OIC leader Kevin Johnson talks tech jobs, Bright Hope controversy, and Philly’s next mayor

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 Kevin Johnson is director of Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Kevin Johnson is director of Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Editor’s note: The wrong audio accompanied an earlier version of this story.

The Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center is one of the region’s oldest and largest providers of job-training and career-development services. The nonprofit is committed to combating poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy.

Last month, the Rev. Dr. Kevin R. Johnson took the reins, succeeding president and CEO Robert Nelson, who retired after 30 years.

Johnson is confident that Philadelphia is equipped to help those citizens who struggle most. “I think Philadelphia is poised to help out not just people at OIC, but really folk all across this great city,” he said.

Founded in 1964 by Dr. Leon Sulllivan, the pastor of Zion Baptist Church,  OIC has provided adult education, job training, GED instruction, and after-school and hospitality programs for decades. Now OIC is shifting its focus in some ways toward an emphasis on digital literacy.

Half of Philadelphia’s adult population is considered low-literate, according to the Center for Literacy, meaning many would have trouble filling out a job application. And Johnson said literacy is the first step in helping the city’s struggling population find employment.

“You start to see that cycle that continues from generation to generation,” he said. “The other day, I gave a quote — ‘some men and women succeed because they are destined to, but most men and women succeed because they are determined to.’ And after I said that, [one of the students] said, ‘How do you spell the word destined?’

‘That’s how deep illiteracy is in Philadelphia.” he said.

Further, he said, OIC has to broaden its focus beyond serving the unemployed to helping the under-employed.

“We really have to get into the tech jobs,” Johnson said, “because that’s when people can start making $85,000 a year.”

Johnson grew up in Texas and began preaching when he was 16. In his last job, he served as senior pastor of Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia. The rhetorical skills he honed over the years have helped him connect with people who arrive at OIC, he said.

“When I see the people coming through the doors, they’ve given up hope. They have given up on themselves,” Johnson said.

“So while I don’t use God or Yahweh, I still inspire them … it may be a quote by Langston Hughes or it may be a quote by Harry Truman. It may be a quote by Winston Churchill,” he said. “I try to inspire people because I know what inspiration did for me.”

Johnson left his post at Bright Hope Baptist Church amid reports that congregants felt rebuffed by him when they asked about the church’s finances, including his salary.

Johnson said he was transparent about finances and his salry, adding that the controversy stemmed from a time last year when he thought briefly of running for mayor.

With the primary election less than three months away, Johnson said Philadelphia needs a leader who can make it a world-class city.

“Whoever becomes the next mayor must be that person who can speak to the hearts and to the minds of the next generation,” he said.

“And for me, it’s about creating good-paying jobs right here in Philadelphia,” Johnson said. “And if we can do that at OIC, then we can start to replicate that around the nation.”

 

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