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Homeless population increases 12% in L.A. County

WAVE NEWSPAPERS — Homelessness in Los Angeles County increased by 12% over the past year to reach an estimated 58,936 people, according to figures released June 4, with the region’s housing costs outpacing wages and forcing people onto the streets faster than authorities can find them shelter.

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Homelessness (Photo by: wavenewspapers.com)

By Wave Wire Services

LOS ANGELES — Homelessness in Los Angeles County increased by 12% over the past year to reach an estimated 58,936 people, according to figures released June 4, with the region’s housing costs outpacing wages and forcing people onto the streets faster than authorities can find them shelter.

According to data released by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, nearly three-quarters of homeless people are living in cars, tents, makeshift shelters or on the streets without any apparent cover from the elements.

“We have the largest unsheltered population in the nation and one of the largest homeless counts across America,” said Peter Lynn, director of the authority. “Only New York has more people experiencing homelessness on any given night.

The city of Los Angeles saw a 16% increase in its homelessness numbers.

Supervisor Janice Hahn, who chairs the county board, said she anticipated the rise given the increasing number of homeless encampments but called the figures “very disappointing, very troubling, very sad,” particularly after a 4% drop in the numbers last year.

Though the number of chronically homeless individuals increased by 17%, demographers and statisticians responsible for the count said they believe the real issue is the influx of newly homeless people.

Phil Ansell, who runs the county’s Homeless Initiative, said it may seem counterintuitive, but “a booming economy can actually lead to an increase in homelessness.”

He said that in a growing economy, rental rates have outpaced wages, particularly for people living at the margins and earning minimum wage. A minimum-wage employee would have to work 79 hours a week at $13.25 per hour to afford the rent in an average one-bedroom apartment, according to the homeless services authority.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti echoed that sentiment, calling the increase in homelessness “heartbreaking.”

“These results remind us of a difficult truth: skyrocketing rents statewide and federal disinvestment in affordable housing, combined with an epidemic of untreated trauma and mental illness, is pushing people into homelessness faster than they can be lifted out,” he said.

The numbers are up despite tens of thousands of people who have moved off the streets and into permanent housing. In the last year alone, the county has helped 21,631 people find permanent homes while another 27,080 who were homeless at some point during the year were able to lift themselves out of homelessness, according to the data.

The number of homeless veterans was roughly flat year-over-year, but there were 7% more homeless senior citizens — after a meaningful decrease last year — and demographers saw a 24% jump in homeless youth. Researchers from USC who worked on the count said they believe improved methodologies were responsible for part of the increase in young adults.

Though people suffering from severe mental illness or with substance-abuse problems are among the most visible members of the homeless community, they make up just 29% of the total homeless population.

Black Angelenos are four times more likely to end up homeless, a finding consistent with data from earlier counts that Lynn attributed to “deep institutional racism in the culture.”

While the number of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless was up, most homeless families are in shelters or other bridge housing, according to the homeless services authority.

Economic hardship was the number one reason cited by newly homeless individuals for their plight. The second most common trigger was a lack of a support network and a personal crisis like a divorce. And 5% of those represented in the overall count said they were fleeing domestic violence.

The county has more than doubled its capacity to house people over the last five years, in part due to voter’s 2017 approval of a quarter-cent sales tax increase under Measure H in 2017. In 2016, voters in the city of Los Angeles approved Measure HHH, which authorized a $1.2 billion bond to build about 10,000 units of supportive housing.

But only 1,397 units are on track to be available in fiscal year 2019-20, according to the authority.

Hahn noted that a study by the nonprofit California Housing Partnership Corporation estimates that the county needs more than 500,000 affordable units to bring housing supply in line with demand from low-income residents.

Even at the rate of 10,000 units annually, “that’s 50 years before we will be able to build the number of affordable units we need,” Hahn said.

And those units cost an average of $450,000 to $500,000 to build, Hahn said, calling the number “staggering.”

County officials have backed a bill to speed conversions of motels into supportive housing units and is considering housing homeless veterans at the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall downtown, among other local efforts to increase the amount of shelter space, bridge housing and permanent supportive housing units as quickly as possible.

The county also has put a 3% cap on rental increases in unincorporated areas where they have that authority. However, California voters rejected a 2018 proposal to give local governments more latitude to enact rent controls.

Ansell said the state can take action immediately on three key issue that could help alleviate the problem, including pending legislation prohibiting rent gouging, evictions without cause and discrimination against renters with housing subsidies.

Los Angeles County officials said they are adding strategies geared at combating other economic factors. When the Board of Supervisors approved $460 million in 2019-20 Measure H spending on homelessness three weeks ago, it focused on finding ways to offset rising rental rates and to provide opportunities for steady employment through an employment task force and jobs training program.

But capacity constraints mean it will be some time before tent camps disappear and fewer people are forced to live in their cars.

“We have a long-term challenge ahead of us,” Lynn said.

He urged all Angelenos to join the United Way’s Everyone In campaign at www.everyoneinla.org and to advocate for policy changes and volunteer to help homeless individuals in their community. More information can be found at www.lahsa.org.

This article originally appeared in the Wave Newspapers

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Memphis third grade reading scores dip as district builds case for retaining students

NEW TRI-STATE DEFENDER — Fewer Memphis third grade students than last year are accomplished readers, according to Shelby County Schools’ annual state test data released is discussing in meetings with parents. About 24% of third graders in Shelby County Schools scored proficient in reading on the state’s standardized assessment TNReady. That’s down from about 27% last year, and in contrast to 36% of elementary students statewide who tested proficient.

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Student read a book during a reading circle at Gardenview Elementary School in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht/Chalkbeat TÑ)
Student read a book during a reading circle at Gardenview Elementary School in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht/Chalkbeat TÑ)

By Lee Eric Smith

Fewer Memphis third grade students than last year are accomplished readers, according to Shelby County Schools’ annual state test data released is discussing in meetings with parents.

About 24% of third graders in Shelby County Schools scored proficient in reading on the state’s standardized assessment TNReady. That’s down from about 27% last year, and in contrast to 36% of elementary students statewide who tested proficient.

The full results from spring testing are scheduled to be released next week, but Memphis district officials shared the statistic this week at a meeting with parents on a new retention policy that will hold back second grade students who aren’t reading on grade level. The policy will begin in the 2021-22 school year.

Antonio Burt, the district’s chief academic officer, declined to speculate on why the scores dipped. Rather, he said the district would be looking to hone existing strategies — such as daily 45-minute small-group instruction and teacher leaders dedicated to foundational reading skills — and equip new second grade teacher assistants.

“The work and the need around K through 2 is so important,” he told Chalkbeat after Wednesday’s community meeting at Gaisman Community Center to explain the district’s retention plan.

“And as a state, we’re still recovering from the standards shift,” he added later about the state’s 2016 change to a new test with tougher requirements.

The news is a blow to the district’s efforts to strengthen early literacy, which has been a priority for the Memphis district. Superintendent Joris Ray and his leadership team often point to the correlation between third grade reading levels and a similar percentage of students considered college-ready on the ACT test.

Antonio Burt, the chief academic officer for Shelby County Schools, speaks to parents and teachers about the district’s upcoming second grade retention policy and strategies to improve reading. (Photo by: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

Antonio Burt, the chief academic officer for Shelby County Schools, speaks to parents and teachers about the district’s upcoming second grade retention policy and strategies to improve reading. (Photo by: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

“We know that if our kids that don’t master reading prior to third grade, they’re four times more likely to drop out of school,” Burt told parents Wednesday evening. “That same student would then be four times more likely to be incarcerated.”


Related: Learn more about the English curriculum that was introduced in late 2017


Shelby County Schools is aiming to have 90% of its third grade students reading proficiently by the year 2025. That’s higher than the state’s goal of 75% for that same year.

This year’s kindergarten class would be the first group that could be held back a year because of Shelby County Schools new retention policy, Burt said. The district will require students to meet eight of 12 benchmarks, including minimum report card grades and reading scores, throughout the year in order to pass second grade.

Candace Marshall, a prekindergarten teacher and parent, said she mostly favors the retention policy and had faced resistance at a Memphis charter school when she wanted her niece to repeat first grade.

“I don’t want her to be a statistic. It made me question how many other kids get passed along,” she told Chalkbeat.

The post Memphis third grade reading scores dip as district builds case for retaining students appeared first on Chalkbeat.

This article originally appeared in the New Tri-State Defender

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Duo teams up for food and clothing drive for homeless veterans on Saturday

NEW TRI-STATE DEFENDER — Memphis is experiencing a serious problem with homelessness and poverty among veterans but a new nonprofit is hoping to ease the burden.

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(l-r) Jalissa Marshall and Sequoria Wilson-Chatmon are teaming up to raise funds for homeless veterans. (Photo by: /tri-statedefender.com)
(l-r) Jalissa Marshall and Sequoria Wilson-Chatmon are teaming up to raise funds for homeless veterans. (Photo by: /tri-statedefender.com)

By Destiny Royston

Memphis is experiencing a serious problem with homelessness and poverty among veterans but a new nonprofit is hoping to ease the burden.

On Aug. 10, from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m., Help the Homeless Veterans will hosted a food and clothing drive in downtown Memphis at the corner of Adams Avenue and Main Street.

Sequoria Wilson-Chatmon, who served in the Army for 10 years and went on four combat tours to Afghanistan and Iraq, is spearheading the event that will provide food, clothing and other needed items for the homeless and those who are struggling. Wilson-Chatmon and her husband are both disabled veterans..

Jalissa Marshall, who is the wife of another disabled vet, will be alongside Wilson-Chatmon helping with the event to bring awareness to homelessness.

“Jalissa and I discuss these issues all the time,” said Wilson-Chatmon. “We decided it was time to turn words into actions, and that was the birth of ‘Help the Homeless Veterans Food and Clothing Giveaway.’

Being a disabled vet, Wilson-Chatmon knows the harsh reality about men and women who have served the nation who now face homelessness and hunger.

Veteran or not, people who are in need of items, food and clothing are encouraged to come to the event, as many organizations around the city that assist those in need have strict qualifications that many don’t meet. Their goal is to look out for everyone because homelessness and hunger know no criteria.

The ladies hope to serve at least 50 personnel. Wilson-Chatmon wants to continue sponsoring events like this so that she and her team can become a well-established nonprofit organization that does more than hand out items in Memphis.

She wants to provide shelter and help rebuild communities and cater to everyone, especially those who don’t meet the qualifications of the larger organizations.

“No one deserves to sleep on the streets. As a community, it starts with us,” said Wilson-Chatmon. “We hope to inspire others to act no matter how small.”

Supporters of veterans can donate items such as water and clothing at Watson’s Barber & Beauty Shop on 2236 Pendleton St., until Aug. 9.

This article originally appeared in the New Tri-State Defender

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Push to ban plastic bag sat groceries falls short

NEW TRI-STATE DEFENDER — Plastic bags will still be used in grocery stores, despite some Memphis City Council members’ efforts to ban them. Tuesday, the council rejected an ordinance that would have required grocery stores to ban the use of plastic shopping bags.

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By Erica R. Williams

Plastic bags will still be used in grocery stores, despite some Memphis City Council members’ efforts to ban them. Tuesday, the council rejected an ordinance that would have required grocery stores to ban the use of plastic shopping bags.

“This is an effort for us to do something different in the State of Tennessee,” Councilman Berlin Boyd, who sponsored the ordinance, said before the vote.

Boyd has continued to push for the ban despite a recent state law barring cities from regulating single-use plastic such as grocery bags. He argues that using them is costing the city too much money.

“If we pass this here, it will give us the leverage to negotiate on a state level,” he told fellow council members.

Some have complained that lawmakers are considering the bans to cater to plastic-industry lobbyists. Boyd said that’s not it, pointing out that the city’s Division of Public Works spends $3 million each year to dispose of the bags.

Last year before proposing the ban, Boyd suggested a seven-cent fee on plastic bags that shoppers take from retail stores. He then reduced the proposed fee to five cents earlier this year.

In other action

* Memphis 3.0 was dropped from this council meeting’s agenda. Last month council members voted on hiring an outside consultant to review the comprehensive development plan. They will delay voting until after the consultant’s review of the plan.

The consultant has until September 17 to present findings.

The Memphis 3.0 plan had been challenged by New Chicago community members who believe the plan excludes some neighborhoods based on race. A $10 billion lawsuit filed against the city was later dismissed.

Mayor Jim Strickland has signed an executive order that allows parts of the 3.0 plan to move forward.

* Council members approved an honorary street name change for Bishop David Allen Hall Sr., longtime pastor of Temple Church of God In Christ at 672 S. Lauderdale. The resolution calls for a street name of East Georgia Ave. between South Lauderdale and South Orleans. Councilwoman Cheyenne Johnson sponsored the resolution.

* The council delayed voting on the third and final reading of an ordinance that would present new rules for public art placement.

This article originally appeared in the New Tri-State Defender

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Organization uses art to teach developmentally disabled

WAVE NEWSPAPERS — Located on Pacific Coast Highway, one of the busiest highways in the Los Angeles County sits an inconspicuous three-story building. Looking at the front of the building, the perception is it’s a typical office space for some paper-pushing company. But, step inside the first floor and the camouflage of the building disappears to reveal what Able ARTS Work is all about. 

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Able ARTS Work (Image by: ableartswork.org)
Able ARTS Work (Image by: ableartswork.org)

By Bria Overs

LONG BEACH — Located on Pacific Coast Highway, one of the busiest highways in the Los Angeles County sits an inconspicuous three-story building. Looking at the front of the building, the perception is it’s a typical office space for some paper-pushing company. But, step inside the first floor and the camouflage of the building disappears to reveal what Able ARTS Work is all about.

Every morning, clients, one by one, are dropped off by buses and vans coming from their homes. To start the day on a good foot, they’re greeted by the big, bright smiles of the staff and a welcoming “good morning.”

Within one room, there are people with a variety of different disabilities with varying levels of ability. Some may have an autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, intellectual or developmental disabilities, neurodegenerative disorders or other socio-emotional disorders. No matter their circumstance, they’re all ready for a day of activities.

“If you talk to our students here, they don’t view [being disabled] like a bad thing or a hindrance,” Art Instructor Ellen Bae said. “They think about it as something that’s just a part of them and they’re not ashamed to say it. They’re very aware they have a disability and they’re proud to be themselves, and I think that’s really important.”

Able ARTS Work started in 1982 in a Long Beach parks and recreation building with one music therapist, Helen Dolas, the founder, and was later joined by an art therapist and five students.

Dolas founded the program while completing her master’s degree in special education. From its humble beginnings, the organization’s services have grown and are now offered at four different locations in the Long Beach and South Bay areas.

To add to its uniqueness, each location provides different opportunities for their clients, but has overall become a safe space for the disabled with their philosophy of “love before learning.”

The Long Beach location, also known as the Achieving Results Together (ART) Center, operates on a six-month semester schedule and works a community center with each student signing up for a class or two, and then attending that class for a few weeks.

The icing on the cake is Able ARTS Works has its clients suggest classes. What they suggest, the teachers sometimes make.

“A lot of times we create them because we do something in a class and find that there’s a huge interest in it,” Katie Fohrman, program and community inclusion director, said.

“For example, we decided to do a marionette and [chose] to do a dog. So, I did the dog marionette with them and they named him Snoop, like Snoop Dogg,” Fohrman said with a laugh. “And it was so popular and they loved it so much and I found that it was so beneficial that I created an entire semester class on marionette and shadow puppet making.”

But their classes aren’t only about having fun and creating something to show people. Able ARTS Work is a program that has board-certified music and art therapists, like Fohrman, who is an associate professional clinical counselor for the program as well.

When clients are at Able ARTS Work they work on building skills and courage to do things out of their comfort zones.

Staff members like Bae and Fohrman love what they do. They’re passionate about the company’s mission and love helping their clients broaden their horizons every day.

It’s not just about art and music for them, it’s about how their clients can benefit from working with them in the long-run.

“I think they definitely gain a fellowship; they gain a partnership; and they also gain the confidence to chase their dreams and pursue what they really want to do,” Fohrman said. “A lot of our clients want to be professional artists and we provide that avenue for them. We provide that avenue for them to believe in themselves and follow their dreams.”

INFORMATION BOX

Organization: Able ARTS Work

Founder: Helen Dolas

Social Media: www.facebook.com/ableartswork

This article originally appeared in the Wave Newspapers

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Birmingham Promise Education program exceeded expectations, city officials say

BIRMINGHAM TIMES — The Birmingham Promise Initiative, launched this summer to build pathways into quality jobs for Birmingham City School (BCS) students, came to a successful conclusion last week, said city officials. Last week, 23 BCS students finished their apprenticeships at companies across the metro area and the program had an impact, said Mayor Randall Woodfin and Councilors on Tuesday.

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Birmingham City Council (Photo by: birminghamtimes.com)
Birmingham City Council (Photo by: birminghamtimes.com)

By Erica Wight

The Birmingham Promise Initiative, launched this summer to build pathways into quality jobs for Birmingham City School (BCS) students, came to a successful conclusion last week, said city officials.

Last week, 23 BCS students finished their apprenticeships at companies across the metro area and the program had an impact, said Mayor Randall Woodfin and Councilors on Tuesday.

“There’s now more work to do to make sure that many more high school students can participate in this program, so I’m proud of the success of the pilot but . . . I’m looking forward to engaging parents directly, students directly and employers about these opportunities and so to employers,” Woodfin said.

“Our economy is changing and you all talk about your gaps in workforce, here’s an opportunity to close that workforce gap . . . our parents need to know these options exist before their children walk across the stage and to our children who have the passion, as a city we’re here to support your dreams and make them come true before you walk across the stage.”

Councilor John Hilliard said during Tuesday’s council meeting, “We must change our direction of how we deal with education . . . we have to meet the demand the corporate community is asking. A four-year education is important but it’s not the only way to go . . . I think it’s important we instill in our young people a different type of work ethic and give them the opportunity on the front end rather than the back end to make things happen.”

The seven-week summer pilot is part of the larger Birmingham Promise Initiative, which will offer multiple pathways for Birmingham students to “earn and learn” as they develop skills to prepare for jobs in industries that are growing in the regional economy.

The inaugural apprenticeships involved a vocational education component and work-based learning opportunities that were guided by a mentor. The pilot was complemented by the City of Birmingham’s partnership with Southern New Hampshire University, a national leader in delivering digital education to youth, the Jefferson County Commission on Economic Opportunity (JCCEO) and the city’s Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity.

Councilor Wardine Alexander said the Birmingham Promise prepares students to be college and career ready.

“When I served on the Board of Education, I had the pleasure to shake the hands of every student who graduated from the City of Birmingham… I think the mayor will remember we had one board member who would always ask the students as they were going through the line, ‘what’s your next goal’ and often students were not able to tell us what their goal was or what they were going to do,” said Alexander.

Birmingham Promise gave students the opportunity to work with Fortune 500 companies, earn a salary and have an idea of what they were going to do, Alexander said.

Council President Valerie Abbott, who attended graduation ceremony for the students along with Mayor Randall Woodfin, Alexander and Hilliard, said she was inspired by the students.

“Just to see those young people, they were full grown adults and doing those jobs, it was very impressive,” said Abbott. “We do need more people in the corporate community, but businesses of any kind can use an intern. It doesn’t have to be a corporation… we have so many students to benefit from that opportunity and only a handful got to participate in this pilot. We need hundreds of businesses to take on these young people so they can learn. I was just inspired by the quality of the young people and how inspired they were and their level of enthusiasm was just wonderful. I think we all need to encourage as many businesses as we can to participate.”

The following employers participated in the Birmingham Promise pilot program this summer:

  • Alabama Futures Fund
  • Alabama Power Company
  • Altec
  • Baptist Princeton
  • BIG Communications
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield
  • Brasfield & Gorrie
  • Encompass Health
  • HOAR Construction
  • Mayer
  • Pack Health
  • Protective
  • Renasant Bank
  • Regions
  • Shipt
  • Spire
  • Vincent’s
  • Theranest
  • UAB
  • Vulcan Materials

This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.

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Meet Birmingham’s Felicia Johnson, President of American Business Women’s Association

BIRMINGHAM TIMES — As national president of the American Business Women’s Association (ABWA), Birmingham’s Felicia Johnson helps women grow through leadership, education, networking support, and national recognition. Johnson was elected last fall, and said her journey to the presidency has a lot to do with her service in the Magic City.

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Felicia Johnson (Photo by: birminghamtimes.com)
Felicia Johnson (Photo by: birminghamtimes.com)

By Ameera Steward

As national president of the American Business Women’s Association (ABWA), Birmingham’s Felicia Johnson helps women grow through leadership, education, networking support, and national recognition. Johnson was elected last fall, and said her journey to the presidency has a lot to do with her service in the Magic City.

“For me to be able to win, it’s phenomenal,” said Johnson, who joined the ABWA in 2003. “It’s awesome to know that people have that much confidence in me to [elect me] to lead this association.

“I’ve served in every leadership role on the local level. … When you do that, you get to interact with people, and people watch you over the years. When you look at where I came from and [see that] our chapter is not a large chapter, it’s special to get the [national vote].”

Johnson has served as president of the ABWA’s Birmingham chapter three times, beginning in 2006, and she was recently voted president for a fourth time this year.

“I’ve been in the association for more than 16 years, so over the course of that time people have watched me grow … [and] watched me at different events,” she said. “I think a lot of it has to do with personality, leadership skills, how well you get along with others.”

In addition to working on the local level, Johnson was instrumental in forming the ABWA’s Alabama Council in 2014, which is made up of chapters from Montgomery, Huntsville, Birmingham, and Anniston. She served as committee chair of the statewide council for 2014 and 2016, attending regional and national meetings to become more involved. Eventually, women on the national board asked if Johnson would consider a leadership position.

“After interacting with different people, I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can do something,’” she said. “So, I decided I would try.”

Johnson was elected ABWA president during the group’s 69th National Women’s Leadership Conference in Augusta, Ga., in October 2018. She also serves as the trustee for a foundation through which the association provides scholarships for women.

As national president of the Kansas City-based ABWA, Johnson oversees a nine-member executive board and six districts, each of which is represented by a vice president: “All of us together govern … all of the women across the U.S.,” she said.

Musically Inclined

Johnson, 58, was born and raised on the east side of Birmingham, where W.C. Patton Park is now located. She graduated from Carol W. Hayes High School in 1979. She attended Tennessee State University (TSU) in Nashville, where she was a biology major with a minor in chemistry; she graduated in 1983. During her time in college, she played baritone saxophone in the jazz and concert bands, in addition to playing tenor sax in the marching band—where she made history as TSU’s first female drum major in 1981.

“I love music: I sing, and I play. Music is a very important part of my life,” said Johnson, who is a lead singer and an alto with the W.J. Nickols Gospel Ensemble, a community choir in Birmingham that she’s been with for about 15 years, as well as with the Bernard Bowden Voices of Faith, a group she’s been part of for the past four years.

She also plays piano at her church, Mt. Sinai Baptist Church on 14th Avenue North in Birmingham, where her husband of eight years, James Johnson, is the pastor.

“If you’re ever around me for long, I’ll be singing,” she said. “I’ve always got a song in my head. … Music is ingrained in me.”

In fact, Johnson grew up in a musical family. Her father, John Carter, who passed away two years ago, was a musician and singer who played trombone and sang at Ullman High School and at New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in East Lake on Kentucky Avenue. And her mother, Hattie Carter, sings at New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.

Johnson’s siblings, two sisters and one brother, are musically inclined, as well. Her brother, John G. Carter, is the leader of and a singer with the Bernard Bowden Voices of Faith and also plays trombone, which he’s played since high school. Her older sister plays “any woodwind or reed instrument, such as the bassoon, oboe, and clarinet,” but she doesn’t sing. Her youngest sister, who sings and plays the piano and clarinet, sometimes serves as a backup musician at her church in Chicago.

“Music has been in our household throughout my life,” Johnson said. “All my life, when I sing, especially when I do gospel, it’s freeing and allows me to let the spirit of God that’s in me hopefully minister to other people.”

Her love of music goes beyond family and church, too. Johnson, who has been a business manager for AT&T Corp. since 1985, is also part of the Connie Carson AT&T Pioneer Singers, which is part of the AT&T Pioneers volunteer network. The group performs at company events, Christmas celebrations, and veteran’s parades, in addition to visiting and performing at nursing homes.

Joy of Reading

Johnson is also an avid reader. No matter what it the subject matter, “I love to read,” she said, adding that she is currently reading the ABWA’s two publications: Women in Business magazine and the Achieve newsletter.

She and her younger sister share their book lists, which they did recently, so Johnson is in the process of choosing something from her sister’s list. The last book Johnson read was Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.”

“I love that book. … It was a good read,” she said, adding that she recently finished “An American Marriage,” as a light read.

Johnson loves reading so much that she also works with Better Basics, a program that provides literacy intervention and enrichment activities for students in area schools. She reads to second graders through the “Ready to Read” initiative “… just [to] give students a love for reading,” she said. “I tell them, ‘You can go anywhere in your mind when you read.’”

Providing Service

In all areas of her life—whether through her work with the AWBA or her love of music and reading—Johnson has a passion for service. She is a board member with the James Lewis Tennis Scholarship Foundation, which gives “children from the inner city a love for tennis” and has an educational component. She has been with the foundation for nine years and currently serves as its vice president.

Johnson has been a mentor with the Dannon Project, a mentorship program and nonprofit organization that helps unemployed or underemployed at-risk youth and nonviolent offenders reentering society, for six years. She has served as scholarship brunch chair for the TSU Alumni Association for the last two years. She is president of the South Cahaba Council of the AT&T Pioneers volunteer network that works in the community. She’s a professional clown, too.

Johnson is known as FeFe Felicity the clown, and she appears at the children’s parade during Mardi Gras in Mobile, visits nursing homes, and participates in Veteran’s Day parades. She has been a clown for 10 years and is part of a clown alley, a term used to describe a group of clowns. She is a member of the Magic City Town Clowns, as well as an AT&T Pioneer clown.

“A lot of my volunteer work is done in association with AT&T Pioneers, but … I am owner of the name and business [of] FeFe Felicity, so I can do paid events [and] volunteer,” Johnson said, adding that FeFe is for anyone that wants to have a good time, not just children.

“FeFe gives you fun, honey. … Just a bundle of fun.”

Speaking of children, they are a big part of Johnson’s life. She and her husband have a total of 11 children from previous marriages, 17 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

“We’re a blended family,” she said. “We take [the grandchildren] as they come. … We still have five children that haven’t had any children, so there’s potential to grow.”

Johnson said service “gives her a fulfillment that she is able to give back.”

“I feel like I’m helping people, especially around education,” she said. “I think education is the only thing that will allow you to move forward. Once you get it in [your mind], nobody can take it from you.

“Being able to give back and help other people see the importance of education helps [them] grow. I think we ought to be able to bring somebody up … and send them on to go farther than [we’ve gone].”

This article originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.

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