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Celebrating Pride and Local Black Heroes: Dr. Michelle S. Johnson

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Michigan is proud to celebrate Local Black Heroes throughout the year, and Pride throughout June. Sign up for our to get updates in your inbox and learn more about the impact of local heroes in your community.

Dr. Michelle S. Johnson is the CEO of Playgrown and co-founder of The Institute of Public Scholarship and The Cultural Land Stewardship. Each of Johnson’s businesses and projects supports giving back to others.


Born in Kalamazoo and raised on the south side of Chicago and the east side of Saginaw, Johnson was raised in Black greatness. A tomboy by nature, she spent her childhood moving fast- whether on wheels or foot. She was competitive and recalls feeling proud when she built a soapbox derby car, beating a boy in a race.

Though she kept herself busy climbing trees and reading, Johnson’s home life was complex and financially unstable. Because of the adversity she faced in her childhood Johnson learned how to appreciate the beautiful things in life. Music, reading, and recording music were helpful coping skills for her amidst the hardships her family endured.

Johnson shares that she dated men throughout school. Looking back, she believes this was partly due to “playing the role” to fit into societal norms. She explains that she wishes that someone could have told her then that there were other queer, Black women out there with whom she would one day collaborate. Together, they would change their corner of the world.


Dr. Michelle S. Johnson is absolutely changing our corner of the world.

Playgrown “creates accessible intergenerational play spaces and exercise opportunities.” The development company focuses on the importance of play, specifically in teens and adults.

They collaborate with the Institute of Public Scholarship to create housing. Their current project is near the intersection of Ampersee Avenue and Bridge Street in Kalamazoo, adjacent to the former homeless encampment. The construction will feature 10 homes, a community garden, and several other amenities. You can learn more about the project here.

In her work with The Cultural Land Stewardship, Johnson works to retain land and property that has historical, cultural, and environmental significance to Black and Brown people.


When asked what legacy she hopes to leave, Johnson explains that she hopes to inspire and create space for people to be their true, authentic selves.

The force that Dr. Michelle S. Johnson brings to the Kalamazoo community is one that inspires hope and drives change. Her focus on the importance of play and retaining historical property not only creates physical space for people to be their true selves in, but also creates safe spaces in which people are invited to live authentically.