to families affected by incarceration and support re-entry initiatives that strengthen families.
Prior to starting her nonprofit, Dr. Hart-Johnson was a project manager for an IT company and traveled around the world for her job. On the side, she was constantly volunteering and mentoring, working with abused women at a crisis center and children who were at high risk of being abused or failing school due to other trauma.
“When someone delivers my eulogy, I don’t want them to say I was a great IT manager,” she says. “When it came time for me to change my career, it needed to be something meaningful and humanitarian.”
Dr. Hart-Johnson began her professional transformation by earning her MS in Forensic Psychology from Walden University. Always intrigued by the law, she saw the program as a way to blend her two interests. She says her first online education experience was so fulfilling and flexible that when it came time to obtain her PhD in Human Services, she knew Walden was the place to help her pursue her dream of earning a doctoral degree.
“Social change is truly in my DNA now. When I think about what needs to be done, it’s no longer about gaining credentials for my CV. It’s about effecting positive social change that improves the quality of life for the people I serve,” she explains. “I believe the strongest leadership role we can play as advocates and executives of nonprofits is to understand the needs of our community by listening to the voices of individuals who are most impacted.”
Dr. Hart-Johnson demonstrated how important it is to listen to others through qualitative research for her dissertation, Symbolic Imprisonment, Grief, and Coping Theory: African American Women With Incarcerated Mates. As a result of this study, she developed a grounded theory of symbolic imprisonment, grief, and coping (SIG-C) that explains how loss occurs on psychological, social, symbolic, and physical levels.
According to her research, individuals with incarcerated mates go through a form of vicarious imprisonment because of the combination of guilty feelings that incarceration could have been prevented somehow and the stigma of being associated with the jailed person. There’s a desire to withdraw from society because of the shame and disgrace one feels, as well as the victim-blaming that often occurs. In addition, the separation from a significant other causes one to feel grief as if someone died. As part of the process, they must learn how to cope and try to recover from their incredible loss.
Feeling a sense of urgency to disseminate her research, she wrote a workbook to help professionals and people impacted by these phenomena. She has also conducted further research, published papers, written book chapters, and presented her findings in the United States, England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
“After my presentation in New Zealand at the International Coalition for Children With Incarcerated Parents, I listened to the next speaker, who, to my surprise, turned out to be the author of the study I used to identify the gap in literature and build my research around,” recalls Dr. Hart-Johnson. “As a result of my Walden education, I absolutely love that I feel confident and equipped to introduce myself, work beside renowned colleagues, and have deep and profound conversations with them.”
Through her nonprofit, she meets with formerly incarcerated women in D.C.’s only halfway house for women and is focusing her advocacy work on behalf of children with incarcerated parents. Because children are vulnerable and many don’t fully understand the situation, she wrote a children’s book to help caregivers explain and minimize the possible fear associated with a child’s first prison visit. She’s also working to influence and guide the legislative process so incarcerated parents can have physical interactions with their children, an act that is not permissible at 24 out of 26 Maryland prisons.
Dr. Hart-Johnson’s passion and outstanding work earned her the Walden University 2018 Outstanding Alumni Award, which is given each year to one graduate who exemplifies the university’s mission to effect positive social change through contributions to his or her profession, discipline, or community.
“It feels great to receive the Outstanding Alumni Award after all of the work I’ve done since graduating in 2015,” she says. “I am humbled and grateful for the recognition.”