Janice Johnson Dias traces the path of her worldview to her childhood, when she immigrated to the United States from Jamaica with her family, in 1984. As a student in Boston, where her family settled, Janice grew to view herself as “more than a Jamaican, but as a Black person in America.” She also learned that it was important to see herself in the eyes, bodies, and experiences of people born in America, as well as in other places. Janice applied both of those ways of thinking to her undergraduate studies and activities at Brandeis University.
Bridging Scholarship and Activism
During her time at Brandeis, Janice served as president of the Black Student Union and traveled to Grenada to study the local consequences of the 1983 U.S. invasion. She describes these experiences as an opportunity to “give voice to the experiences of black women” and, through her work in Grenada, to learn how youth can play a central role in mobilizing for community change. Those experiences resonated with Janice, and inspired her dual passions for scholarship and activism.
After graduating from Brandeis, Janice taught English literature for two years at the St. George’s School, a high school in Newport, RI. But driven by her deep sense of activism – further kindled during a speech by Maya Angelou whom she invited to speak at the school – Janice enrolled in a Master’s program at Temple University to study sociology, with an emphasis on U.S. - Caribbean relations. While pursuing her Master’s degree, Janice wanted to apply her research to more practical ends. She was concerned that while academic researchers were studying black and poor people, they did not seek to ameliorate their conditions. “I did not want to be a part of something that was purely descriptive,” Janice says. “I wanted to get up, get out, and do something for people who looked like me.”
With her Master’s degree in hand, Janice became a national site manager for the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), at Columbia University, and worked in communities across the country on projects helping drug-addicted welfare mothers transition to the workplace. During this project, Janice realized that she had a talent for synthesizing information – seeing connections and interconnections – and for getting people to tell her their stories. “Anyone who knows me will describe me as blunt,” she says. “And I made sure that different organizations came to the table, and had one strategic plan to move people from substance addiction to employment.”
After spending three years at CASA, Janice returned to Temple to finish her PhD. Drawing upon her recent work for CASA, she focused her dissertation on the impact of welfare-to-work training programs on recipients’ employment outcomes. Janice then served as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Michigan, working in the Research and Training Program on Poverty and Public Policy. Soon she joined the faculty at John Jay College.
Growth Through New Connections
In 2010, just a few years into her time at John Jay, Janice discovered New Connections. She attended the New Connections Annual Symposium and, shortly thereafter, received grant funding from the program. Janice explored how low-income black mothers perceive neighborhood safety, and examined how those perceptions affect their daughters’ safety. Conducting her research in Newark, NJ, she found that low-income black mothers, when they felt their neighborhoods were dangerous, did not let their daughters play, and sequestered them inside, leading to poor long-term health. During the study, Janice met Ras J. Baraka, now the mayor of Newark, and serves as one of his advisors on violence as a public health issue.
Today, Janice is a tenured associate professor of sociology at John Jay, and is president of the GrassROOTS Community Foundation, a public health and social action organization based in Newark that she co-founded. She considers New Connections as an essential actor in the story of her personal and professional life – helping her realize that she could become both a scholar and an activist. “The New Connections grant opened the door for me to work in the community, and to publish,” she says. “And that opportunity to bring together my community dedication, my academic training, and my policy inclination led me to co-found GrassROOTS. My early inclination that we have to do more than just describe, that we have to help, is not an idea but my life’s work.”