Alternative Stories #2: Embracing change

Every week, members and partners of the Alternative Spring Break (ASB) community will share their Alternative Stories, a series of narratives inspired by the experiences, memories, and meanings made and shared through ASB. This week features Brianne Johnson, a senior studying English, Communications, and Women’s Studies, and ASB Lead Team member on our Public Relations functional team.


It took me three years with the University of Michigan’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program and an academic identity crisis to realize what I’m passionate about. I’m either a late bloomer or lucky, but I like to think it’s the latter.

After two years as a participant with ASB, I couldn’t wait to lead a trip with my co-site leader, Jess, whom I’d met through my 2013 ASB trek to the mountains of West Virginia. The second evening of the 2013 site leader retreat, we descended from the stage of a paint-chipped barn affectionately referred to as ‘the white castle’ to receive a token: a string of green yarn knotted around my wrist. Each color represented one value of The Ginsberg Center‘s SERVE program, the goal you hoped to achieve and maintain for the rest of the year.

I chose green for Heightened Awareness.

I’d felt empowered by the knowledge, self-awareness, and community fostered by ASB and, as an incoming senior, was slowly coming to recognize what would be an enthralling passion for learning about, and advocating for, the rights of women and families. But I’ll get back to that soon.

Jess and I were to lead a service-learning trip focused on intimate-partner violence, leading us to Bloomington, Ind., where we would partner with Middle Way House, a domestic violence shelter for women and children. Even before embarking on our trip, it had been empowering and inspiring to invite our teammates, some unfamiliar with issues perpetuating violence against women, to reflect on their identities and the ways they interact, how they perpetuate privilege and subordination. Our service at Middle Way House may not have seemed like the explicit shows of activism that dominate newspapers’ front pages, but our meaningful conversations opened my eyes to the complexity of social injustice and inspired me to continue my commitment to advocating for gender equality, starting in our own communities.

IMG_7253What I’ve realized and gained through ASB, it makes me excited to go to class, to get out in the world and try to change it — something, before, I had never truly cared about achieving. When I heard medical students declare, “I want to save lives,” and aspiring presidents recite, “I want to change the world,” I shrugged and wondered, “Why bother with the responsibility?” If only I had recognized it earlier, the passion and opportunity to dedicate my time or my career to service-learning, if only it was presented to me as an acceptable aspiration, even an option in the spectrum of ballerinas and lawyers.

ASB fosters a special kind of leadership, for I was, at once, a temporary mother, confidante, friend, and leader to 13 equally dedicated and anxious students. As a result, I have gained an understanding of and need for the consistent reflection, mindfulness, and inclusion that is at ASB’s core. From devising creative ways to get our participants to think about their identities every week, to promoting education and critical thinking about intimate partner violence through fundraisers and social media, to reflecting each evening of service about our experiences and how can we can improve our partnership with the community and with each other, my experience was as much about watching my team grow and learn as it was about the progression of a project.

I write to you now as a fifth-year senior who, after three years with ASB and an additional major (Women’s Studies!) to show for it, can say that ASB changes you. No one experiences this change in the same way or even to the same degree. But every year with the program has challenged me to learn more about diverse communities and issues, to embrace and understand my discomfort, and ultimately, to realize the role I hope to play in making change — as well as the role ‘change’ has played in making me.