TaRita Johnson delivers speech at DeVos Center during MLK Week

Forge your character and build a foundation: MLK Week speaker

Though the incident happened years ago, TaRita Johnson will never forget the words shouted at her during her first weekend as a college student. 

Johnson and her friends from her residence hall were exploring all that their new home and university had to offer when a truck of young men pulled alongside them and began shouting racial slurs at them. 

Johnson said she could have called her parents, asking them to bring her home. Instead, she said she built her foundation. 

Johnson, the senior vice president of talent and diversity at The Right Place, encouraged an appreciative audience to build their own foundations and find their purpose and conviction in the same way the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did.

The Hauenstein Center and the Office of Inclusion & Equity welcomed Johnson as the keynote speaker for their January 18 event at the DeVos Center on the Pew Grand Rapids Campus as part of Grand Valley’s King Commemoration Week. 

TaRita Johnson interacts with two volunteers on stage during her address for MLK Week
Audience members listen to TaRita Johnson's address during MLK Week

At the start of her presentation, Johnson asked for two volunteers to join her on the stage. She handed bricks labeled with positive or negative attributes to each volunteer.

“Each of you is laying a foundation,” Johnson said. “Either you can carry all these bricks with you or you can learn to lay the foundation that will help you build your character.”

In Johnson’s case, she channeled the horrible incident from her first year of college toward forging her character. The incident sparked her into being active in student groups and becoming a student leader on campus, she said.

“I was in everything because I felt like I had to find and create,” Johnson said. “I had to create a foundation for myself so that I could survive and thrive in an environment that had a lot of positivity, but also had a lot of negativity.” 

Even though his family faced acts of violence, King remained steadfast in his conviction to his charge of civil rights, Johnson said. 

“Even when his family was in jeopardy, he said, ‘No violence,’” she said. “He was so secure in his purpose.”

With a solid foundation and strong inner circle of family and friends, Johnson’s most important advice centered on believing in oneself and their abilities. 

“So my call to action to you is: What is your purpose?” Johnson asked. “Understand that your purpose can change depending on the season of life that you’re in. Think about your gifts. 

“I tell my daughters all the time that their gifts are not for them. They are for other people. So, what do you love? How can you develop your voice and your activism?” 


Sign up and receive the latest Grand Valley headlines delivered to your email inbox each morning.