DeAngelo Johson is different.
It’s obvious from the moment you begin a conversation with the East Garfield Park native. He speaks with a spark in his voice, always with an optimistic outlook about the topic, the day at hand, and his community.
He’s never seen his neighborhood as a burden, as something to be ashamed of, to run away from. No, his vision is about building a thriving community by thinking outside the box to show a world of possibilities to Westside youth.
“You’re not guilty now, but you will be eventually.”
DeAngelo was just 12-years-old when he heard those words. Clad in a school uniform with his backpack slung over his shoulder, he was taking the long way home that his parents warned against after an early release from school.
What started as a few questions being yelled out of the car window turned into an impromptu interrogation from the patrolling Chicago Police officer.
“The car slowly approached me,” DeAngelo recalled. “He yelled out the window, ‘What are you doing?’”
The officer stopped and got out of the car, clutching his gun while he continued his questioning. DeAngelo was nervous, unsure what would happen. Terrified.
“I was stuttering to get my words out. I was scared.”
The officer said he stopped the young DeAngelo because he “looked suspicious,” a perplexing assessment of the situation to the happy-go-lucky kid walking home from school.
It wasn’t until a few years later that he started to understand the implication of the officer’s words.
Anger could have grown. Resentment could have lingered. But DeAngelo Johnson is different.
He didn’t accept any sort of predetermination that he’d end up another statistic. He wasn’t about to write himself off or dismiss his potential like the officer had so casually done.
Instead of finding himself in the system, DeAngelo was motivated to change the system.
“It was because of that interaction - I didn’t want anyone else to feel what I felt in that moment,” said DeAngelo. “I wanted to change the narrative about police and how people felt about police officers in the community, especially young black men. I didn’t want people to feel fear when they saw a police officer.”
As soon as he was eligible, he submitted his application to the Chicago Police Department. Always a physical specimen, he aced the physical evaluation, then earned top marks on the written test. This was his moment…until it wasn’t.
He never heard back.
Cum Laude is inscribed on his degree from the University of Illinois Chicago - a degree in criminology, of course. “With praise,” is a fitting commendation for DeAngelo; he’s handled himself with aplomb from an early age, treating challenging situations as an opportunity for growth, eschewing any inclination to sulk.
Silence from the CPD recruiting office was a blessing in disguise.
“I had that dream for so long,” DeAngelo remembered, “but now I’ve found another passion.”
Breakthrough Urban Ministries is a hyper-local, faith-based, nonprofit organization that provides a myriad of services focused on a profoundly simple formula: people first.
When Breakthrough came calling with a summertime opportunity during DeAngelo’s undergraduate studies, it was an easy decision.
“I feel like I’m changing individual lives.”
DeAngelo now oversees Breakthrough’s Sports and Fitness Academy for children ages 6 through 18 and serves as a lead mentor for middle school students as part of his role as the Associate Director of Sports and Fitness.
It’s a role that is seemingly tailor-made for his optimistic, boundless approach to community service.
“I feel like being within the community, here at a youth facility, doing this work is where I need to be in my life, in this moment.”
Breakthrough’s 40-block focus is in the heart of East Garfield Park, bordered by California Avenue to the east, Franklin Boulevard to the north, Madison Street to the south and Central Park to the west.
You’ll find the standard sports leagues and fitness offerings when you visit the Sports and Fitness Academy, but we’re talking about DeAngelo Johnson, who’s introducing his mentees to a world they never thought to explore.
From big-ticket sports such as triathlon, where equipment and registration fees limit access, to location-driven activities like rock climbing, and training-heavy endeavors such as distance running have all found their way into the lives of DeAngelo’s program participants.
He won’t allow himself or his community to be boxed in, so he keeps driving forward with initiative after initiative to instill the confidence in East Garfield Park youth that they have the ability, the talent, and the determination to succeed.
“I want to be an example, but also instill others with confidence.”
Johnson is working on a new community-wide workshop for female athletes, having noticed a talented pool of individuals struggling to find their direction, lacking the confidence to fully commit to participation.
“The impact of having a positive mentor in your life can really change you.”
He has plans to create his own male mentorship program, an homage to his personal mentors that saw his potential and helped show him a pathway to success.
DeAngelo isn’t naive to the realities on his and other blocks on the Westside. Poverty, crime, drugs and despair are very real. He just doesn’t see the community as a lost cause. He sees talent, potential, opportunity - and he’s putting in the work to make sure others see the same vision.
“We can change that narrative where Black men are getting an education, where they’re thriving in their community.”
DeAngelo Johnson is one of 18 up-and-coming Westside leaders selected to be a part of the inaugural cohort of Community Leadership Fellows. Community Leadership Fellows (CLF) is a leadership development experience that involves educational workshops, tactical training, collaborative learning, coaching, mentoring and networking. We believe that the investment in homegrown talent will lead to sustainable, vibrant communities.
DeAngelo Johnson CLF ‘23 is making a difference in East Garfield Park through his courage to take the necessary risks required to lead. Hear more about his journey on the latest episode of Community Leaders Podcast