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A spirit that is not afraid

'It's so much bigger than me': Women's basketball's Bria Johnson uses poetry to serve, inspire Auburn community

"There are some many negative things that are eliminated from your life because you were able to vocalize how you were feeling"

When Bria Johnson walks on stage, equipped to deliver one of her signature spoken-word poems to her classmates, teammates or receptive young students, all prepared to absorb every stanza, spondee and sestet, she isn’t nervous.

She's in her comfort zone.

Johnson, senior guard for Auburn women’s basketball, began her passion of poesy in high school, when a pair of rhymesters came to Episcopal School of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“These two poets came to my school during Arts Week,” Johnson said. “And they were on stage, and I was like, ‘I could do that.’ The way they made me feel is how I want to make other people feel. I was kind of a natural, you could say. I went to the national poetry convention in Chicago and was a quarterfinalist for the team in Baton Rouge. That’s when I realized this is something I could do.”

However, when Auburn head coach Terri Williams-Flournoy recruited the former four-star prospect away from the Bayou to The Plains, Johnson thought her newfound talent would have to be short-lived.

“When I got to Auburn, I was like, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore,’” Johnson said. “No one’s going to know what poetry is, no one’s going to know what spoken word is. It’s going to be dead once I leave high school. But once I got here, there were so many different opportunities to perform.”

Johnson partnered with Auburn University’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion to perform for incoming freshman minority students. That satisfied her hunger for her poetry, and, with the aid of Williams-Flournoy and her teammates, Johnson began to cultivate a servant’s heart in her new home.

The Auburn women’s basketball Tigers began to pile on the service projects. While activities like fundraisers to donate toys to kids were instilling a pure and humbling mentality in the team, Johnson sought to rise above.

As more chances arose, Johnson realized that helping others was her calling in Auburn. That fixation speedily swelled, molding her into a four-year leader in the Auburn community.

Near the conclusion of the 2017–18 season, Johnson was named to the SEC Community Service Team as recognition for her tremendous amount of giving on The Plains.

Johnson served as the University's SAAC Community Service Coordinator, as well as a participant in "Blessings in a Backpack," a project partnered with the Jason Dufner foundation. Like the rest of the team, Johnson volunteered with the Boykin Daycare Center, in addition to the Our House foundation in Auburn.

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To add to her service history, the Louisianian volunteered with the Juvenile Justice Ministry and "Serve Day" with Auburn's Church of the Highlands.

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“It stemmed from the team,” Johnson said of her desire to serve the community. “Often, we would play with the kids at the Boykin Center, and I realized, ‘Wait a minute, this is actually something I really enjoy doing.’ I enjoy being here. I enjoy mentoring kids.

“I think it’s a God thing, because you want to be a servant, and you want to lead in any way you possibly can. Once I realized that was something that gave me joy, I wanted to do it more.”

And Johnson did it more and more as her Auburn years went on, but her time was also booked with dissimilar, more ostentatious responsibilities.

“I don’t want to miss an opportunity to serve because I’m tired from practice, or I’m tired from tutoring, or we just had a game,” Johnson said. “But I’m not trying to be so busy that I don’t have time for myself. It’s a balance.”

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The No. 60 point guard in her high school class, according to ESPN, Johnson appeared in all but her senior season as a Tiger. Despite her final year being marred by an ACL injury, she played in 21 games in an Auburn uniform throughout her freshman through junior campaigns.

And amidst the rigor of the double life all student athletes are tasked with, Johnson blossomed.

“At the end of the day, people just want time,” she said. “It’s not like they want 24 hours. Most of that stuff I did was probably an hour out of my day. I’ve got an hour to give somebody. On off days, whenever I found time to go and serve, I would do it. We’re busy, but we’re never too busy to not go and serve.”

To weed out Johnson’s most influential involvement, one would have to make the quick 20-mile trip from Auburn to Tuskegee, Alabama, where the senior was able to unbottle her teaching skills and explain poetry to the local students.

According to federal figures, Tuskegee has a 27.6 percent poverty rate with a median household income of $26,896.

Johnson identified that her teachings were needed there more than ever.

“For them, especially minority students, they look for a way out,” Johnson said. “And for a lot of us growing up, we just needed someone to talk to. We just needed something to talk about. Once you’re able to put what you’re feeling onto paper and perform that for other people and realize that you’re not alone in what you’re going through, there are so many negative things that are eliminated from your life because you were able to vocalize how you were feeling.”

Johnson said that while the Tuskegee students are skeptical at first, like most kids, it takes just a little encouragement and creativity from the senior to bring them out of their comfort zone.

“We all sometimes feel like it’s corny to write poems,” Johnson said. “But when you look at it like rapping, all of a sudden I’ve got guys who are like, ‘Man, I could do that. Let me write a poem.’ It brings joy to my heart because I’ve got all these guys in the classroom like, ‘I wanna go next, I wanna go next.’

“Things like that make me feel like it’s so much bigger than me. … There’s so many things you could be doing. You’re not alone in your situation. Once you’re on stage and you’re performing for your classmates, and they’re like, ‘Man, I feel the same way too.’ Now you’ve got a different kind of bond. It’s crazy what coming out of your comfort zone will do for you.”

Like the effect of the pair of poets on a younger Johnson in Baton Rouge, the lessons crack the shell of otherwise unconvinced students.

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Some of the students, however, remain grounded in their ways even with Johnson’s patient instruction. When she asks the kids what’s stopping them from reaching their dreams, she often receives the discouraging answer of “my attitude.”

Johnson, though, couldn’t closely relate to that, and she knew it. The senior said that too often, adults will try to teach kids in a one-dimensional facet, whiffing on other opportunities to mentor due to narrow mindedness.

“I’m not one-dimensional,” Johnson said. “You’re not one-dimensional. So why would I try to reach out to you using that one dimension that I know?”

To counter this, insert Johnson’s teammate, rising senior Emari Jones from Chicago. 

When Johnson began discussing the attitude issues, Jones immediately sprung up and offered to join her in Tuskegee.

Jones claimed that because she struggled with defiance growing up, she related to this specific group of kids better than the 2017–18 SEC Community Service Team member.

And that’s the idea.

“This is her calling,” Johnson said. “When you’re able to bring people along with you to go minister and help these other kids, that’s what it’s all about. My teammates and my peers, everyone wants to help. I look for opportunities because I can’t minister to everybody, I didn’t come up with the resources some other kids may have had. So, I get someone else like Emari who can say, ‘I struggle with this, let me talk to them.’”

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Once the right mentor steps in, the results are night and day. The students begin to form bonds with each other that were unimaginable beforehand. For Johnson, this is what she wants to see the most — the seeds planted by her gift sprouting students out of their normal lives.

Because in the eyes of the baller, trailblazer and spoken-word artist, the vastness that lies outside a child’s comfort zone is necessary and bursting with potential. According to Bria Johnson, it’s where the future will be written.

Maybe even in a poem.

“That confidence takes you so many places — I’m able to talk to different people, I’m able to go before any man and say, ‘This is who I am, this is what I want to be,’ and not be afraid,” Johnson said. “Ultimately, that’s all we need — opportunities to be ourselves and be confident to say, ‘This is who I am, this is what I’m going to do and I’m going to change the world.’”

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