Tim Johnson is a long-time Athens resident and advocate for connecting members of our community. In his 30 years serving as the Executive Director of Family Connection-Communities in Schools of Athens, he has seen many cultural and societal shifts. If you have the privilege of spending time with him, you will immediately sense that he is passionate about his work and our unique community we call home. His forward-thinking approach to community resources has propelled Athens as a role model for collaborative work. While he says, “we still have a long way to go,” there is no denying how far we’ve come with the help of Tim and Family Connection-Communities in Schools of Athens. I had the pleasure of (virtually) meeting with him to chat about his time in Athens, Family Connection-Communities in Schools of Athens, and his plans for the new year.
Tell us a little bit about your background:
I grew up in Athens, went away to college, lived in Atlanta for a while and worked with environmental and consumer issues. I moved back to Athens with my family after my first wife got a job with the UGA Law School. There was an organization called “Community Connections” that did information referrals for the community. I applied for the Executive Director job and got hired. Part of that organization was to identify gaps and make referrals for resources. None of the organizations we worked with were focused on children, which I was really interested in. Initially, I pulled together the heads of different government agencies that serve children to identify their needs. I was frankly surprised that many of them weren’t already collaborating and working together. Half a dozen of us met at a bar called “Allen’s” in Normaltown in 1991, and that was the beginning of what later became Family Connection-Communities in Schools of Athens. During that time, the state was also focusing on communities and how these different systems could be better integrated. Our focus became “how can we work together to get better outcomes specific for children and youth.” The Council on Aging was one of our initial partners. Katheryn Fowler was the Executive Director of ACCA at the time. We looked at what data told us, identified what was working and what was not working.
How does Family Connection-Communities in Schools of Athens look today compared to when it first began?
The biggest difference is, at that time, there was no cross-collaboration. We weren’t combining medical services, social services and other resources. Today there’s a lot of collaboration across systems. The culture really has changed. People are much more likely to think “who might already be doing this” when coming up with a new initiative. 30 years ago, someone might have just tried to do it on their own. Today we would say, “have you connected with these other groups.” The other big difference today is having so much expertise. We have been very fortunate to have research and traditional experts [in their field.] There is also expertise from front-line staff who are working with those families. We wanted to bring everyone together and say, “how can we do better together?”
There is a famous saying from an activist in Australia, Lilla Watson said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” I think in the last 30 years there has been a shift to recognize that the single mom struggling day-to-day has a whole lot of knowledge of what is needed that is deeper than anybody else’s. The families themselves are the most important experts.
What are you most proud of in your time with Family Connection-Communities in Schools of Athens, and where do you see things moving forward in the future?
I think I’m probably most proud of two things: helping build a culture of collaboration in the community saying, “we’re all in this together,” and recognizing that the most important partners are families themselves. Our destinies are intertwined; we both want and need to walk together. Helping people in poverty helps those that aren’t in poverty.
[In the next ten years] I really see this integration of services growing across generations and not focusing as exclusively on children and families. Integrating our work with economic development across cultural barriers. We are not a partisan organization, but I believe our elected officials are far more aware of the challenges facing a lot of our community and committed to addressing them. They are committed to act on that awareness.
What is one part of your job that gets you exited for the day?
Seeing the look on kids’ faces when they are successful. Last year in partnership with the school district and Johnson & Johnson, we worked on the “Bridge to Employment” program for Cedar Shoals High School. [Recently] there was an annual conference where students can apply to become student ambassadors. They selected 2 of the ambassadors from Cedar Shoals out of 13 for the entire program. You could just see the pride on their face for accomplishing their great work. We are continually learning from each other.
You have dedicated much of your life to building up the Athens Community. What are some things you love about Athens that have kept you here?
I love the commitment of the people of Athens to bettering Athens. It is really a shining light for other communities. I love that we have an incredible arts scene, the University of Georgia, a committed non-profit community doing innovative work, a progressive and forward-thinking business community, our diversity, and the commitment to preserving our nature areas.
What do you do in your free time?
I can’t remember when I had any free time. (laughing) During the pandemic there hasn’t been hardly any. I love to read and love to hike and get out in the woods. I enjoy movies. I like watching Georgia football games in the fall on T.V. Most of all, I love spending time with my kids and my grandchildren. I love seeing them and hate being separated by the pandemic right now.
With the new year around the corner, do you have any resolutions for 2021?
My personal resolution has always been: day by day, how can I do better? I don’t wait for the new year to figure that out. I don’t always fulfill that every day, but that’s the goal.
How do you age and live well?
Stay connected with your loved ones and others, including younger people and our peers. Strive toward the vision of a beloved community, where it really is about us loving each other and building community. Stay involved.