By Rachel Friederich, Serve Washington
Dr. John Scott was nervous about quitting his job as a flight attendant to join AmeriCorps. But he says it ignited his passion about bringing people together to dismantle systems of oppression and build more robust systems of equity. That passion has guided his career as a transformative leader, instructor and coach for the past 25 years.
It’s apparent in everything he does, from teaching executive directors and staff at non-profits how to view their work through a racial equity and anti-oppression lens to making public spaces safe and welcoming.
“Something I continue to love about this work is the ability for me to use my professional and lived experiences to support communities I care deeply about,” Scott said. This work of transformation, coaching, community-centered pedagogies, all keep making me a better human.”
Scott was born in Carson, Calif., in 1964-- the year before the historic Voting Rights Act passed in America. This act outlawed discriminatory voting requirements like literacy tests meant to dissuade Black, Brown, and Indigenous people from voting.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Scott’s parents and migrated north, along with millions of other Black American families in the south in the early 20th century to escape Jim Crow laws and racist systems that triggered economic disparity and violence.
Conversations about equity, racism and social justice were topics his family discussed often. But into adulthood, Scott noticed those topics were still rarely talked about in many other families and communities.
“I would bring these topics of racism and bias up and would quickly get ‘the look’ from peers and sometimes family that communicated ‘That’s not dinner conversation,’ or ‘We don’t discuss race in our home,’ or even ‘Stop!’” Scott said in a 2020 interview with the Washington Charter Schools Association.
Serving in AmeriCorps
Scott didn’t want to avoid these important conversations. It’s what led him to pivot his career path to one that not only embraced them but also called for action.
After moving to Washington, Scott worked as a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines. Though it brought good pay and benefits, he felt like there was something missing.
A chance volunteer opportunity between Alaska Airlines and Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America allowed Scott to mentor a young Black male for five years. It also let him delve deeper into issues of equity, race and bias and their impact on young people. He enjoyed the experience so much he decided to hand his resignation at the airline so he could serve in AmeriCorps and continue developing this commitment to mentoring, education, and equity.
“I felt like I wasn’t grounded, even if I was flying everywhere,” Scott said. “I wasn’t grounded in my community. I felt like I needed to shift everything and if I didn’t do it then, I don’t think it would have happened. I took a chance and signed up (for AmeriCorps), but I was terrified. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I’m so glad I made it.”
In 1998, Scott began his service year with AmeriCorps program in Seattle called JustServe. He oversaw a series of peace projects through Seattle Center’s youth programs department. He led students from 10 high schools the help of the Seattle Police Department and Seattle Center Youth Programs with projects on police reform focusing on improving interactions between law enforcement and youth. His service also involved leading student caucuses focused on intersectionality and how race, class and gender can create systems of discrimination and oppression. At the end of the year, students created peace murals around the city and made public presentations about their work.
“The opportunities AmeriCorps presented to me were amazing in that one year,” Scott said. “The trainings I attended during my service exposed me to all different types of creative work like grant writing and youth development. As someone new to this work, I went to every one of those trainings I could, learning from other AmeriCorps members and collaborating with other folks from diverse fields. It really set me on a professional path that I have continued on for many years since that time.”
From AmeriCorps to Theatrical Therapy
After AmeriCorps, Scott attended Antioch University in Seattle. There, he earned a bachelor’s degree in integration of arts and social justice. As an undergrad, he got involved with Living Voices, a theater group made up of local teaching artists.
He performed a one-person show titled “The Right to Dream,” which told the story of the US civil rights movement from about 1955 to 1965 when the Voters Right Act was passed. The show was performed for schools, non-profits and corporations, with audiences ranging from 20 to 1,200 people. Along with the civil rights performance, Scott facilitated community dialogue about civil rights, anti-oppression, and democracy.
Scott also began facilitating, directing and teaching a theater framework called “Theater of the Oppressed.” ‘Theatre of the Oppressed is based on a type of interactive theater developed in the 1970s by Augusto Boal, an Brazilian political activist and theater practitioner.
It uses theatre to promote social and institutional change. Performances focus on a problem story that’s often based on real-life scenarios of oppression. Audiences become “spect-actors,” who have to solve the problem in the most realistic way possible, even though it’s being played out on stage. Audience members call out solutions and the actors portray them on stage. The result is a form of group brainstorming about social problems within the community. It’s sort of like a combination of improv theater and bystander intervention workshop rolled into one. Scott also had the opportunity to collaborate with Boal, before his death in 2009.
“Theatre, liberation and social justice are a beautiful, powerful match,” Scott said. “It was such an important learning tool to integrate in the trainings I do now and providing context to history, and how we practice this work, and how we show up in action. It opened up a lot of opportunities to me.”
Equity Driven Leadership
Scott would go on to earn a master’s degree in counseling psychology and drama therapy and a doctorate in philosophy of relational ecology, indigenous studies and environmental justice, both from the California Institute of Integral Studies.
His education and service experience set him up for a career centered on providing support for corporations, non-profit agencies, colleges and government agencies through trainings on cultural humility, community leadership development, non-violent communication, and anti-racism.
One of his first milestones was founding Morningstar Consulting, which provides diversity, equity and inclusion support to individuals and organizations. He became and is still an active adjunct lecturer for multiple universities, including the University of California, Berkely, California Institute of Integral Studies and Antioch University.
For one year, Scott worked as a clinical intervention specialist-- and later on, was promoted to the director of diversity, equity, and inclusion-- for the Washington’s Seneca Family of Agencies where he served for two years. The organization provides children and families mental health, education, and juvenile justice services. In 2020, Scott served as the first senior vice president of equity for the Washington Charter Schools Association, helping to close opportunity and education gaps for students of color and train educational leaders and staff about equity in education.
From the fall of 2021 to spring of 2022, he served as the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission’s first director of diversity, equity and inclusion, helping the agency develop strategies to remove access barriers to visitors of Washington’s more than 100 state parks.
He left the position to concentrate on supporting community organizations. In mid-2022, Soctt served as an executive equity facilitator and coach for two Washington non-profit organizations that support women and families who have been impacted by spousal abuse, systemic poverty and institutionalized racism.
In 2023, he returned to state parks, only this time as a board member to the Washinton State Parks Foundation. He says the service with state parks allows him to combine his love of the outdoors with community-engaged work to remove access barriers. He worked with the Washington State Parks Foundation to lead a screening of the documentary Expedition Reclamation, which highlights 12 BIPOC women living in Washington and their relationships with outdoor recreation, followed by a panel discussion at Millersylvania State Park in Thurston County.
“There are a lot of people who are part of communities who don’t feel safe or welcome in public spaces. Equity is not just about creating access but figuring out how people are feeling once they’re there. Once they get there, how are they treated? These community-organized engagements and facilitated conversations are vital for our communities to not just imagine themselves as part of the outdoor world in Washington state, but to practice how to actively get involved, connected and activated in our gorgeous outdoor spaces.”
It's been years since Scott stepped out of an airplane cabin and into national service. It’s a step he’s never regretted taking.
“I really did not know the impact the transformation was about to have on my life,” Scott said. “Without being in AmeriCorps, I don’t think any of this would have happened. It opened the door to some amazing experiences, and I am forever grateful.”