Adopting the deaf culture

Hold your pinky finger out in your dominant hand while curling your other three fingers under your thumb. Now place the finger print side of your pinky on your upper cheek then brush back upwards. This is Joanne Coffin-Langdon’s name sign, known to many as Jojo.

Jojo is a deaf American Sign Language (ASL) professor at University of Minnesota Duluth. She went deaf when she was 10-years-old so she remembers what it was like to hear.

Jojo is able to speak and read lips, but she has spent many years on speech therapy to help her in speaking.

It wasn’t always this easy though.

When Jojo was 13–16 years old she had gone to prison. This was a time she always looks back on when big changes happened for her.

“I was in prison for 3 years as a youth,” Langdon said. “I was in a juvenile detention center and had a rocky youth experience for myself.”

This is when she began thinking about God and the universe as a whole and not just about herself.

Her family origin is from Germany, which is a big part of how she identifies herself. She left her mother, sister, and brother to move to the U.S. when she was 18-years-old to go to school.

When she was 19 she became a parent to a foster child. Now she has 9 kids ranging from 2–30 years old.

“All my life I’ve been parenting and I really don’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t have an entourage of people behind me,” Langdon said.

Jojo adopted five children through a foster care system, and they all have varying disabilities including deafness and mental health issues. All of her adopted children come with a history of neglect and abuse.

With her partner, she had four more children. Jojo and her partner each birthed two of the children. Her partner is a pastor at the campus ministry through UMD. Jojo met her through a church function. They realized how much they had in common, both being gay, and Christian, and not really knowing what to do about their faith.

“I would say I’m her spiritual elder because I taught her she would be okay no matter what she believed in,” Langdon said.

Later, Jojo and her partner went to seminary together to get their master’s degrees. This is when she decided to be a preacher.

Jojo began working part-time at the First United Methodists Church as a worship minister.

In the last 5–6 years was when Jojo starting working at the St. Louis County Jail as a pastor. Because of her previous experience in prison, she felt like she could really help relate to them.

Before being a teacher at UMD, Jojo was an emotional behavior disturbances teacher for 15 years. She always wanted to work with kids who were challenging, who were in jail, or had dealt with other issues. She felt like she could relate to them compared to other people.

Jojo has been a teacher for 30 years and 16 of those years have been at UMD.

“Really as early as I could remember, teaching was a part of the deal. I have always felt like I could do it better than someone else,” Langdon said.

Jojo felt like she would be able to understand the people who didn’t fit into the “mold” because of her down to earth attitude as well as her open-mindedness.

“Jojo is great to work with.” said Ali Lero, deaf studies minor and TA for Jojo. “She puts so much passion into teaching and really made me fall in love with sign language.”

She has grown close to many of her students because of their equal appreciation of sign language.

“I took ASL 1 to fulfill a random credit I needed freshman year and ended up loving it so much I’m now on track to get my deaf studies minor,” said Sarah Brinda, one of Jojo’s ASL students. “I feel like having Jojo as a professor made me enjoy ASL that much more.”

Being an ASL professor is a big part of Jojo’s life. She loves opening people’s minds to the deaf community. Being a part of the UMD community is a big part of her life as well.

“I love speaking on behalf of UMD,” Langdon said. “Everything I do has a UMD hat on it. I love carrying the name and standing up for it.”

Jojo has many identities. She is part of the queer community, while another part of that is being a part of the gay Christian community, which is even smaller.

“I appreciate advocating for who you are spiritually in the face of being queer,” Langdon said.

Jojo is now 47-years-old and has had many fulfilling life experiences and careers along the way.

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