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Utah activist Psarah Johnson remembered for her work and her 'fire'

A woman stands at a podium with a microphone.
Austen Diamond
Courtesy KRCL
Psarah Johnson at KRCLs International Women's Day take over of the State Capitol.

For those who knew Psarah Johnson, a self-identified “crippled punk,” she was many things: a health care hero, a drama teacher, a Lord of the Rings fan, a fearless community leader and a “f—ing torch.”

That’s how her friend Ma Black remembered her — a bright pillar of light in a sea of dark.

Johnson was known as a voice for marginalized communities in Utah. She worked on many issues — from disabled and LGBTQ rights to health care and housing. She died early Saturday morning at the age of 45. The exact cause of death was not disclosed.

About a hundred people gathered at the Utah State Capitol Monday night to remember her legacy and celebrate her life.

Several people showed up in rainbow colored clothes and flags with signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” “I love Psarah” and “F— This — Psarah.”

A woman stands in a crowd.
Ivana Martinez
Shell Danis listens to people share their stories about her long time friend Psarah Johnson on Monday night.

She was remembered as a person who would never be silent on issues that mattered.

Johnson worked as a citizen lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, was a member of the immigrant-rights group Enriching Utah Coalition and a founding member of Healthcare Action Now.

Tears spread through the crowd as those in attendance grieved. For several people, she was the person who helped them realize they could claim the word “disabled.”

“You spoke with power and conviction and made me realize that it's not my body that's flawed. It's the system. Accommodating everyone means inconveniences for no one,” her friend Shell Danis said.

Danis remembered Johnson as a powerhouse who cared deeply about the people around her and worked tirelessly to show up to events and illustrate what accessibility looked like.

Friends shared stories about their trips to D.C. to march for healthcare issues and how she chained herself alongside other activists in the lobby of a private prison company.

Johnson was disabled herself. She was born with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis and managed several other autoimmune disorders according to her blog.

She was known for her “matchbook theory” – the idea that a person has a certain amount of energy — represented by burning matches — that they have each day. She described a match as a “one-use item and its time is finite.” It was an analogy for her life as a disabled person.

Her friend Jennifer Miller-Smith remembered Johnson as a person who inspired others. 

“Psarah J, gave me the fire. And I know a lot of us are using that word tonight, but she gave me the fire and energy to work with the [Democratic] party on disability issues, and she made me a better human,” Miller-Smith said. “She was made for this Catherine of Siena quote, ‘Be who you are meant to be and you will set the world on fire.’”

Ivana is a general assignment reporter
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