In recent weeks, EJP highlighted an article from the Chicago Sun, written by EJP alum Johnny Page-then co-director of programs and partnerships for ConTextos. His op-ed (https://chicago.suntimes.com/2022/5/18/23095977/violence-interrupters-chicago-shootings-seandell-holliday-bean-millenium-park-contextos-op-ed) commented on the need for more proactivity within the violence prevention landscape of Chicago. Johnny also made a call for the removal of barriers for those with lived experiences to deliver programming within the public school system as violence interrupters and credible messengers to Chicago’s youth.
After recent outbursts of violence in the city over the 4th of July, Johnny’s justification for a proactive response to violence, rather than responsive or reactive, rings truer than ever. “[Violence prevention] has to be intentional,” Johnny says. “Engaging with the young adult community must begin as early as possible. We want to get to them before they are engaged in the criminal justice system, before they get active in the streets.”
Johnny Page further shares how this will require big-picture systemic impact. Increasing access to resources within a community can make a tremendous difference. He states that the young adults need to be socialized in a particular manner- educating them in conflict resolution, and helping their social-emotional learning. For certain youth, this type of education should take similar priority with their academic education.
“When this occurs, it carries over into their own individual well-being, and their relationships. It’s great if you can show high performance on a standardized test, but if you can’t connect with people or be in a space where your emotional intelligence is impacted, that will impact your quality of life.” Johnny says. “ You may be great at math, but the rest of your life falls apart. Not adjusting to academic excellence or not performing well, you can get overlooked, but without investment in social and emotional well-being there’s no structure in place for them to be able to learn academically to start with.”
Johnny’s own education has paved the way for him to positively impact youth programs in Chicago. Born and raised in Woodlawn, Johnny’s path eventually led him to Danville Correctional where he encountered EJP in its first class at the center. “EJP was the first to bring resources into the prison. They created space for us to have access to programs and relationships with the community at large. They supported us on the inside and poured into us as students.”
“I give EJP credit for providing us opportunities to learn, to lead, to speak, and to have our voices heard,” Johnny states. “It kept me engaged and it was meaningful.”
Released in 2014, Johnny continued his education by immediately enrolling in school. He pursued psychology with a clinical focus in his undergraduate studies. After facing challenges in pursuing licensure (a common hurdle for returning citizens pursuing careers) Johnny started working as a hospital responder. “We were doing violence interrupter work, being present for people in the very worst moments of their lives, “ Johnny shares. It wasn’t long after that, that ConTextos reached out looking for help facilitating and directing programs and partnerships.
Through storytelling and programming, ConTextos teaches young adults to engage with their stories and trains teachers to see or recognize lived experience, and to help these students communicate. The organization also helps teachers to be more individualistic. Identifying processes that help young individuals share what they need, helps educators gain more information than they would normally gather. “In our training, we know what to look for. Stories we need to tell, want to tell, but don’t often tell,” Page shares.
Johnny Page’s personal education, his anti-violence program experience, and his own lived experience in the judicial system makes him more than a credible messenger in violence prevention. While the landscape in Chicago has changed, the slow growth can be disheartening. “I’m excited about the sheer amount of resources to support the work, because 5 years ago we didn’t have these resources,” Johnny says, “ I believe that we’ll get a handle on things, but we have to continue to innovate. We can’t repeat what we’ve tried in the past. Things have changed, technology and the way we think about violence has changed.”
Considering these changes, Johnny reiterates that when it comes to violence prevention, those with lived experience must be able to engage with the city’s youth during the school day in public school spaces. Because of municipal barriers, credible messengers can’t engage with populations that need their programming the most. “What is the likelihood of us getting access to these young adults after hours?” Johnny asks, “We do most of our programming outside of school, but most young people spend most of their day in the school, being socialized inside the school. To support them the most, we should be inside the space where they are being socialized the most.”
“We are living proof,” Page states, “We show them what is possible and beyond.” He goes on to explain, “Whatever makes you system-impacted is a scar. It reminds you of where you’ve been. Leading by example, we use storytelling to help people move past their worst mistakes, and collectively connect with the growth of an individual.”
“It is not despite my background that I can do this job. It is because of my background, though, I’m excellent at it.” – Johnny Page
Johnny Page is excited to continue the mission of ConTextos as he transitions to executive director over the next few months. Moving forward, he is excited about the work currently in motion because he knows that they are offering something different. “Violence is symptomatic of a disrupted ecosystem. We need to weed out the things that are creating problems for communities,” Page says, “We are ready to create spaces for people to heal, talk through their problems, and walk in their purpose.”