Longtime Volunteer Ardes Johnson honored at recent Southeast Seniors event

Longtime MHNA volunteer Ardes Johnson was recently honored at the annual SE Seniors "Taste of Southeast" event. The event featured a speech by Como resident and MHNA ally, Katie Fournier. We thought we'd share the broad and vivid history of Ardes' community involvement—both within the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood and far beyond its boundaries as well.


Today it’s my privilege to speak about Ardes Johnson, a long-time resident of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood. Ardes is a person whose passion for her community and compassion for people know no bounds. Let me give you some examples!

Ardes loves living in SE Minneapolis! She’s a major force in protecting its institutions and its character, particularly Dinkytown, the historic center of SE Mpls. So, let’s start in Dinkytown: Ardes lived on 14th Avenue SE just outside the Dinkytown commercial district for 23 years, leaving it only when her townhome fell victim to development. Ardes is a charter member of The Friends of SE Library (may it soon be open and serving us again); she’s also on the board of the Friends, always helping with the Friends’ book sales and involved with the plans for the new SE Library.

She’s the secretary of the Preserve Historic Dinkytown group and has a number of creative ideas for Dinkytown’s future. For instance, why not have the U’s Boynton Health Service open a clinic in Dinkytown to serve students where they live? She’d also want you to know that the city is finally unveiling the draft of the Historic Dinkytown guidelines on Tuesday, May 13th.

And then there’s the trash that accumulates in and near Dinkytown, but Ardes combines two kinds of service to tackle that problem. She participates in the Restorative Justice groups for young people who can fix their criminal records by doing community service. The Restorative Justice service she oversees?  It’s trash pick-up, often along 8th Street SE. The other RJ service she has available for her charges is perhaps more constructive, but not quite so visible. They can put in their time tutoring children at Marcy School, which may help the RJ volunteers at least as much as it does the Marcy School students. She says that she started working with RJ because the student behaviors made her angry, but after hearing many stories of how students came to be arrested, she’s developed a lot of sympathy for the problems young people face today. Today she does Restorative Justice because it’s good for the community and she gets to know young people.

Enough of Dinkytown for a while! Ardes has spent her life as a teacher, here, there, and everywhere!  After graduating from the U she did a year of grad school in Boston and then taught in Connecticut for two years, then back to the Twin Cities for a social studies job in the Wayzata schools, some more grad school here at the U, then a variety of positions in the Minneapolis Public Schools. MPS provided teaching services for children in local hospitals then. Ardes says her best job then was teaching children in the University Hospital’s Child Psychiatry unit.

As the planning for the SE Alternative schools got underway, one of the programs under consideration was a Montessori school. Ardes got very interested in Montessori education; she took a leave from MPS to train at the International Montessori Training Center in London. That study led to an opportunity to start a Montessori school in Ethiopia in 1973. “An incredible experience,” Ardes says. The school was initiated by a member of the Ethiopian royal family; the children came from elite Ethiopian families, but they did not speak English. Unfortunately, this was the year that Emperor Haile Selassie was toppled by revolution. Ardes managed to finish the school year and then returned to London to teach at the Montessori school there for a year. “I learned a lot about how to promote curiosity and learning by the individual child,” at Montessori, she says.

On returning to Minneapolis she took a job at the new Lake Country Montessori School for a while, but eventually returned to MPS to teach at Henry High School and then English as a Second Language at Edison High, the job from which she retired in year 2000. Along the way she did more graduate study in both Special Education and ESL. 

Ardes was working at Edison when Winston Wallin started his program of scholarships for students at South and Edison high schools. Ardes joined the scholarship committee at Edison, helping students write their application essays and meeting with the Wallin Foundation about its work. Today she has joined the supporters of the Foundation, using funds inherited from her mother to support MPS students in college. She’s currently helping four Wallin scholars as they make their way through college programs at Carleton, MCAD, and the University. Her support is not just financial; she meets with them regularly to hear about their progress and their plans for the future. As with the Restorative Justice program, she says the Wallin scholarships keep her in touch with young people. Ardes very much admires the young people of today for their capacity to tackle problems created by earlier generations.

Retirement opened a new chapter for Ardes of volunteering in education, in human rights, and in neighborhood service. She’s been doing human rights work since long before her retirement, having joined the local chapter of Amnesty International founded by Professor David Weissbrodt in 1975. She continues to lead a sub-chapter of that group comprised mostly of residents at Augustana Homes.  They meet monthly to write letters on behalf of people all over the world detained by their governments. “It’s amazing,” says Ardes, “most of the Augustana group are in their 90s, but they’re so aware of what’s going on.” Early in her Amnesty work Ardes was deeply involved in an eight-year campaign to free an Ethiopian woman who eventually came to Minneapolis for medical treatment after her imprisonment.

She also helped lead a Boy Scout troop for Hmong boys that met at Westminster Presbyterian church.  Among other projects the boys planted the gingko trees along 14th Avenue SE and replanted them after they were broken off by late-night Dinkytown revelers. The boys planted another 20 trees at Marcy Park. To protect the 14th Avenue trees they built the cages that you still see around some of the trees and hung signs from them with the story of how they’d been planted and by whom.

Ardes’ concern for young people and for her Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood led her to join the MHNA Land Use Committee which vets development requests for the neighborhood. She represents MHNA on the University District Alliance’s Livability Committee which tries to keep abreast of community-wide problems such as the Move-in / Move-out trash piles and alcohol-propelled disturbances in Dinkytown and in the neighborhoods. She writes letters to the Regents with suggestions for University collaboration with the community on senior housing and student care.

On a personal level Ardes does not hesitate to help people who are experiencing some kind of trauma or loss in their lives. For instance, she visited and brought food to neighbor Doug Carlson and his family members during Doug’s difficult final months in 2017. She provided friendship and support for many years to a Polish Holocaust survivor, a woman who just happened to live in Ardes’ apartment building a long time ago. Ardes helped the woman develop a memoir of her life that was eventually published.  After the woman’s death Ardes helped to clean out her home and to pass on her things to the appropriate people.

And I haven’t even begun to talk about her service to SE Seniors. Our next speaker will do that. But I do hope that you’ve learned a few things about Ardes now that you didn’t know a few minutes ago. Hooray for Ardes!!!