Toby Dorr
Episode 10

Episode 10

Toby Dorr: Hello and welcome to Fierce Conversations with Toby. The show where we talk about the hard things. I’m Toby Dorr. In today’s episode, we’ll get a glimpse into how out-of-the-box thinking can create alternatives for at-risk communities. Our guest today is Frederick Johnson. Born and raised in Chicago, Fred attended high school and college in Iowa, as a linebacker for the 1995 National Junior College Championship. He was inducted into the Iowa Lakes Hall of Fame in 2015. He holds a BA degree in public administration and an MPA degree in public administration with an emphasis on nonprofit management. Post-military Fred moved to Kansas City with his wife, Hannah, and two children, and completed his MA degree in counseling. In his free time, you may find Fred cutting hair in his barbershop, bowling in national tournaments, crafting the perfect jerk salmon in his smoker, and aspiring to write that first book, which I’m hoping to help him with. Hi Fred. Thanks so much for joining us.

Frederick Johnson: Hey Toby. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Toby Dorr: You’re welcome. I love seeing your happy face. I like to ask all my guests a question that kind of gives us a peek into who you are. What’s your favorite color, and what does that say about you?

Frederick Johnson: My favorite color has been for a long time, sky blue. You know, and it’s funny that when you ask that question, it made me think, and the one thing I could think of is that I love the sky. I love looking up to the sky, to the stars, the clouds. It’s a science thing I guess, but I think it’s a testament to my imagination. It’s just a part of the way I think and just think of all the things that I possibly can achieve. So definitely my imagination.

Toby Dorr: I love that. I just love that. Can you tell us about a crossroads in your life that pushed you in a different direction?

Frederick Johnson: To be honest, when I was in college, because of the way I grew up, I was still on the streets doing a lot of illegal activity and even though I was going to college, my attempts were to just better myself, but I had to provide for myself and my family as well. And it came a moment where I felt like those walls were closing in on me. A couple of situations happened. Some guy showed up to my house to purchase some products and I didn’t know him. I got a phone call saying that my name was starting to be in the streets a lot more than I would have liked it to have been. And in that moment I decided, I already had my son at that time and my girlfriend, fiancé, we were talking about being married and we had our second child on the way. And I just didn’t see myself in prison. I didn’t see myself trying to be a father from prison or trying to be a husband from prison. So, I made a decision abruptly that same day actually, to leave the streets, leave school and go to the military.

Toby Dorr: Ah, that’s definitely a crossroads.

Frederick Johnson: My goal was to – my nickname at the time was Peanut and my goal was to in my mind it is the idea was to kill peanut and give birth to Frederick.

Toby Dorr: I love that. I love that the military can certainly be a game changer and I think when we are at a crossroads and we have a couple of directions we can go, sometimes the best thing we can do is just do a total about flip and go in a direction nobody even anticipated. It certainly forces a change. So, you have 25 years of experience as a mental health therapist, and yet you’re drawn to serve historically excluded populations. I love that you target these communities, but what pulls you in that direction? I think it probably, now that I hear your backstory, maybe it comes from that but what do you find in those communities?

Frederick Johnson: Well, you know, I use the word ‘excluded’ specifically to identify the population that we serve. We can use words like disenfranchised or disadvantaged, which are common. But the reason why they’re all those things is because we’ve been excluded. And so, because of that exclusion, it draws me to make sure that we’re able to just do our part. From my own, like as you said, from my own story, my own coming up and coming of age, I recognized a lot of the pitfalls that existed in my own journey. And one of them was a lack of information and a lack of options. I had a supervisor ask me once, why do we as social workers believe that we can save everyone? And I responded that I don’t believe we can save everyone. And I think that might be a shortcoming in why there’s such a burnout, a high burnout rate in social work. My only goal is to make sure that we are giving individuals the options and the information so that they can make the decision for themselves.

Toby Dorr: I think that’s beautiful and that’s something then they can take into the rest of their life because it’s not realistic to always have a therapist holding your hand. You must learn to stand on your own feet, so that’s beautiful. So, you’re a combat veteran. Having served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a supply sergeant with an Army Ranger unit, how does your military service influence your life today?

Frederick Johnson: One word. Discipline.

Toby Dorr: Ah, that’s a good word.

Frederick Johnson: Definitely discipline. My mom. As you were speaking earlier, the complete about-face. My mom, when I told her I was going to the military, her first comment out of her mouth was literally, they’re gonna put you in jail in there. Well, why, why do you think they’re gonna put me in jail? And her response was, you don’t have any respect for authority. And I said, well, Mom, you know, at some point I have to grow up and I have to take responsibility for myself. And going to the military, it really taught me discipline. It taught me how to have tact. It taught me how to motivate myself to have that drive to get things completed and what it really meant to be a leader and to have soldiers that followed you and you had to protect cause it could truthfully, honestly, be a life and death situation as it was on the streets as well.

Toby Dorr: I think that’s beautiful. And you founded an organization called DiversifyU. Can you tell us more about that organization?

Frederick Johnson: Diversify you is something that came to my mind as a young person. It just started off as I used to say to myself, diversify my hustle. I wanted to diversify my hustle. I never wanted to be one-dimensional. And as I, again, through my journey, I always kept that as a reminder of who I wanted to be, but then also how I wanted to help other individuals be able to diversify themselves. It is about, again, providing options. It’s about not being one-dimensional, and giving yourself opportunities to do whatever it is you want to do. We want to expose individuals to things in life that allow them to be the best version of themselves. And not only do we do mental health therapy, but we also have other programs that we will be implementing, just as our growth continues in the community to have other ways to assist individuals as best as possible.

Toby Dorr: And you are also a barber, and I think you told me once that it’s one of the best places to do counseling. So, tell me how that fits into your overall picture.

Frederick Johnson: I had a guy come into the barber’s shop one day and he asked me to pray for his wife to come back to him. And I told him that I couldn’t do that because I didn’t know the circumstances of the situation. And I said, but what I can do is I can pray that God can help resolve your situation. And instantly that gentleman started to cry. I had never met this man before. And it was like this pouring out of information. And it shows the testament to how people are when they’re in that barber chair. There’s such a level of comfort. And then also, the ability to speak to a stranger without having judgment. So that barber chair plays a huge role in therapy, and it plays a huge role in what we do for DiversifyU as well. I have a barber chair at a school that I work for, and it plays a huge part in allowing the young men who typically aren’t prepared to speak to someone like a therapist or a counselor, but when they get in that chair, boom, they open up and they’re just ready to talk about all of their problems and hope that they can receive some good information to help them do and be better.

Toby Dorr: That’s beautiful. You know, you, and that’s really out-of-the-box thinking. So you’re taking advantage of somewhere where someone doesn’t feel threatened or pressured to talk and turning it into the perfect opportunity to get some therapy.

Frederick Johnson: Yes,

Toby Dorr: I think you’ve also created a barber college, haven’t you?

Frederick Johnson: Yes, yes.

Toby Dorr: Tell us a little bit about that.

Frederick Johnson: Well, I was doing some work. I worked with the homeless and the homeless veterans, and I was working with the organization here in Kansas City and they had a barbershop in their facility. And so myself and the chaplain that works there, we collaborated and we created a barber college with the goal and intentions of having the homeless individuals that are attempting to reintegrate back into society and individuals that are recently released from prison have an opportunity to not only learn a trade but also, receive that intensive mental health service as well. It gives them the ability to heal. And through that process, as they learn that trade, maybe they won’t be barbers, but they’ll learn to trust themselves again and to trust individuals in the community and just become positive role models back in society.

Toby Dorr: I think that’s pretty powerful. When we have something to do and when we learn that we are capable of doing something, it increases your confidence in going out and trying something else. So yeah, I think you’re accomplishing a lot of things with just that one little barber chair.

Frederick Johnson: Thank you.

Toby Dorr: Our world today seems very polarized and outraged. What do you think we can do to soothe the anger in our communities?

Frederick Johnson: You know, it is, I tell the best way I answer questions is in story form. My aunt, she called me one time, which is rare. Doesn’t really happen that much, but she called me and she wanted to talk to me, and she spoke with me about her relationship, which at that time just wasn’t in a good place. I think she chose me because of my therapist’s background, which was still kind of odd because I was never that choice for her. But as she told me, just everything that was going on and, you could hear the, the pain and the joy and the frustration and the anger and the entire conversation. At the end, as I sat there and listened to all of it and the crying and the not crying at the end, she said to me, I just want to thank you for listening. When I talk to my sisters, including my mom, it’s like they always have an opinion and they always wanna tell me what to do or tell me what I need, but you just listen. And I appreciate that. And I think that that’s one of the overlooked traits that we have as an entire community is that we tend to not listen. And I think that if we take time, take a minute to sit back, and actually listen to what the community is asking for, then we can better serve them.

Toby Dorr: I think that’s really important and I think you’re right. Listening is a skill that’s kind of gone by the wayside. Everybody’s so interested in what they’re gonna say next that they don’t often take the time to just sit and listen, and it’s a pretty powerful gift to just give someone the gift of listening to them. I think we can make the world a better place by breaking generational curses and providing opportunities in areas where few exist. You also work as a school-based therapist providing intense services and teaching social-emotional learning classes. What changes are you seeing through that work?

Frederick Johnson: What we see and what our goal is we want to see an increase in grades and an increase in cooperation with the teachers and staff. And then collaborate with each other and their peer groups. What we see when we go into the school, under some situations, circumstances, is that there’s just a lack of compassion and understanding, and patience. As teachers, as therapists, as staff, whatever it may be, there are gaps between us and the young people that are here today, and we have to respect that we are different. And they’re different, but we have to again, listen to what they’re asking for and stop telling them what we think they need. It has to be a collaboration between us and them as well. And I believe that once that is achieved, we will be able to see them grow into the positive young people that they are. But definitely teaching conflict resolution and giving them the ability to understand and identify that everything doesn’t deserve or require a response. They can move through school and not give energy to negativity. And they can feel free and be free to express themselves emotionally to individuals that are there to provide that service for them. In a lot of our communities, we have stigmatism towards therapy and mental health, and we’re trying to break that as well.

Toby Dorr: It seems like it all comes once again to listening and trying to see what the kids have in mind and coaching them through standing on their own. I think that’s pretty powerful. They are the future. If we let our children follow in negative footsteps, then we’re kind of all doomed. I think that’s beautiful. You told me the last time we talked that you’re an aspiring author and have a book in mind. Can you give us a peek into the topic of your book?

Frederick Johnson: Well, I can tell you that the title of my book is More Black People Should Be Eaten by Sharks.

Toby Dorr: And what’s the story behind that?

Frederick Johnson: Well, you know, again, I am an observant person. I just watch and I listen and I learn, and one of the things that is like being the barbershop, you know, we watch the news and just, for example, something comes across on some TV show or some clip or whatever it may be, and it’s like, Oh, someone died bungee cord jumping, someone died skydiving, someone was injured by a shark attack. And instantly there’s this like, you know, response like, oh, I bet it was a white person. You know, white people do those things. And I try to connect things I call the universal connectivity and I try to connect things to get a better understanding of why we do the things we do, why we don’t do the things we do. And in the black community, there is a lot of fear of doing certain things, stepping outside the box, being places where we typically aren’t in, you know, black folks don’t go in the woods. Black folks don’t go out there in the shark water. And my connection to that is if we don’t do these things, does that also impact how we live our lives just in our day to day? You know, does it give us the freedom to just push out into the world without fear, with just no regard for barriers that we put up for ourselves? So the book is based on a lot of – a term for it is negative bias. Just meaning that we tend to lean more toward the things that we don’t do than the things that we’re actually willing to do.

Toby Dorr: Ah, that’s interesting. I think that sounds like an awesome book. I can’t wait for you to get to work on it. So how can we the public help your mission?

Frederick Johnson: You know, I think that one of the things that we deal with is always gonna be funding and just giving opportunities to create more for the communities that we serve. You try to have fundraisers and you try to do funding and things like that, and it just never happens. You don’t build the right funds for the barber college, for example. You know, we needed so much just to get started and I tried different avenues, and even with the organizations that I’ve worked with, sometimes there’s always these barriers and it’s so hard. With grants, even, you know, grants get pushed to bigger organizations and not the smaller organizations. So, there’s always gonna be a funding problem with these kind of programs. And with the mental health part, yeah, we can bill insurance and things of that nature, but there are still barriers there. Just volunteering, learning more, being a better listener, and, just knowing the difference between finding out which organizations are there for the community and community enrichment and not the ones that are just there to kind of be pretty.

Toby Dorr: I think that makes sense. I like that I know that for me personally, there are animal rescue organizations that I support over others because they’re in it for the real thing and you guys are in it for the real thing. You’re not just a big organization with a lot of grants in a deep pocket. I think that’s beautiful. And I think any community we live in, we’re gonna find organizations and opportunities just like yours, and your organization is in the Kansas City area. But there’s no reason why we can’t be involved in something that’s outside of our community. And we should be looking to see what is available in our communities too and be involved and be a part of it because we all have 15 minutes we can give or you know, $5 we can give and, and it makes a difference. It all adds up.

Frederick Johnson: Yes.

Toby Dorr: So, Fred, is there one question you wish I’d asked that I didn’t? Is there one other thing you’d like to share with us?

Frederick Johnson: When I was in my undergrad, I had an 80-page paper, and a part of that paper was a 10-page segment where the teacher asked for us to create a program for hopelessness. And at the time I was still young. I was probably 19, 20 years old and you know, I had a lot of my own issues and anger going on, and I just didn’t see what a program could possibly look like. To create hope. And so, I only gave him an eight second response and it was along the line of there’s no such thing as a program for hopelessness. And I can tell you I was working for an organization a couple of years ago and I had a young lady sit in front of me who had been essentially sex trafficked and through that became a drug addict. Things just got worse and she was in prison for about five years. And so here she is at my desk and I’m helping her out. And there was a time where I even had to like step in and make a comment to this gentleman that had been bringing her to the organization for assistance and I think that was probably one of the first times she actually saw a man probably stand up for her and not want anything from her. As I continued to assist her, her day-to-day tone picked up, her voice got louder, she smiled more, and then she was laughing with our encounters. And at that moment, I realized, this is creating hope and that what we’re doing here is creating hope for this young individual. And it just made me think about that. And so with that, it’s just to be consistent and have a heart to just be there for someone. And when you see that hopelessness setting in, know that it can turn around with your own diligence.

Toby Dorr: I love that. And I do think with Diversify You and the other things you’re involved in; you have created a program to address hopelessness. So your instructor was on to something there. You just didn’t know it yet.

Frederick Johnson: I didn’t know it.

Toby Dorr: Thanks so much, Fred. I loved having you on the show, and I will include a link to your website in our show notes as well.

Frederick Johnson: All right. Thank you.

Toby Dorr: Remember, none of us is our worst mistake. We all have so much more to offer the world, and those so-called mistakes are blessed opportunities to learn and grow. Next week we’ll continue to bring you inspiring stories by people who’ve identified a need for change and are working to make a difference in the world. Subscribe to our Patreon channel. Fierce Conversations. for special access and behind-the-scenes info. Go to conversations or click on the link in the show notes. Ten percent of the Patreon proceeds are dedicated to providing workbooks to women in prison. The show notes will also provide a link to the DiversifyU website and a link to purchase my memoir, Living with Conviction. As I talk about in depth in my memoir, I had a conversation while in prison where my friend Lisa told me in here we can talk about all the hard things. In fact, I think we must. And so we shall. This is fierce Conversations with Toby, where we talk about the hard things. Until next time.

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