From grief to greater understanding: One mother’s quest to heal both sides of the criminal justice divide

Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder of Mothers in Charge, sitting before a painting of her murdered son, Khaliiq Jabbar Johnson. (Bastiaan Slabbers for Keystone Crossroads)

Dorothy Johnson-Speight, founder of Mothers in Charge, sitting before a painting of her murdered son, Khaliiq Jabbar Johnson. (Bastiaan Slabbers for Keystone Crossroads)

Dorothy Johnson-Speight still holds the burden of a mother’s pain.

Her 24 year-old son Khaliiq Jabbar Johnson was shot dead over a dispute about a parking space in Philadelphia in 2001.

In the wake of the tragedy, the grief that overwhelmed Johnson-Speight needed a release.

That’s when she founded Mothers in Charge, Inc. as a support system for women like her who lost their children to the streets.

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“[It] became the vehicle for my anger and my pain and everything that I felt after the murder of Khaliiq,” she said.

Fifteen years later, Johnson-Speight has moved from grief to greater understanding — defying a stereotype in debates about the criminal justice system.

To her, it’s a false choice to either side with police and victims, or sympathize with the rights of defendants and the effects of mass incarceration.

In communities greatly affected by violence, Johnson-Speight knows the line between the two sides is often blurred, and so the mission of her group has evolved to include both sides.

This was evident after a recent prayer service in North Philadelphia, where Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church honored the group’s long-term commitment to improving the community.

As the crowd was filling out, a woman approached Johnson-Speight to tell her she had lost a son to violence too — but he was the one who pulled the trigger.

“We’re losing on both sides,” said Johnson-Speight about the interaction. “Somehow we’ve got to find a way that the mothers on both sides begin to work together and stand up to the violence that’s in our communities, because no one’s winning. We’re losing them to incarceration or the cemetery — because both is death.”

In recent years, Mothers in Charge shifted from grief support to violence prevention and has spawned a whole new roster of preemptive programs.

One teaches people how to advocate for themselves in their own criminal cases. Others help those dealing with anger or substance abuse issues. Johnson-Speight started another program after a visit to a women’s prison.

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“I saw so many women who were caught up in the criminal justice system who didn’t understand — had not a clue in terms of their rights and understanding the system at all,” she said. “So I always wanted to figure out, ‘How could I educate them?'”

That experienced spawned the Thinking for a Change initiative, which proved to be very beneficial for Valerie Todd.  She was serving time for armed robbery when she connected with Johnson-Speight.

“I had 2 ‘cellies,’ and we’re in jail, and it’s gloomy. But they were happy because they were involved with Mothers in Charge,” said Todd. “They would come back to the cell and say, ‘If you change a woman’s thinking, you change a woman.’”

Todd soon began working in the program, and since her release from prison she’s keeps volunteering with Johnson-Speight, who she considers a mentor.  

“She’s just taken me to different levels of life,” said Todd. “It guides me, it really guides me.”

To some, it may seem unrealistic to think that a mother who lost her son to violence would spend time worrying about the fate of inmates, but to Johnson-Speight, it’s now second nature.

“The pain for me is the worst pain in the world to have to bury my son and never see him again while I live on the face of the earth,” she said. “But I also understand the pain of a mother whose son is incarcerated for the rest of his life….a mother’s pain is a mother’s pain.”

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