By Sarah Cadence Hamm, MFACW ‘13
In 2019, it’s surprising to hear anyone say the words “I love politics.” But Vice President of Wilkinsburg Borough Council Vanessa McCarthy-Johnson ’18, MBA ’19, credits her passion for government as the catalyst that led to her seeking not one, but two degrees from Chatham—that, and her four daughters.
McCarthy-Johnson wanted her daughters to attend college, but worried that she wasn’t leading by example. “My husband had the degree; I didn’t. I almost had an associate’s degree, but I always said I didn’t want to go back to school. Then I realized that all my kids were either getting ready to graduate high school or already out, and I needed to do something! So I decided to be a role model for my daughters.”
Enter a tour of Chatham’s Shadyside Campus with one of her daughters who was considering Chatham at the time. The Shadyside campus is enticing enough, but McCarthy-Johnson said “It just felt right,” and decided that very day to enroll as a Policy Studies major.
She lauds her professors for their hands-on instruction, including one class where they studied and revised policy that McCarthy-Johnson herself had written as part of Wilkinsburg’s Council. “Knowing it needed to be updated, I suggested it to my professor, and our entire class reviewed it, worked with the council, made a presentation, and it’s so much better now.”
As exciting as the overlap between academics and politics can be, McCarthy-Johnson’s life as a student, mother, and politician is a delicate balancing act. McCarthy-Johnson is a “non-traditional student,” and she initially worried she’d stand out in a sea of teens and early twenty-something’s. She’s also part of the Integrated Degree Program at Chatham, where an undergraduate’s senior year is spent finishing up their bachelor’s degree while simultaneously starting a master’s. Additionally, she’s a single parent—her husband died in 2004.
“It was an adjustment going from a married woman to a single woman and having four daughters. They were older and pretty well able to handle things; I was very fortunate in having good friends and neighbors… though my poor youngest Mia is always being dragged to council meetings,” she says.
“Good friends and neighbors” could very well be the unofficial slogan of Wilkinsburg, McCarthy-Johnson’s home base. She speaks warmly of the borough where she and her husband bought their home. “It’s a community of neighborhoods. The people that live in Wilkinsburg have been there for a long time. They know each other; they know their neighbors. Kids would play football outside; we used to have Easter egg hunts when my girls were little. Everyone would pitch in, do community clean-ups—they believe in the community. That’s what I love about Wilkinsburg.”
McCarthy-Johnson also speaks truthfully. “When we first came there, the neighborhood looked like a warzone. There were a lot of abandoned houses.” She worries about the flip side of those abandoned houses—gentrification. “We see it trickling down a little bit into our borough. In gentrification, people build up properties to the point where your residents can’t afford them. We don’t want to see that happen.” McCarthy-Johnson advocates for creativity and cooperation to address the borough’s pain points, her own neighborhood being an example: thanks to the work of non-profits, Wilkinsburg’s St. James Catholic Church, and community involvement, her neighborhood is now thriving—all but three houses are filled.
Community involvement quickly turned into community governance for McCarthy-Johnson. After volunteering in her neighborhood for some time, a council member approached her and suggested she run for City Council to better protect the initiatives she cared about. “I talked it over with my husband and he was like ‘Go for it,’ and I did. And I won. I won by two votes!”
In 2019, it will be McCarthy Johnson’s twelfth year on the Wilkinsburg Borough Council. She’ll have a BA in Policy Studies and an MBA from Chatham. So what’s next for her? “I’m at a crossroads,” she says. With her extensive non-profit work, including her time as Executive Director for CECEE (Center for Energy and Computer Education Excellence), McCarthy-Johnson saw herself starting her own non-profit involving Wilkinsburg, or maybe consulting. But now because of her work as the graduate assistant for the Multicultural Affairs office at Chatham, she’s considering academia too. Wherever she goes, Vanessa McCarthy-Johnson will bring with her an action-oriented mindset… and a few unorthodox techniques. “I can be the voice of dissent sometimes because I’m a realist. When I first started on Council, I used to put hard candy in my mouth, like a jawbreaker, so I couldn’t talk, because it would make me think before I speak!”
Just in case you’re worried about her sugar intake, McCarthy-Johnson assures us she’s gained the skillset to listen more thoughtfully. “I was talking to someone who once expressed the opinion that I didn’t have my own thoughts. But recently she said to me, ‘Chatham has done you really well. You’ve changed since you’ve been to Chatham.’ I think it’s because I’ve got my own voice now. I can speak my own truths and say what I want to say and not be afraid of it. I think that’s my love of Chatham. It’s been a very special place for me.”
In a time when conscientious, creative ideas matter more than ever, it’s heartening to see Vanessa McCarthy-Johnson on the ballot: someone who loves her community and her family, someone who values thoughtful communication… even if it takes a piece of candy to make it happen sometimes.