Dirk Johnson of Sycamore, a former national bureau chief for The New York Times and Newsweek, has covered the Olympics, the Columbine shooting, Barack Obama’s presidential victory party and Mike Pence during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Johnson has written two books and the third book he co-authored with Robert O. Carr was released June 1.
His latest book, “First Chance: How Kids with Nothing Can Change Everything,” distributed by the University of Illinois Press, focuses on students who have experienced foster care or the incarceration of a parent, especially a mother.
Carr is the founder, chairman and board member of Give Something Back, a nonprofit organization that provides college scholarships and mentoring to students who have faced economic hardship and other adversities. Johnson is the organization’s author and senior adviser.
According to Give Something Back’s website, the nonprofit has pre-paid for more than 1,500 students to go to college, an upfront investment of more than $35 million.
MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton met with Johnson to talk about his writing, Give Something Back and his latest book.
Milton: Tell me about yourself.
Johnson: I live in Sycamore and am a native of Sycamore, a graduate of Sycamore High School Class of 1976. I left Sycamore for about 20 years. For most of my career, I was a journalist, mostly with the New York Times. I was initially in the New York area, then Chicago, then Denver, then with the Chicago bureau, but worked out of Sycamore.
Milton: How did you get involved with Give Something Back?
Johnson: I was introduced to Bob Carr through a mutual friend, another Sycamore native who was doing some consulting for him at the time. Bob and I met up over coffee and hit it off immediately. He told me about his life and his troubled childhood. … He had a remarkable story to tell. He was accomplishing great things for good causes. He had a big heart and he was honest, even about painful experiences in his own life. I met him in 2012 and became involved with the organization then.
Milton: What is some of his story?
Johnson: He received a $250 college scholarship as a senior in high school. He said the experience was so good that he’d help kids who came from similar circumstances one day. He went to the University of Illinois to receive his bachelor’s and masters degrees. He struggled for decades. But when he became successful, he remembered his promise. So far, the organization has distributed $50 million in scholarships.
Milton: How is the book linked to the goals of the organization?
Johnson: The organization and the book focus on kids in two categories, foster kids and kids with parents incarcerated. Foster kids and kids with parents incarcerated, especially a mom, are the students least likely to earn a college degree, estimated to be less than 3%. The book tells the story of remarkable kids who come from very, very difficult circumstances and found their way to college and the commencement stage. There are scenes in the book where he talks to kids about their hardships and shares his own experiences. You can tell that they connect with him. He’s not another old rich guy.
Milton: How has the book so far been reviewed?
Johnson: The book was released on June 1 and is distributed by University of Illinois Press. It has been endorsed by author Mitch Albom, Hoda Kotb, the host of the “Today Show,” and other prominent figures. Give Something Back was featured on “World News Tonight” with David Muir on ABC in June. Bob and I will appear on the WGN radio show “After Hours” on July 21.
Milton: Tell me more about the writing process of the book.
Johnson: The book took about two years to write. I interviewed a lot of students and spent a lot of time traveling around the country visiting prisons. In the vast majority of cases, the parents are not bad people. They are merely people that became addicted to drugs. In the last 30 years, the number of women in prisons has skyrocketed, which has left a lot of kids without mothers. Bob and I take the view that education is a far better investment than building prisons. There are kids with incarcerated parents all around us, yet they are largely invisible. They tend not to talk about their circumstances because they feel a sense of shame, yet they themselves are blameless.
Milton: How is your new book different from others?
Johnson: There are books in academia that focus on research about these kids, but this is a human interest book that gets into the lives of kids and parents and mentors. We came across the topic of this book while writing “Working Class to College,” which addressed how the odds are against people of modest backgrounds getting to college. Wealthy kids with poor grades and low test scores are more likely to graduate from college than poor kids with good grades and high test scores.
Milton: Have you written other books?
Johnson: This is my third book co-authored with Bob. I’ve also written two other books, “Biting the Dust: The Wild Ride and Dark Romance of the Rodeo Cowboy in the American West” and “Meth,” which is about the way the drug has affected rural communities.
Milton: How did growing up in Sycamore shape you as a writer?
Johnson: Sycamore has a history of producing journalists. I’m just one person in the line. I do think that people everywhere appreciate a good story. One of the things I appreciate in Sycamore is that kids in a small town grow up being able to talk to adults and learn the stories of their town. When you walk down the sidewalk in Sycamore, kids will greet you in a way I’m not sure happens in suburbs or big cities as much.