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29 Oct 2021

The ‘Mayor’ of South Philly

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October 29, 2021 Category: Local Posted by:

No matter where he’s been, Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson has always come home.

Photos courtesy: Philadelphia City Council

By Denise Clay-Murray

Sometime this fall, the name of the person who will oversee the Office of the Victims Advocate will be announced.

Mayor Jim Kenney’s office is currently vetting candidates for the office, which will help those whose lives have been affected by gun violence get the help they need by connecting them with agencies and assistance.

For Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, the office represents the culmination of an idea that he also hopes will assist those most impacted by the city’s gun violence problem.

Because the idea was theirs. He’s just being their conduit.

“I’ve met parents day in and day out who are still suffering from losing a loved one to gun violence,” Johnson said. “So, this office will be a hub that will connect the dots to all the agencies that interact with those who have lost loved ones to gun violence, addressing the issues of trauma and advocating on their behalf. Making sure that when they do lose a loved one to senseless gun violence, they know who to talk to.”

Johnson, the chair of City Council’s Special Committee on Gun Violence, has been front and center on the topic since losing a beloved cousin and several friends to gun violence in the late 1990s. He was among the Councilmembers who sent a letter to Mayor Jim Kenney during the FY 2022 budget cycle demanding that he put more of the city’s federal American Rescue Plan allotment toward the issue.

Councilmember Johnson leading a Peace Not Guns March in Southwest Philly in 2020.

The $155 million “Peace Budget” included $22 million dedicated to groups like the ones that the Office of the Victims Advocate will be working with.

In addition to the Special Committee on Gun Violence, Johnson is also chair of Council’s Transportation Committee. He is a graduate of Mansfield University and has a masters from the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels School of Government.

The South Philadelphia native has represented his home section of the city for three terms as a City Councilperson, and two as a State Representative. He considers his work in the District, which also includes the stadiums and Philadelphia International Airport some of his most important.

“My primary focus right now is making sure that I can be the best counsel person that I can be,” he said. “It’s a lot to manage the district I represent.”

The SUN spoke to Johnson about his attachment to South Philadelphia, how that has played a part in the work he does, how he manages to represent a district that runs the economic gamut and the Philadelphia he’d like to see.

SUN: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Councilman Johnson. I guess my first question for you is, what led you to politics? Did you want to do something else initially?

KJ: I was a machinist by trade. I thought I was going to go and work for Boeing and make plots for Boeing airplanes. But I decided in the 11th grade, I think, that I wanted to go to college. Around that time, I got a gun charge. I had a judge named Frank Reynolds, and he put me on probation. And while I was on probation, [I started] thinking about what I want to do with my life.

To put it in context, I’m in South Philadelphia in the early 90s. Around 1991, we had 500 homicides here in the City of Philadelphia. That’s that era I grew up in. There were a lot of shootings in my neighborhood. It was the crack epidemic. So that’s what I was experiencing in my neighborhood. But having that gun charge encouraged me to want to go away to college. 

I became an elected official because I always saw the inequalities of what my neighborhood had versus what other neighborhoods did. 

There was a lack of smart boards and computers inside our classrooms, but I knew that in schools like Lower Merion, they had high quality computers and equipment in their schools and schools like Barratt Junior High I know for a fact, didn’t have it. I wondered why we had to leave our neighborhood and go to another neighborhood for a better playground. 

So, I always saw the inequalities in our neighborhood. And that’s something I’ve been always passionate about addressing. But it wasn’t my path to deal with — to do politics —until I went away.

I went to Mansfield University. While I was at Mansfield, I took a political science class and began getting an interest in politics. I learned about the power of the Constitution, the power of a democracy. 

SUN: You grew up in Point Breeze at a time when the neighborhood was a lot different than it is now. Yet, Mansfield was a different place altogether. Talk about that experience and what you gained from it.

KJ: Mansfield was a predominantly White university in upstate Pennsylvania. [former Congressman] Chaka Fattah would have this conference every year called the Graduate Opportunities Conference. So as a part of the Black Student Union, we would all go to that one and another conference called the [Pennsylvania Black Conference On Higher Education]. Those two conferences for me were like, the epitome of a black professionalism and leadership. Because you’ve got to remember, Point Breeze has always been a poor neighborhood. The Point that we see right now is not the Point I grew up in. As a first-generation college graduate, I didn’t always see professionals. My mom was a homemaker and my dad worked for Local 332. That’s where he retired from. 

And so, I was raised off the union wages. But I didn’t have a lot of interaction with professionals, other than that judge, my pastor, and his deacons, right. When I went to those conferences, I got the opportunity to meet [founding editor] Susan Taylor from Essence Magazine, [the Rev.] Jesse Jackson — I think [that] was the first year that Blondell Reynolds Brown became a Councilwoman. I met someone who was actually a Black scientist. Now, this blew my mind because I’ve never seen that before. Because of the environment I grew up in, I didn’t even know at the time that there were Black scientists and Black psychologists. I might have read about it in books, but I had never seen it up close and personal. 

Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson leads a packed community safety meeting at Ezekiel Baptist Church in Southwest Philadelphia co-hosted by Rep. Joanna McClinton (D-191st Dist.). The emergency safety meeting was held because of increased gun violence in Southwest Philadelphia in recent weeks, including the shooting of an 11-year-old boy and a man on September 30 in the 5700 block of Elmwood Avenue. Both victims are recovering from their injuries. The area also has nuisance Stop and Go’s in the area, including one at 5701 Elmwood Avenue.

SUN: Usually when people leave areas like the Philadelphia of the 90s, they don’t necessarily come back. And if they do come back, they don’t come back to neighborhoods like Point Breeze. What made you come back?

KJ: For me, it was about bringing my degree back home to my neighborhood in South Philadelphia, Point Breeze, and start working on issues to improve the quality of life within it. This place helped me become the person I became, so I believed that I had a responsibility to use my degree to help others. That’s where my passion comes from and why I do the work I’m doing. We have a moral obligation to help our people.

SUN: Finding solutions to the City’s gun violence problem is something you’ve become very focused on. I understand that this focus is personal. 

KJ:  Yes, it is. In 1998, I lost a cousin of mine. But also, I had lost, like, several different friends during that time period. Some friends were murdered while I was in college. My cousin was murdered at the same elementary school I attended, It was kind of like — something has to change because I knew there was going to be retaliation, and retaliation wasn’t going to bring him back.

So, in the same school yard where he was murdered, we held a Peace Not Guns, prayer vigil and rally. I had drill teams and I had different people coming out to speak about the issue of gun violence, different people doing poetry as a means of uplifting the community, but also as a means of therapy. I started teaching young people conflict resolution. I started speaking at different prayer vigils inside the neighborhood, and then from there, I started going inside schools, speaking to students about the issue of gun violence under my umbrella of peace, not guns. And then from there, it just became a passion of mine because I just got sick and tired of seeing Black men, particularly my friends and family being murdered by senseless gun violence.

SUN: As the chair of Council’s Special Committee on gun violence, how frustrated does it make you to see what’s happening in Philadelphia right now? Does it seem like an intractable problem?

KJ: I’m very frustrated, but I’m also optimistic. I’m very frustrated, because I believe [the] city could be doing a lot more, but optimistic that the progress that we have made when it comes to making sure that community-based organizations now have an opportunity to apply up to a million dollars, to help us to combat gun violence is a step in the right direction. At one time, we didn’t have an Office of Violence Prevention, so it’s definitely a step in the right direction. The fact that we have crisis intervention teams is also a step in the right direction. But we need to do more. While some things are under the control of the city, some things aren’t. 

Let me give you an example: If we had the ability to control how we regulate guns here, that may play a role in stemming the flow of illegal guns that are floating in the streets of Philadelphia. But also, because we have a state legislature that doesn’t regulate the flow of guns across the state, you have individuals who are going from county to county, buying guns and bringing those guns back into the city. So, some things are in our control, some things aren’t. But I believe that it’s still important to take a comprehensive approach between all who are representing us on the city, state and federal levels. We all have to work together. And we also have to make sure that all the city agencies — the District Attorney, the Police Commissioner and our courts and most importantly, our school district is a part of this conversation.

And we also [need] to make sure that the community gets involved because you can’t solve a homicide if you don’t have information, right? And it’s our responsibility to make sure that when people do come forward, they feel protected. And they feel safe as well. 

Also, we need to make sure that from an investment standpoint, we’re also supporting the initiatives that will allow young people to get involved in things that are positive as opposed to things that are negative from a financial resource standpoint. Making sure that every summer, every child in the City of Philadelphia that wants to have a summer job should have a summer job, shouldn’t be a question, right? Making sure that we have strong, robust, after school programs, not only in our rec centers, but also with nonprofit agencies that are seeking funding to provide those type of alternatives to our young people standing on the corner. 

So, I’ve seen a paradigm shift with this last budget. I’m in a process now strategizing on what this next budget is going to be for 2022 when it comes to violence prevention and supporting gun violence initiatives that will keep our young people from making the decision to pick up a gun in the first place. 

Plus, I’m a dad. I want to put that out there. I have two Black boys growing up in the city of Philadelphia. Isaiah just turned 7, and Elijah is 4. He’ll be 5. And when I walk out the door with my two sons, I’m just a father taking my kids to school. I’m just a father taking my kids to the playground. I go to a playground in Point Breeze, Wharton Square Park, that my kids play tennis at. But that’s the same park where I can name several people [who] have been shot or murdered in the time of me just growing up in South Philadelphia. So, I make the point that the issue becomes even more personal because it’s about their safety. Because at the end of the day, I’m a dad as well. I go to and from my house, I want to feel safe. I want my wife to feel safe. And no one is immune from being shot or murdered here in the city of Philadelphia.

Mayor Jim Kenney, Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, and Fairmount Park Conservancy unveils the designs for the new nature play space and the Welcome Center inside FDR Park. Philadelphia’s plan for F-D-R Park is audacious and achievable with the support of public, corporate, and philanthropic partners. The City’s $50 Million dollar investment is a significant step to advancing the $250 Million FDR Master Plan. It is Councilmember Johnson’s love for FDR Park that made him a strong supporter of the FDR Master Plan from the beginning of his tenure in City Council.

SUN: Do you think that the city has put enough money into this issue? 

KJ: That’s a great question. We need to do more, and we want to work to do more because $155 million out of $5 billion budget isn’t a lot of money when it comes to addressing the issue of violence prevention. I look at last year’s $155 million as just a base. 

SUN: One of the things that you have coming up is a federal trial. There were federal indictments handed down on both you, and your wife Dawn. I know that you can’t really talk about the indictment itself, but how are you dealing with that? Do you know when you’re going to be going to trial?

KJ: Nope, not at the moment. I’m still waiting for a date. And I look forward to having an opportunity to be vindicated with my wife. As I’ve always said, you were at the press conference that we had at Washington Square Park, I’m innocent. And I’m going to continue advocating and fighting on behalf of the constituents that I represent in the Second Councilmanic District. As I go through this process, I just continue to keep God first and continue to keep serving my constituents. But, I will say I am humbled by the overwhelming support that I have been receiving throughout the City of Philadelphia. A lot of people have been showing me support and it’s very, very humbling. They’ve been showing my wife a lot of support as well.

SUN: Well, thanks a lot for your time, Councilman. I really appreciate it. I wish you luck with everything.

KJ: Thank you!

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