For Isaiah Johnson, growing up in Baltimore’s Greenmount East neighborhood was challenging. Crime and drugs were common. But Johnson always had basketball and he was good at it. “Basketball saved my life,” he says. It allowed him to get outside of Greenmount and see other places, and it also provided powerful guidance from coaches, mentors, and teachers.
Johnson earned a degree in social work from Bowie State University, one of Maryland’s oldest Historically Black College and Universities, and worked in Washington, DC. But he always knew he wanted to return to his old neighborhood to provide the kind of perspective and mentoring that helped him. His experience and knowledge as a social worker gave him the skills to come back and support the community where he grew up. “I had the opportunity to explore, to get out and see the world and try new things,” says Johnson. “I want to give back to the kids who don’t have a lot of opportunities.”
Like his mentors and coaches before him, Johnson returned to the community to help steer youth away from the same challenges he once faced. Johnson founded the Greenmount East Leadership Project (GELP) to provide kids between the ages of 10 and 19 with positive activities and role models. “Many kids in the neighborhood don’t have positive outlets for their energy,” says Johnson. He wants to change that with GELP, by offering activities that promote leadership and life skills, conflict resolution, and positive relationships with peers and adults
Johnson began with a neighborhood basketball league, which quickly evolved into weekly boot camps and fitness and health classes for kids and their parents. He added regular events, such as kid-friendly “sip and paint” nights—where the kids come to hang out, create art, and talk about self-expression and self-esteem. In addition, he assists teenagers with resume development, finding employment, and interview preparation.
Since the pandemic began, Johnson has adjusted, shifting some activities online. He has helped kids get laptops for school and has set up socially distanced weekly walks around Lake Montebello to allow the kids have some time outside.
Even with the challenges of COVID-19, Johnson continues to expand what GELP offers. Working with The Center for Adolescent Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, he is developing a health and sex education class. He is planning a series of field trips to sites around the Baltimore metropolitan area as well as to surrounding states, so that kids can gain exposure to environments and cultures beyond Greenmount East. In addition, Johnson is working with BMore Say Yes to create a program that will pay young people to clean the neighborhood.
“Getting kids involved in positive, self-affirming activities will show them their true potential,” says Johnson. He wants them to see that they can do more than is expected of them. “These kids are not ‘at-risk youth,’” he says. “They live in an at-risk environment.”
The OSI Community Fellowship will be enormously helpful, he says. “I’ve been working hard on this, but the fellowship will allow me to go full-out, 100%. Now we’ll be able to do things on a much bigger scale.”