Flint, MI– When you think of a rocket scientist, you might picture someone in a white lab coat who is cold and serious.
But a rocket scientist can also be a down-to-earth Black woman rocking a shaved head, crop top, and belly beads. Jiquanda Johnson knows that because she talked to her.
She also knows that Black people roller skate, collect dolls, ski, hike, motorcycle, hunt, and do all kinds of other “cool shit.” But their stories are not always told, so she’s setting off to tell them.
Black Like Us is one of Johnson’s newest project, a series of multimedia stories that aim to show diverse depictions of Black culture that defy stereotypes. The series will take her all around the country in an RV the size of a studio apartment with her two Shih Tzus, Chance and Carter, and occasionally her 14-year-old daughter, Jordan.
“People have no idea that Black folks are rocket scientists or Black folks ride horses, you know? I want to expose them to that instead of the violence, the crime, the stereotypical things that we see in the media as it pertains to Black communities and Black people,” Johnson, Flint Beat’s publisher and founder, said. “I think we need something healthy, and we have to look at this like a holistic approach, something well-rounded to balance us. And I think Black Like Us is part of that balance.”
Johnson has been a journalist for more than 20 years. She founded Flint Beat in 2017 after identifying a need for Flint-specific coverage. It wasn’t long after she founded the news organization that she had the idea to travel the country and tell stories about Black culture, but it wasn’t possible yet.
“Back then I had to focus on Flint Beat, so I kind of just put it on a shelf, and was like, maybe one day when I’m retired, this is what I’ll do. I’m gonna travel the country, and I’m gonna tell really cool stories about Black people and visit different places,” she said.
She thought she might have to wait ten years. It’s been three.
Facebook reached out to Johnson looking to support her as an independent creator for their new platform, Bulletin, which launched less than a month ago. Bulletin offers publishing and subscription tools to support independent writers. The site has a range of writers and content that users can subscribe to.
With a full-time news team for Flint Beat, more free time, and a project idea that had been on her mind for years, Johnson agreed to join the platform as an independent writer doing exactly what she thought she’d do when she retired.
She told them she wanted to get an RV, travel the country, and tell stories that featured a variety of Black perspectives, and they were immediately on board.
“It was one of the easiest conversations because I already knew what I would like to do if I could,” Johnson said. “But I kind of was in disbelief like, is this real?”
Vice President of Global News Partnerships at Facebook Campbell Brown said Black Like Us is exactly the kind of series they would like to “nurture and support with Bulletin.”
“We have been following Jiquanda Johnson’s work at Flint Beat for years and have admired how she successfully built a digital-first publication helping bridge the information gap in the Flint, MI, community,” Brown said. “Her knack for storytelling, passion for elevating voices from underrepresented communities, and understanding of what it takes to build a news company from the ground up are a rare mix. … I look forward to seeing ‘Black Like Us’ grow in the months ahead.”
Johnson said she felt privileged and intimidated to be a part of the group of creators that are among the first to use Bulletin.
“When I looked at those writers, they’re talented, engaging, smart people, you know, so it’s a privilege to be among them,” she said. “I’m a Flint girl. I’m a Beecher girl. I think I’m regular and reachable.”
Over the weekend, Johnson celebrated her Emmy win with a group of girlfriends on her patio, drinking tequila and wine, and rapping along to Biggie Smalls.
“Flint made me who I am. I went to Beecher schools and Flint schools, and most of my schools are not there anymore,” Johnson said. “I was raised by my mother, and my grandmother. My brother is in prison. I saw those stereotypes, and I’m still doing great things … I’m inspired by my community and so I feel privileged to be able to take everything that they’ve put into me and given me, and be able to do something for an organization like Facebook.”
Johnson said Flint Beat is what gave her the reassurance that she could do something like Black Like Us.
“Flint Beat just put the fire under me in a sense that if I want to tell stories a certain way, or if I identify a news gap, where stories need to be told, I can do it,” she said. “It’s just, how do I accomplish it? That’s the barrier. … Like, what kind of platform do you use? Facebook figured it out for me. And that platform happens to be Bulletin.”
So far, Johnson has plans to visit New Orleans, Tennessee, Cleveland, and the Upper Peninsula right here in Michigan—but she’s also open to suggestions.
“If the audience knows someone that’s really cool, defying stereotypes, doing some things that maybe we don’t talk about, they can make suggestions,” Johnson said.