Janice “Jay” Johnson first donned the Girl Scout Brownie uniform as an elementary school student in the 1940s in Hampton, Virginia. Her Girl Scout leader was Mary Jackson, one of the three NASA engineers profiled in the movie Hidden Figures. Jay said she did not know about Mary’s work or how important she was until her teen years. “To me, she was just Miss Jackson, my Girl Scout leader.”
Jay enjoyed being a Girl Scout because it gave her opportunities to be with her friends, travel around Hampton on troop field trips and go to camp—however, it was a segregated camp at the time. As she grew older and gained access to more opportunities, Girl Scouts became a more meaningful part of her life. She was able to explore places beyond her hometown, including traveling to Wyoming for an All-State event, which later became known as “Wider Opportunities.” Jay was the first African American girl in Girl Scouts to attend an outdoor national event. She was also the first African American Girl Scout to serve as president of a council’s Senior Planning Board.
For Jay, the culminating experience of her time in Girl Scouts was earning the First Class Award in 1956. Now known as the Girl Scout Gold Award, the First Class Award was the highest award a girl could earn in Girl Scouting. Although Jay and her fellow troop members all began working on the prerequisites for the award together, only Johnson followed through and earned the award.
“Our troop leader informed us about the requirements to earn the award, and it was up to us to pursue completion,” Jay said. “Since I was the only one pursuing First Class, I spent a lot of time conferring with my leader about each requirement and its successful completion.”
Janice “Jay” Johnson, Professional Storyteller and Girl Scout Alum
Jay’s photo from a local newspaper in 1957 when she was selected for GSUSA All-State
Jay was the featured guest speaker at the 2022 Famous Formers Luncheon in Hampton
After earning the First Class Award and completing her years as a Girl Scout Senior (the highest level until 2011 when Ambassador was added), Jay went away to attend Wilson College in Pennsylvania, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology, and later, a Master of Arts degree in guidance and counseling from Hampton Institute.
“Girl Scouts was the only organization in my childhood and young adulthood where I had positive interracial relations with other girls and adults,” Jay said. “Those experiences influenced my choosing to go outside the norm and attend an integrated college.”
Jay reconnected with Girl Scouts and worked as a field director, responsible for membership and program, in Baltimore and Hampton. From there, she joined the staff at Girl Scouts of the USA where she was the right-hand staff support for Gloria Scott, the first Black GSUSA President.
Jay’s experience in membership and management led her to the position she is most proud of—executive director of the Girl Scouts of Western Reserve in Akron, Ohio.
Following her role as a professional Girl Scout, Jay returned to her home on the Virginia Peninsula and worked for the City of Hampton, where she was involved in Hampton’s Citizen Unity Commission and the Hampton Coalition for Youth. She also spent six years as chairperson of the board of directors for Virginia Organizing and has been a dedicated Girl Scout volunteer over the years. Jay received recognition as a GSCCC Famous Former and was also the recipient of the highest Council award, the Dorothy Barber Award. She was the featured guest speaker at the 2022 Famous Formers Luncheon which was held in her hometown of Hampton, where three women from NASA (those featured in Hidden Figures) were posthumously honored—including Jay’s former troop leader, Mary Jackson.
Jay recognizes the important role that Girl Scouts played in shaping her character. For Johnson, being a Girl Scout boosted her confidence, which later allowed her to handle difficult work environments. It also introduced her to a variety of people, which put her at ease when working with diverse groups of volunteers during her career. She also gained important leadership and organizational skills while earning the First Class Award.
Across the nation, less than six percent of eligible Girl Scouts have earned the highest award in Girl Scouting, adding Johnson to an elite group of female leaders across the country with the honor.
She is still involved with Virginia Organizing, fighting for voter’s rights and more. She is also a professional storyteller, planning a city-wide storytelling event in Hampton for the summer of 2023, and includes among her portfolio a story about her Girl Scout years and having Mary Jackson as her Girl Scout leader!
For Women’s History Month, a look at the life of a trailblazing Girl Scout alum.
Judy has enjoyed leading a multi-level troop for more than a decade.