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Mothers in Charge founder sees growing need to fight violence

The Philadelphia Tribune, News Report, Larry Miller Posted: Jun 15, 2009

Dorothy Johnson-Speight never planned to start an organization dedicated to ending the violence in the streets and helping those dealing with that pain and grief.

But in December 2001, when her son, 24-year old Khaaliq Johnson, was shot eight times by a violent repeat offender over a parking space, she knew she had to do something.

In a city as large as Philadelphia where the bloodshed has been too frequent for the last few years, there are thousands of mothers and family members dealing with the grief of having lost a son or daughter to the violence.

They need help in managing that particular kind of grief and the emotional distress that comes along with it.

Johnson-Speight, founder of the anti-violence advocacy group Mothers in Charge, has been on the front lines for six years now pleading for peace in the streets. She and other members of the group are a visible presence at peace rallies, anti-violence seminars and gun legislation protests.

Their purpose is to change things so that other mothers wont have to live with the grief that never goes away. Many of those compelling stories are chronicled in the new book, Mothers in Charge Faces of Courage.
How many are there? Just take the number of murders in this city for the last few years and multiply it, said Johnson-Speight, whose niece, Lisa Speight-Eatmon, was also killed in 2005. She was nine-months pregnant.

Theres no way to know how many women are out there who havent been reached, she said. Theyre grieving and in many cases dont know the resources that are available to help them. Many are just self-medicating, drinking or using drugs. All that does is make the grieving process more difficult.

Mothers in Charge is just one of many nonprofit anti-violence groups in Philadelphia. Each one adds its own strength and vision to ending the plague of violence and lawlessness that has consumed communities across the city.

The mission of Mothers In Charge is violence prevention, education and intervention. The organization works with state and local elected officials on legislation to support safe neighborhoods and also with other community groups and the faith-based community.

Mothers In Charge is comprised of women committed to working toward savings lives and most of them have experience firsthand the nightmare of having someone they love murdered.

Khaaliq Johnson was a University of Maryland Eastern Shore graduate, who had been accepted into a masters program.

Johnson-Speight believes that her son would still be alive if the killer, Ernest Odom, did not have easy access to a gun.

Odom, a career criminal with 12 prior arrests, was also convicted for the murder of Justin Donnelly, who was stabbed to death five months earlier. He is now serving two life sentences for both murders. In 2003, Johnson-Speight and Ruth Donnelly joined other grieving mothers in starting the support organization.

Some days it feels like a lifetime ago. Sometimes it feels like it just happened yesterday, Johnson-Speight said. Anything can happen that brings it back to you. The women we counsel, who are going through their own grieving process, touch us with their pain and that brings to mind our own losses.

LiRon Anderson-Bell, of the Philadelphia Black Public Relations Society, said that the need for the organization is great. Mothers in Charge has chapters in New York, North Carolina, Georgia and California and Anderson-Bell said that contrary to the thoughts of some, the bloodshed is a nationwide problem.

After six years, it is abundantly clear that this organization still has very had work to do, said LiRon Anderson-Bell, who is promoting the book. The issue of violence in the community is still just as relevant as it was when Mothers in Charge was founded.

Were also seeing a trend of violence towards women in the community and by community, I mean the community at large. This organization tends to be thought of as a Black organization but there are multicultural members and violence in Philadelphia is not something that just affects African Americans. It affects all of us nationwide.

Like many urban centers, Philadelphia is wrestling with the problems of crime and violence caused by repeat offenders. Over the last several years, the number of homicides was rising, as was the number of non-fatal shootings and an overwhelming percentage of the victims and perpetrators are African Americans but not all.

One of the perceptions, the stereotype, is that somehow the victims deserved what they got, Johnson-Speight said. But anyone looking at the book sees a different picture. It shows that many of these people were not involved in crime, but lost their lives innocently.

People need to know that not everyone who is shot seven times at 2 in the morning, like my son Khaaliq, was dealing drugs or involved in some other crime.

As of Tribune press time, the number of homicides in the city has climbed to 128. That is a decrease from the same time for 2008, but its still a high figure.

According to the FBIs Uniform Crime Report for 2007 there were 719 homicides in Pennsylvania 527 by firearms. Philadelphia Police Department statistics show there were 392 homicides in the city for 2007 and the figure for 2008 stood at 332.

Violent repeat offenders, who used illegally obtained handguns, committed most of those murders.

One problem that were seeing more of is violence against women, Johnson Speight said. My own niece was nine months pregnant when she died at the hands of her boyfriend. Violence against females doesnt get the same coverage in the media.

I met a mother a few days ago whose 22-year-old daughter was murdered. The woman told me that she had a bad feeling about the guy he was wearing an ankle bracelet, he was awaiting trial. But her daughter told her mother that she was grown, that she knew what she was doing. Anyone can become a victim. What we need to deal with all of this is a national agenda. We need mothers across the country screaming about this.

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