In the 1990s, Dorothy Johnson-Speight joined a support group of parents who had lost their children after her own daughter died of bacterial meningitis. Many other parents in the meetings said their children were killed in violent incidents. She regularly brought her then nine-year-old son Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson to these meetings.
“I used to take him to the meetings with me and I just always prayed ‘God please don’t let anything happen to him,’” she said. “I see all of these mothers who have lost children to violence.”
In 2001, 24-year-old Khaaliq was shot 7 times and killed in a conflict about a parking space.
After another young man was shot dead in her community shortly after her son’s death, Johnson-Speight had enough. This death led her to a “vision” of mothers in the community asking their sons to put down their guns. This “vision” became the North Philadelphia organization Mothers in Charge, created in May 2003.
All members are local women and advocate against violence in cities. Since its founding, Mothers in Charge has expanded to ten chapters across the country.
The organization offers grief support for women who have lost a loved one. This support group meets weekly at the Philadelphia chapter headquarters at 1415 N. Broad St.
Other programs Mothers in Charge offers include advocacy for victims of violence, youth mentoring programs, programs for those incarcerated for violence and re-entry and aftercare services for those already a part of the prison system.
Johnson-Speight—who was recently chosen to be a member of mayor-elect Jim Kenney’s public safety committee on his transition team—said the program “Thinking 4 A Change” teaches inmates in prison that changing mindsets are the driving force behind changing behaviors. The rate of offender re-entry for those who graduate from the program is 25 percent, which is below the national average of more than 50 percent re-entry rate.
The organization re-hired some of the women who graduated from the “Thinking 4 A Change” program while incarcerated. Sherrelle Mack of Feltonville was hired after being incarcerated for 11-and-a-half months from 2013-14.
Mack has received training and acquired many certificates though the program, and now works inside prisons facilitating “Thinking 4 A Change.”
“I’ve done so many things that I couldn’t imagine myself doing without the help of Mothers in Charge,” she said. “This is my family. I have so many people here who have pushed me to my potential, and I know that without them I wouldn’t have made it this far.”
Mothers in Charge also sponsors various legislation, including one petition that would label homicide as a public health epidemic. This petition has support from across the country, but has not received endorsement from Philadelphia Congressmen Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady, Johnson-Speight said.
Mothers in Charge has also made donations to the family of Duval DeShields, a 14-year-old boy who was shot and killed on 10th Street near Thompson last month.
The organization has found support from State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas, whose 181st district covers North Philadelphia along Broad Street. Thomas said he wishes the Mothers in Charge program could be “duplicated in every section of the city.”
“We can’t stop everything but we want to create a climate where people think twice about engaging in senseless violence,” Thomas added.
Johnson-Speight said she is very proud of the programs Mothers in Charge has developed and hopes more people will hear about the organization.
“It takes a long time to get over the death of a child,” she said. “It’s not even in the natural order of things. We shouldn’t be burying our children.”
Gillian McGoldrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @gill_mcgoldrick.
CORRECTION: In a version of this story that ran in print, it was stated Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson was shot 17 times. He was actually shot 7 times. The Temple News regrets the mistake, and apologizes to Johnson-Speight and her family.