Dorothy Johnson-Speight, Founder of Mothers in Charge, on Channeling Pain to Bring About Change

For Dorothy Johnson-Speight and Mothers In Charge, the political is personal.

Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder of violence prevention organization Mothers In Charge / Photograph by Hannah Yoon

In December of 2001, Khaaliq ­Jabbar Johnson — a 24-year-old middle-school therapeutic staff support worker slated to start a master’s program in human services at the university where his mother had earned hers — was shot and killed in a parking dispute steps away from his front door.

In the wake of her son’s death, Dorothy Johnson-Speight founded the violence prevention organization Mothers In Charge, which turns 20 this year. Johnson-Speight knows all too well the agony that follows such a loss: the all-encompassing pain of grieving a child, the self-medication and disillusionment with life that come with it — and then the burning call to action. It’s why she’s so good at what she does. “At some point in one of my deepest, darkest moments, I realized that I couldn’t continue to live like I was living,” she says of her decision to create the nonprofit. “I had to come out of that, and for nothing else but because Khaaliq was who he was — a real special man, and a young man. I had to do something to let his life not be in vain.”

So in 2003, she reached out to some of the moms she’d met through her past work with Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents whose kids had died, as well as to others who had lost children to violence. She expected a few mothers to show up to a meeting she called at Zion Baptist Church in North Philly. But on that Saturday morning in May, the space was packed. The attendees’ enthusiasm was unbelievable, she says, but also a sign of the great need for this kind of help. Eventually she left her position as a children’s mental-health supervisor at Comhar and turned Mothers In Charge into a full-time labor of love, offering advocacy and support for victims as well as informative programs that aim to address the epidemic of violent behavior at its roots. Today, there are also chapters in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Kansas City, all sharing a mission to prevent other mothers from being drafted into this group they never wanted to belong to.

For her nonprofit to endure for two decades is somewhat uncommon. While Johnson-Speight remembers many organizations with similar missions created here around the same time as Mothers In Charge, few remain, due to what she feels is a “lack of investment” in this kind of work. “There hasn’t been a lot of support around prevention or intervention until lately,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I remember when it wasn’t even an issue that was talked about. I think Mothers In Charge really put it to the forefront.”

The way Johnson-Speight sees it, an issue as multi-faceted as gun violence requires a comprehensive approach. Much of the mayhem on our streets, she says, stems from larger issues — a lack of investment in social services for cities and communities of color, inadequate education systems, an overabundance of guns, and, of course, trauma. In the early days, some people urged her to focus solely on victim support. But she saw the interconnectedness of it all and thus geared her nonprofit toward prevention, intervention and education. On top of offering weekly services including mentoring, grief support and anger management at a training site in Brewerytown, the mothers collaborate with elected officials and other organizations on legislation and ­community-based solutions and conduct programs supporting formerly incarcerated parents and currently incarcerated youth.

The work is difficult. The mothers touch their own pain every day. But informing their work with that experience may be the key. Before counseling changed her views, Johnson-Speight says, she struggled to feel any empathy toward the man who killed her son and the history of violence that produced him — a man who had amassed a nearly 12-page criminal history. No one showed up to support him when his trial came around.

But she recalled a saying of Pat Griffin, one of the early group members, when they first started working with juveniles, some of whom had committed serious crimes. The words stuck with her: “They’re all our sons.” And until ideas like support for families who have been unable to cope with trauma healthily get more attention, the cycle of violence that consumes these sons will continue.

Johnson-Speight has faith in her methods and says she and her nonprofit are making headway — and with more resources can have an even greater impact. This fiscal year, the city has dedicated $184 million of its budget to gun-violence initiatives, with the Mayor’s Office vowing the money will go to “an array of strategies focused on community empowerment, employment and careers, healing, prevention, and safe havens for children and youth.” Of that, $12 million is going to the Anti-Violence Community Expansion program, which funds groups like Mothers In Charge. Johnson-Speight sees it as a step in the right direction, though City Council has poured millions into violence prevention in recent years, only to struggle with grant distribution.

For now, memories of their loved ones keep Johnson-Speight and the Mothers In Charge members going. Before Khaaliq’s death, she and her son had plans to work together to help children with special needs. To this day, she calls him her best friend, her cheerleader. That bond lives on through her work.

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Published as “The Persistent Parent” in the March 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.