When Tarece Johnson first signed up to run for a spot on the Gwinnett County School Board she didn’t think she had much chance of winning. First, she was running against a woman who was not only the chair of the Gwinnett County School Board but had held the seat for 47 years, longer than anyone else in Georgia.
Johnson never held elective office and had only volunteered to help her run. Her opponent could pay the $4,000 to mail a flyer to every eligible voter; she could only go from door to door, handing out literature in person during the worst health crisis in America in a century.
But when the votes were counted, Johnson defeated her better-known rival by a margin of 2 to 1. Her daughter Hannah has just graduated from The Epstein School, which her son still attends.
Johnson, who has a doctorate in education, has self-published a book of poetry and readings to accompany the Passover haggadah and another volume entitled “Ahava: Soulful Shabbat Meditations, Motivations & Affirmation by a Black Jew.” She is passionately committed to her faith.
“Judaism is beautiful to me. And particularly I value the beliefs of Judaism around rachamim, compassion and empathy to heal our community. Ahava is love and kovod, respect; these Jewish values that we have as a community are values that I live by. They keep me grounded. Pursuing justice is a core commandment in our Torah.”
Johnson is an active member of Temple Sinai and July 16 she is leading a discussion about the critically acclaimed documentary “13th” about the role of racism in the American criminal justice system.
Because she is running unopposed in November, she is using the time she has until January, when she takes office, to catch up on what her new constituents are talking about, particularly how they view the role of police in the public schools.
In a recent conference call she heard parents talk about minimizing the presence of police officers or security officers in the schools. They also discussed how to train teachers to better prepare themselves and their students for the possibility of violence in their classrooms.
Johnson listened but thought she would work for more direct action.
“My personal opinion is to get rid of them, abolish police in schools. I want them out, period. Yeah, but I have to listen to the people who voted me in.”
Johnson also feels strongly about the need to educate students in multiculturalism, including a better understanding of Jewish students. She wants to make it school board policy that all Jewish students would get time off to observe the Jewish high holidays, something which is now left up to the discretion of individual teachers and principals.
Gwinnett County schools are among the most ethnically diverse in the nation. According to census figures, more than 100 different languages and dialects are spoken, and the student population comes from more than 180 countries. Over 25 percent of the county is foreign born.
From 2000 to 2018 Gwinnett’s white population dropped by 31 percent, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, the fifth largest decrease in the nation. Today only 22 percent of Gwinnett students are Caucasians. African American students make up 32 percent and Latinos comprise 31 percent. The Atlanta Regional Commission predicts that by 2050 the county will be the most populous in the metro area, and even more diverse in its ethnic makeup.
Johnson’s election is a sign that the makeup of elected officials is changing, if somewhat slowly. In 2015, The Atlantic published an article saying Gwinnett was one of the most racially and ethnically diverse counties in the country that was still run by Caucasians.
Only one other member of the school board, who was elected in 2018, is an African American. Two other African Americans candidates are running for the five-member board in November, which, if they are elected, could radically alter school board policy, Johnson believes.
“If one or both of those two women win, we will make up the majority of the board. I call ourselves the dream team.”