Catching up with Fellow for Life Heather Johnson

By: Javacia Harris Bowser

This has been a big year for Fellow for Life Heather Johnson. In the spring of 2023, Heather completed her doctoral program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health. In September, she joined the faculty at the School of Public Health as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Organization.

As she reflects on her time working on her Albert Schweitzer Fellowship project, she recognizes she learned many lessons that she will carry with her in this new role.

“In my current role, one of the things that I do is to work with community organizations on their public health-related projects and I think that one of the things that the Fellowship helped me to understand more concretely is to center the needs of the organization that you’re working with,” Heather says.  “Sometimes, as a professional, you may come in with your own understanding of particular issues, with your own sort of wish list for things to get done, and a lot of times that there’s no alignment between what you want and what the organization wants at that particular time.”

Her ASF project taught her to be humble, Heather says. During the 2019-2020 academic year, Heather partnered with Pathways — a United Way agency that serves approximately 1,200 women and children experiencing homelessness in the Birmingham area each year. She wanted to draw on her expertise in maternal, infant, and early childhood home visits. As a home visitor, Heather helped families with health-related matters for their children such as breastfeeding, development and learning. She helped connect them with resources for food, housing, and financial support. Heather’s goal was to offer the same services of home visits to clients at Pathways.

But she quickly learned what Pathways really needed was a childcare facility. She learned that not having childcare was the number one problem keeping Pathways families in homelessness.

So Heather had to pivot. Then the pandemic hit. Because of COVID, the childcare facility didn’t come to fruition during her fellowship. But she helped Pathways lay the necessary groundwork. And in November of 2021, the Pathways Early Learning Center opened its doors.

As Heather continues to work with a variety of community organizations in her current role, she knows that the lessons she learned during her ASF project will serve her well.

“You have to be flexible and have that resiliency to try again when things don’t necessarily go the way you anticipated,” she says. “Those are really important qualities or skills to try to hone during this Fellowship process. And I think those serve you well as you continue your career.”

Heather is looking forward to launching her own research projects, projects that will focus on maternal and child health.

“I have a lot of research interest in early childhood education in home visiting,” she says, “as well as family wellbeing and equity.”

But next year her focus will be on settling in as Professor Johnson.

“I’ll be starting to teach next semester, which I’m really excited about,” she says. “I want to be a good mentor to students. That’s one of the areas that means a lot to me.”

Heather plans to pass on some lessons learned during her fellowship to her future students too.

“Something I would certainly want to encourage students in this program to do is to get out into their community, to form relationships in the community, and to really understand the issues and the strengths of their own areas,” she says.

Though Heather has been in her new role just a few months, she’s already contemplating the kind of legacy she wants to build. Just as she connected families to resources after home visits, just as she helped Pathways get connected to the right people to make the Early Learning Center possible, Heather wants to continue to be a connector for the School of Public Health and the community at large.

“I hope that I can forge meaningful relationships within this department, to other departments, to other schools,” she says. “I really hope that over time people know me as a collaborator and a connector.”