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Khalilah Johnson has received a 2021 MLK Unsung Hero Award from the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, an initiative of the Office of the Provost at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Khalilah Johnson, PhD
Khalilah Johnson, PhD

The awards, given annually, recognize those who have exemplified a commitment to justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Johnson, an assistant professor in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy in the Department of Allied Health Sciences in the UNC School of Medicine, has advanced these initiatives in occupational science and in occupational therapy research and education.

Johnson said she often thinks about a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, The Other American, in which he said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

“Dr. King is really telling us that in order to achieve social progress, doing what is right is inevitable,” Johnson said. “Receiving this award is recognizing the necessary shift that is happening in academic programs and professional organizations: the bridging of activism, science, and pedagogy, and that occupational science and occupational therapy cannot bury its head in sand as if the profession/discipline have not benefited from or contributed to racism.”

Johnson said the recognition underscores that there must be a concerted and consistent effort to address and dismantle oppressive practices from the classroom to the clinic.

Since spring 2020, Johnson has served as a guest lecturer in order to address anti-racism and other issues. She has also served on panels hosted by the American Occupational Therapy Association; the Society for the Study of Occupation, USA; the Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity, and other organizations around the world.

Johnson said two of her publications, which recently appeared in a special anti-racism issue of the Journal of Occupational Science, have become popular among students and researchers. A third publication focuses on structural racism in autism research and practice.

Stephen Hooper, associate dean of medicine and chair of the DAHS, said he is proud of Johnson’s efforts to talk about issues of anti-racism and social justice in addition to being an important action agent in the much-needed change that needs to occur across all health professions.

“It is these kinds of efforts that give me strong hope for a more inclusive future for all, and I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this distinguished recognition,” Hooper said.

Khalilah Johnson, PhD, MS, OTR/L, also serves as an affiliate faculty member at the Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention at Virginia Commonwealth University. Stephen Hooper, PhD, joined the DAHS in 2013.

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