Celebrating a Community Builder: Farewell to Karen Johnson

“You live here, you create the culture, you have a voice within this frame to build a safe place.” While it’s hard to sum up a decade of work in a word, Karen Johnson’s use of “you”—meaning every one of the 180 adults living at RS EDEN’s Alliance Apartments in Minneapolis—might actually do it.

In her 10 years as Alliance program director, Karen’s approach to leading our largest recovery-focused supportive housing program has been defined by putting the client first. In fact, it’s how she chose to join our team in the first place. “I had collaborated with RS EDEN over the years,” Karen recalls. “I liked the culture, there was an easy flow…and I felt I could be creative. I was purely looking for back-to-basics community building where the client’s voice is first, [and we build that community] with them.”

With them, Karen built personalized, empathetic plans for Alliance residents to find sobriety, build confidence, get jobs, form relationships with other tenants—whatever their goal happened to be. “My approach? Easy: meet people where they are…My approach [to clients] is that this is your house, this is your community. It’s actually easy to understand how people change: it takes a hot quick moment for some to take a step. Others, [it’s] seven years of quiet movement. [But we] create a leadership opportunity for all of them.”

Karen also organized countless community and civic action events to connect Alliance clients with the wider community. “Speaker Jams” (events celebrating sobriety and sharing stories), Sober Dances, National Night Out, Mile in My Shoes Walks, Neighborhood Association meetings, Chili Cook Offs, Recovery Walks—the list goes on. When asked for highlights of her decade at RS EDEN, Karen again comes back to the people. “I don’t think I have one ‘highlight.” It is about community, just people—not roles, not a position of ‘power.’ Recognizing that we are people supporting each other on a common path for a moment in time. [I’ll miss] everything about Alliance, our community and our little world here.”