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For Activist Katelyn Johnson, Every Problem Has A Resolution

Written by on June 9, 2022

Katelyn Johnson builds potential for the future by fighting for Black liberation in the present.

Executive director of Blackroots Alliance Katelyn Johnson strives to uplift Chicago’s Black communities by connecting organizers and helping individuals discover their power to make change. Blackroots Alliance is a network connecting Chicago organizations dedicated to the pursuit of Black liberation through uplifting, empowering, healing and addressing issues within Black communities.

Johnson, though, admittedly, culture-shocked coming from her 5,000-person Pennsylvania hometown, instantly fell in love with Chicago the first time she visited. Upon moving to the city, she found a deep connection to community which, in many ways, became the driving force behind her work in activism and solving community-based issues.

“There’s challenges everywhere, and I think that [in] Chicago, because it’s a big city that feels like a small town sometimes, those challenges may seem really big,” she said. “Every challenge that I can think of, I can think of a way to resolve it in some ways.”

Katelyn Johnson on the rooftop of the Bronzeville Incubator shared creative space.
Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

Already a vocal community activist, Johnson and others began Blackroots in 2015 with the idea of working toward Black liberation. Over the next four years, the group realized a need for a more formal alliance pushing for change through policy and giving a platform to Black leaders. In 2019, they formally incorporated as an alliance to begin building relationships with organizations around the city like Ujimaa Medics, Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL) and Black Lives Matter Chicago. 

The primary goals of Blackroots Alliance are rooted in community togetherness. Johnson explains their primary objectives as repairing harms from anti-Blackness and slavery, repairing harms in terms of public safety, especially in cases of sexual trauma, and investing in the next generation of grassroots leaders.

“We want to be able to shape the changes that are happening, and we fundamentally believe that a better future is possible,” she explained.

For this installment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Katelyn Johnson discusses the importance of uplifting Black leaders, staying grounded in the present and how the work of organizers at Blackroots Alliance helps shape a brighter future.

What do you do, and how did Blackroots Alliance start?

What I do is build networks and connect people to deeper expressions of themselves and power that they can build to change the world. Blackroots Alliance started as an idea back in 2015, and we actually didn’t incorporate until 2019. It came out of a response with Black-led organizations wanting to be in organizing spaces and in a different energy. And relate to each other differently, and wanting to do work that was, you know, meaningful and shaping social change from a set of values that were based on believing in abundance and not scarcity. Believing in deep relationship, and not transactional relationships. And so in 2019, we incorporated and began building with partners.

The Incubator’s rooftop overlooks the 51st Street CTA Green Line station, quiet on the morning of Tuesday, May 24.
Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

Who is part of the alliance, and what does it mean for these organizations to be connected this way?

The organizations that are part of the alliance are Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), Equity and Transformation (E.A.T.), Grow Greater Englewood, Black Lives Matter Chicago and Ujimaa Medics. Our relationship to our partners and kind of the ecosystem that we build and the networks that we’re a part of shape how we see social change and shape how we relate to being non-profits and how we relate to being organizers and how we actually are working to decolonize our minds about how we relate to everything else.

Tell us about your relationship to Chicago. Are you from here? How has Chicago shaped you?

When I was a sophomore in high school, my church came to Chicago for some, like, youth convention, and everybody hated the city except me. I instantly fell in love. I used to just ride the Red Line, and anytime something sparkly caught my attention, I would get off and explore the neighborhood.

When I first came here, it was a culture shock. The town that I grew up in had 5,000 people in it. So like, my neighborhood now has more people than the town that I grew up in. Like, I might’ve been raised in Pennsylvania, but I became an adult in Chicago. I found myself in Chicago. And I think because of the way that I got connected to community in Chicago, I was able to express myself, able to… find my own path. And I think, in many ways, that’s been … unique to the Chicago experience for me.

Johnson’s spirituality helps her to stay grounded, and stay focused on the present — a central ideal behind her work.
Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

What are you into when you’re not organizing and leading the Blackroots Alliance?

I’m a big nerd, and anyone who knows me will know that. I love science fiction. I love Afrofuturism. I love playing video games. I love being with family. As a deeply spiritual person, my daily spiritual practice also grounds me and helps me, I think keeps me focused on what’s real, what’s important. The world that I want to live in. 

Being able to have the balance of the lake, the actual physical space of the lake and being able to be reminded… that that lake existed before all of the things that we’re experiencing. And if we do our work to prevent climate change — to address climate change, I guess you can’t prevent it at this point, but to address climate change, that lake will be here after us. And moments like that, I think, are unique to being able to be in Chicago. We have that there for us.

What are the challenges and triumphs you associate with Chicago?

I’m currently challenged by parking tickets! [Laughs] I think, you know, there’s challenges everywhere. And I think that Chicago, because it’s a big city that feels like a small town sometimes, those challenges may seem really big. And I think some of the challenges include really feeling safe in some places, but having community to help support you in that safety. So it’s like, every challenge that I can think of, I can think of a way to resolve it in some ways. The conditions of living in Chicago, both socially and environmentally, inspire a certain grit. One of the things that I’ve always been struck by is, when I talked to folks who have been here their entire lives, like, have this, “if I can survive Chicago, I can survive anywhere” mentality. And that’s actually kind of beautiful to me.

What is Blackroots Alliance focus right now, and why form an alliance?

The three main things we’re working on now are reparations, and that includes repairing the harms from anti-Blackness and slavery, repairing harms from lack of public safety — in particular, as it relates to survivors of sexual trauma — and a new program, which is kind of living in the world post-repair, called Seeding the Future, where we’re investing in grassroots leaders to shape the future.

There’s a million reasons to shape an alliance. We shaped this alliance because we wanted to be in long-term principled struggle with one another and commit to helping all of us become successful. And if one of us is doing well, we’re all doing well. If none of us is doing well… you know, we really want to be able to sharpen each other. Each of our partners has their own lane. We are all kind of like a thought cloud. Like, we all sharpen each other’s analysis, we all inspire each other. And then, in times when we need to put boots on the ground and do work together, we do that, too. 

Living in a “both, and” universe, we’re able to talk to community members, like, Blackroots Alliance has a canvass that, you know, right now is talking to people about reparations, but we also are able to help build virtual experiences for folks and be able to help with backend nonprofit management stuff for folks. And so, you know, we really kind of exist to be… a “both, and,” an added value for our partners and help shift public narrative, public thinking, collective consciousness towards greater expressions of justice. And we want to be able to shape the changes that are happening and we fundamentally believe that a better future is possible. And we fundamentally believe that, in order to get there, we have to practice the values now and, in some ways, live the liberation that we’re fighting for.

When you think of your legacy, what do you hope for? What does your legacy mean to you?

When I think about my legacy, I actually think of the legacies who I am… Like, how I am a descendant of an amazing group of people. My family, my father, who recently transitioned, my mentors in Chicago in community organizing… and I think that legacy is not an end point. It’s a continuum, it’s a continuation. And so I would hope that my legacy is inspirational, that people have learned more about themselves by interacting with me and have reconnected to their own power through me, through the work that I’ve done, through the organizations that I’ve supported, and that they’ve been inspired to take ownership of this experience of being human on this planet. Take ownership of being a Chicagoan, and wield that power to be whomever they want to be, to create the city that they want to create and to create the world.

Much of Johnson’s work and the work of Blackroots is facilitating deep relationships between organizers, groups and communities — not transactional ones.
Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio

What is something you feel is intrinsic to this work that folks need to be reminded of?

Blackroots Alliance folks, when we talk about the world that we want to live in, and the future being now, folks can kind of write it off as like, pie in the sky… but it’s actually, like, really grounded in a practice of now is all we have. Like, the past isn’t real, the future isn’t actually real. It is always perpetually now. And so being able to live in the values of equity, interdependence, and abundance and imagination, all of those things happen now. And so, while we are shaping a chronological future that we’ll experience, we can live all those things now, and that’s part of our work, too.

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago — enriching us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Interview, audio production and transcription by Ari Mejia

Written introduction, photography and transcript edit for clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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