Game plan

Milwaukee Academy of Science students in the MKE LAX program

Tavon Johnson’s youth advocacy experience nurtures a promising program that mentors middle schoolers through the sport of lacrosse.

Milwaukee Academy of Science students in the MKE LAX program

By Ann Christenson, CJPA ’91

Graduate student Tavon Johnson stands in the hallway of a Milwaukee elementary school talking to a young student. Although a camera is rolling, Johnson is completely focused on the student, giving him a thumbs-up after the child steps back inside his classroom. There’s a bond cemented here that transcends any stiffness that comes from being on film. 

It’s Johnson’s visible drive to make a difference, seen in that Difference Maker video — a series showcasing uplifting contributions made by Marquette community members — that reinforces the excitement Dr. Cynthia Ellwood felt when she reviewed Johnson’s application for Marquette’s justice-focused educational leadership program. Johnson has built a fine-tuned resume, including four years of AmeriCorps service as a mentor and tutor and a stint as a resident assistant with Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth in his hometown of Baltimore. Whether he was working as a co-teacher, rec camp coordinator or a youth basketball coach, Johnson’s background has emphasized youth advocacy. 

“He showed that even in difficult situations, he was incredibly flexible and positive. He’s intensely thoughtful, and he connects with kids. He’s just the real deal,” says Ellwood, clinical associate professor of educational policy and leadership, who taught Johnson in his first semester in the Educational Policy and Leadership master’s program.

So when MKE LAX — an initiative between Marquette and the Milwaukee Academy of Science, or MAS, that uses lacrosse to expose middle school students to mentorship and team building — was looking for a leader, they found one in Johnson. Even though he wasn’t as familiar with lacrosse as, say, basketball, with his background in public service, Johnson was a natural fit for the two-year pilot program, adopted in fall 2020. MKE LAX uses sport to help plant visionary seeds deep inside the students — the drive and motivation to stay in school and excel at their studies. “I think I do a good job of being transparent, of being a person they can talk to,” Johnson says.

Each week, joined by coaches and players of Marquette’s men’s and women’s lacrosse teams, Johnson works with the students to learn the fundamentals of lacrosse, practicing in the gym at MAS. The other component of the program is classroom focused, with Johnson at the helm, nurturing students on the academic side.  

Tavon Johnson

“I try to let them know they’re in a really good spot,” says Johnson, pointing to MAS’ mission of fostering equity and inclusion. “If they just dial in and give a little bit, they can succeed.”  

Johnson’s experience with mentorship goes back to his childhood, growing up the eldest of eight kids. One of his teammates in MKE LAX, Caitlin Wolf, associate head coach of the women’s lacrosse team, says Johnson’s easy connection with the students comes from his natural approachability. “Tavon is learning the sport himself, and that’s been really helpful,” she says. “He has great energy. If he’s excited, the students are excited too. There’s a vulnerability he isn’t afraid to share.”   

Dr. Dan Bergen, Grad ’11, former executive director of community engagement for Marquette, also notes that Johnson stepped into the pilot of MKE LAX during the pandemic and has thoughtfully nurtured the program while mentoring the students, virtually and in person. 

“Tavon exemplifies the golden moment when the opportunity presented by a partner is perfectly aligned with the gifts of one of our students,” he says. “He focuses on ‘self-love’ as the most important type of love, cultivating their confidence and affirming them. He has set the program on a clear path to great success.”