Not many people could do what Dorothy Johnson-Speight does. Every day, she puts aside the often suffocating grief that grips her own soul so she can help other women come to terms with seemingly unbearable sorrow after the loss of a child to violence.
Johnson-Speight, of Mount Airy, is executive director of Mothers in Charge, an organization dedicated to reducing the number of murders in Philadelphia. This year, it marked its 10th anniversary. For reaching that milestone, and for the good work that preceded it, Johnson-Speight is The Inquirer's 2013 Citizen of the Year.
Johnson-Speight lost her 24-year-old son, Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson, in 2001. He was shot multiple times on an Olney street near his home by a man who had argued with him over a parking spot. Johnson-Speight wants people to know that Khaaliq didn't fit any stereotype of a black male shooting victim; he was no gang member. Khaaliq was a peaceful man, a counselor dedicated to helping children.
Two years after Khaaliq's death, and after five other young men in her neighborhood had been murdered, Johnson-Speight had a vision. "I don't call it a dream, because I wasn't really asleep," she said. She saw herself in a boxing ring, pleading with people to stop the killing. She began to contact other mothers who had lost children to violence, and they began to meet.
Among these women was Ruth Donnelly, whose 19-year-old son, Justin Donnelly, was stabbed to death five months before Khaaliq was killed. Johnson-Speight and Donnelly discovered that the same man had killed their sons. He was eventually convicted of both murders. Meanwhile, Donnelly and Johnson-Speight became close friends and partners in starting Mothers in Charge.
The organization is much more than a support group in which grieving women can share their stories and build each other up, though it certainly functions as that. Mothers in Charge members hit the streets to talk to young men about their behavior in person. They visit schools and churches to talk to teenagers. They participate in marches and rallies for peace. And they lobby state officials for stronger gun laws.
The group has grown from about two dozen participants who met in each other's homes to more than 200 who conduct workshops in a suite of offices in the Leon H. Sullivan Human Services Center, on North Broad Street. Mothers in Charge chapters have formed in Wilmington, Atlantic City, New York, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and San Francisco, helping the group reach thousands.
Under a program it calls Project Hope, Mothers in Charge offers workshops that teach women about handling intimate-partner violence, anger management, peer mentoring and coaching, and life skills. The organization also offers a curriculum called Thinking for a Change to teach prison inmates - men, women, and juveniles - social and problem-solving skills.
It's as if Johnson-Speight was born to do this work. Premature death first touched her family in 1986, when her daughter, Carlena, not yet 3 years old, died of bacterial meningitis. She joined the Compassionate Friends network for families that have lost children and started a chapter at Temple University. She went on to get a master's degree in human services from Lincoln University and to complete a school-psychologist certification program at Immaculata University.
Johnson-Speight and Khaaliq, who had a sociology degree from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, had planned to open a counseling practice together. Now Johnson-Speight has different plans. Asked if she wants to continue doing what she's doing, she had a quick answer: "No, I want to stop doing what I'm doing. I want the time to come when I can stop helping mothers bury their children." That's a worthy goal for the entire city.