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Listen and Learn: How One Man Serves Area Women

Minnesota State University Moorhead alum Chris Johnson, Ph.D., MSW, is the chief executive officer of the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center of Fargo-Moorhead (RACC). The team supports those impacted by sexual assault, dating and domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and elder abuse.

"When I was an undergrad at MSUM, I had a ton of respect for [RACC]," Johnson says. "Many of the social problems we deal with as a society can be traced back to the issues we address."

Founded in 1977, RACC is one of the earliest violence intervention centers in North Dakota and Minnesota. Its 54 employees serve more than 3,000 people annually, and that number is growing. The organization’s programs include crisis intervention, advocacy, counseling, criminal justice assistance and education. It runs Rainbow Bridge, a space for supervised parenting and safe exchange – and offers a program to those who have used violence against their partners.

"Our feminist roots are still as relevant today as they were 45 years ago, but we need all voices at the table," Johnson says. While 83 percent of RACC clients identify as female, the team seeks to create a community free of violence by addressing all ends of the spectrum – engaging everyone from offenders to victims of all backgrounds.

"This is a very, very high stakes industry," he says. "One intervention could be the difference between life and death, so there is no room for error."

Working as a man in a women-dominated industry, Johnson recognizes it’s critically important to listen. He serves disenfranchised populations, those with barriers he admits he’s never known, and says, "I need to really consider how I use my power and privilege to ensure I am doing right by these folks."

Johnson addresses this challenge head-on by learning from the talented women at RACC. This includes Myla Korbel, its chief program officer, whom he considers a mentor. She earned an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in counseling and human development, both from MSUM.

"She is so highly respected in the community. She started with this agency in 1988," he says. "Myla regularly says, 'we do this work because we can.' Even the most highly trained person may struggle to do this work. It’s one of the many things Myla says that I grab onto and hold close."

Korbel and her team respect his "listen and learn" philosophy. "Chris has a transparent leadership style with his staff regarding day-to-day operations and the future planning for the agency," she says. "He is articulate and focused, with a great memory and a mind full of knowledge. He always has a vision."

Johnson’s strong start to his social work career began at MSUM, where he received his Bachelor of Social Work. "It is evident that MSUM has not deviated from its roots of being a teaching college. It’s apparent that the faculty is there for you. Not for their research, not for their tenure, but for you. This stuck with me throughout my entire academic journey," he says.

His passion for MSUM was visible to his daughter, Alexandra, who chose to follow in his footsteps. Today, she’s a junior in the same undergraduate program. "It’s comforting to know that I have such a strong role model in my corner," she says. "Him reflecting his morals on me shaped the person I am, and I am forever grateful for that."

Chris and daughter Alexandra

Despite his demanding schedule, Johnson remains committed to and engaged with MSUM. He served as an adjunct faculty member for seven years and is on the Master of Social Work Advisory Committee. In addition, he and his wife Ashley established the Gayel Marie Saude Scholarship Fund for social work students. It offers $2,500 per year and is meant to honor Ashley’s mother, who passed away in 2021.

To Johnson, MSUM gave much to him – and he intends to give much in return.

The demand for RACC’s services is rapidly increasing, and it’s seeking to nearly double its team of volunteers, advocates, counselors and leaders. For those seeking to support its mission, visit raccfm.com.

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