Khalilah Robinson Johnson ’16 (PhD)
2022 McClinton Outstanding Faculty Staff Award
Dr. Khalilah R. Johnson ’16 has been told Black scholars don’t “meet the mark” with respect to competitive funding and that concerns of disabled people aren’t important to research.
She’s worked in settings where she was the lone Black practitioner and had difficulty accessing Black patients.
Undaunted, Johnson was the first Black graduate of UNC’s Doctor of Philosophy in Occupational Science program. Colleagues say her advocacy and visibility at UNC have are already ensured she won’t be the last.
Dr. Jenny Womack, associate chair for Faculty Affairs in the department of allied health sciences in the School of Medicine, supported Johnson’s nomination for the Hortense K. McClinton Faculty/Staff Award. Womack said there are three ways Johnson demonstrates stellar leadership within the University community and her profession.
She spearheads critical consideration of racism within occupational therapy; pushes boundaries in her scholarship from a generic examination of the treatment of minoritized adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to a consideration of how institutional racism perpetuates inequalities in access to and experiences with health and human service provision; and serves as a campus leader and role model for students.
“I cannot overstate the contributions Dr. Jonson has made to confronting issues of racism within our profession and our work unit at Carolina,” wrote Womack, a professor in the division of occupational science and occupational therapy. “I have no doubt she will continue to advance this work throughout her career.”
Patricia Harris, senior director of education, operations and initiatives in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said Johnson is sought out as a mentor by graduate and professional students of color across multiple campus divisions and is a peer mentor to other minoritized female faculty members, specifically those who are Black, Latinx and Asian. She added Johnson is regularly asked to keynote occupational therapy academic programs or serve on panels about diversity in education.
“I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know Dr. Johnson during my tenure as vice chair of the UNC Black Caucus, and I know her to be an incomparable activist scholar whose work in her department, the UNC School of Medicine and the Carolina community contributes invaluable knowledge and leadership at the intersections of health equity, community engagement, social and disability justice and antiracism,” Harris said.
Johnson said she’s committed to normalizing Blackness and is passionate about elevating and taking up space for UNC’s Black faculty, staff and students, as well as Black occupational therapy practitioners and the disability community.
Because of some of her various roles, including vice chair of the UNC Black Caucus, membership on the department of allied health sciences’ Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, appointments to editorial boards of premier occupational science and occupational therapy organizations, as well as her scholarly publications, Johnson has been recognized by the American Occupational Therapy Association, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and UNC’s Office of the Provost.
She’s co-investigator of a study exploring pathways to occupational therapy education for Black women, chair of membership for the Society for the Study of Occupation and a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee for the North Carolina Occupational Therapy Association. Yet she’s most proud of her work with Black students and members of the disabled Black community.
“The weight of this responsibility is immense and one in which I take careful and critical pride,” Johnson said. “My role as a Black academician and occupational therapy practitioner is not only a professional commitment in and outside the classroom; it’s personal. More than the accolades, it’s about developing and supporting the next generation of great Carolina change makers.”
Johnson, who with her partner, C. Julian Johnson, has a daughter named Nova, said she was surprised and “incredibly humbled” to receive the Hortense K. McClinton Faculty/Staff Award.
“As an alumna of this institution and an educator with only a few years under my belt, this award is affirming of my intentions to be the educator and mentor students need and deserve,” Johnson said. “Only five percent of occupational therapy practitioners in the U.S. identify as Black, and even fewer are occupational scientists. I want our students to see it’s possible to be in these spaces and thrive. That is how I honor Mrs. McClinton.”