It took awhile for Joanna Woodson to discover her true passion in life. But three universities and year and a half in the workplace later, Woodson found her purpose, along with a home, at Western Carolina University. And now she’s successfully working with a political advocacy group in Washington D.C.
Woodson's journey to WCU featured a series of twists. Upon graduating from high school, the Monroe native went to North Carolina State as a religious studies major. She then transferred to UNC Asheville as a journalism major, which later turned to political science. While enrolled at UNC Asheville, Woodson said she studied abroad through UNC Charlotte.
From there, Woodson dropped out of school for about a year and a half working for a law firm briefly, working as a manager at New York and Co., and being an Uber driver. In between, health issues left her frustrated with the nation’s health care system.
Eventually, Woodson’s boyfriend, Mick Cauthen, a former WCU student and former member of the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band, suggested they finish their studies at WCU. During her time out of school, Woodson did some volunteer work at Safe Alliance, a rape crisis center in Charlotte. It was there she realized she wanted to do social work.
“In the code of ethics for social work, social justice is mandated,” Woodson said. “Even now when I talk to my peers, it sometimes feels like I’m the only one not going into direct client care. I always preach that social work isn’t just individual clients though. It’s also changing policy.”
When Woodson came to WCU for the 2015-16 school year, the social work major knew she eventually wanted to be involved in the political realm where she could help change policies.
But it wasn’t until she immersed herself in politics and social activism on the WCU campus that Woodson truly realized what a powerful and effective voice she really had.
She took the lead in getting WCU students registered to vote in the for the November presidential election. It’s a passion that started with being a student worker at the Center for Service Learning and carried over into her current internship at the Andrew Goodman Foundation, an organization that empowers young people to fully participate in the Democratic process.
The seeds for social activism were planted through Woodson’s life experiences, mostly involving unfavorable encounters with the health care system. For example, her mother has been taking a medication for years, but when her insurance changed this year, the price of that medication jumped to more than $2,000 a month, leaving Woodson with an even greater distaste for the healthcare system.
“I think the kicker in all of it is my mom has worked for the same health care system for 20 years and this is how she’s treated,” Woodson said. “There are no words for how that makes me feel.”
Through her leadership in getting students registered to vote, WCU had the second largest voter turnout among North Carolina colleges and universities for the 2016 March primary at 37 percent.
“I think her calmness, being calm and not being easily overwhelmed, in connection with composure are what make her a good leader,” said Lane Perry, director of the Center for Service Learning. “I think those are skills that I’m personally trying to manage and I’m 10 years her senior.
“I think she does such a good job with those spaces of being composed and articulate and thoughtful. And also her ability to organize people around an idea, which is what leaders can do because they have a clear vision, they are articulate in that vision and they’re inspiring in it as well.”
It was Perry who lit the fire for Woodson’s passion for politics. Woodson was involved in a discussion in politics when the director of service learning, Lane Perry, asked if she like politics. “Yes Lane, I do,” Woodson replied.
From there, Perry had her supply a resume and a letter stating all of the issues she cared about. That led to her being chosen for an internship at AGF. Woodson hit the ground running, helping to organize a voter registration drive in the center of campus, which began as twice-a-month events and grew from there.
There were intentional dialogue educational events and a State of the Union watch party. Then, after hearing of initial discussions to get an early voting precinct on campus, Woodson took the lead to make that a reality.
“We decided, let’s figure out how to get one here,” Woodson said. “We decided the very first place to gauge was to determine if the students want it. We got 1,000 signatures so I think that speaks for itself. Not all of them were students, but a good majority were.”
Her voter registration work led to a 37 percent turnout among WCU students for the March primary, which was second highest among North Carolina colleges and universities, while also besting the general voting population turnout of 36 percent.
That determination is one of many reasons Perry believes Woodson has become the leader she is.
“I think her calmness and not being easily overwhelmed, in connection with composure, make her a good leader,” Perry said. “I think those are skills that I am personally trying to manage and I’m 10 years her senior. I think she does such a good job with those spaces of being composed and articulate and thoughtful. And also she has an ability to organize people around an idea, which is what leaders can do because they have a clear vision, they are articulate in that vision and they’re inspiring in it, as well.”
With those attributes, along with her work ethic, it’s no surprise AGF recognized her for its Hidden Heroes honor, an annual award given to members of the Vote Everywhere coalition for students that have been instrumental in creating change on their campus.
“I guess we’re doing something right,” Woodson said. “I think it’s a combination of our hard work and luck, and the willingness on the part of the university and the Jackson County Board of Elections to be lobbied.”
“While she’s a Hidden Hero to a lot of people, to me she’s an evident hero,” Perry said. “She navigates people like a social worker. She navigates her passion like an evangelist and policy like a future lawyer. What’s very inspiring to me is I’ve seen them become forged. I think she would be honest and say that these were not skills that she had tuned when she started to the point she has tuned them now.”
It is her experiences at WCU that has led Woodson to the start of the political career she always envisioned.
By Marlon Morgan