Wynnefield: How One Woman Works To End Gun Violence

Johnson-Harrell considers ending gun violence her sole purpose and the only reason she ever entered politics.

Movita Johnson-Harrell now considers herself a mother, wife, and activist living in West Philadelphia, and was the first Muslim woman to be elected to the General Assembly in Pennsylvania. After her son Charles was a victim of gun violence, she created the Charles Foundation in April 2011 to honor his life and create a movement to end gun violence. The name stands for Creating Healthy Alternatives Results in Less Emotional Suffering. On March 5, 2019, her other son, Donte’ L. Johnson, was killed in a drive-by shooting in California. 

Driven by these tragedies, Johson-Harell continues to try to make a difference for young individuals and stop gun violence. She’s also the author of her own book called Phoenix Ascending: My Rise from the Ashes.

Johnson-Harrell resigned her seat in the general assembly amid scandal. In 2020, Johnson-Harrell accepted a plea deal after being charged with stealing $500,000 from a separate nonprofit organization she ran. She left prison shortly after contracting COVID-19 in April 2020. Despite taking the deal, she maintains her innocence.   

Johnson-Harrell discussed the need to end gun violence and addressed how she continues this work despite her legal troubles.

What you’re doing with the Charles Foundation, how did that work come to be?

The Charles Foundation actually started very organically. We’ve always been very active in the community and we were always that house that all the kids gravitated toward as my children were growing up. 

When we lost Charles, it happened without us even realizing what was happening. Family started calling us when young people started being shot. They will say “Call Movita’s family, they will help you.” We started walking with people through the tragedy, providing them with food, helping to make sure that they get to appointments at homicide, to the coroner’s office, to the District Attorney’s office. We were even paying utilities or if we went into a home and the lights were cut off, and there were children in the home. We were helping to pay for young people’s funerals. 

And literally within 30 days after our son Charles died — the Charles Foundation formed. And we did that work since 2011. Actually, the actual formation of it is April 2011, which is three months to the day that Charles died. Yeah. And since then, we’ve done many different things. 

I’m a five time co-victim of homicide. I saw my father murdered when I was 8-years-old. So I understood what it was to be a child survivor. And my first grandchild was born 26 days after Charles died — that was his son Kalief. And then five weeks later, my second grandson Chad, was born. So we wanted to intentionally create community for these children. 

Movita Johnson-Harrell with her sons. (Photo courtesy Movita Johnson-Harrell).

There are so many children who are siblings, and children of people who are lost to gun violence, and they are left to pick up the shattered pieces of their life. So we wanted to create, you know, like an extended family. So we started doing activities. One of the specific activities we did was, I coined the term “survivors empowerment.” Because I went to traditional grief support groups, and I was re-traumatized by that. So I wanted to create something where it would promote healing and empowerment and move people into the solution as opposed to keeping them stuck in the problem. 

So we started survivors empowerment groups. We had specific activities for children all throughout the year. We have a family and friends day that we do in the summertime, where we had petting zoos and pony rides and special characters and barbecue and just to create a sense of community for these children. We have an annual holiday party where we provide food and gifts for the entire family. We’ve had a community food cupboard since 2013. So, we’ve been feeding families the entire time. So we’ve done a lot of different things specifically, to create an extended family, specifically to let these families know, number one that they were not alone and number two that they could try to heal beyond the grief.

Johnson-Harrell hosting a survivors group. (Photo courtesy Movita Johnson-Harrell)

You are a retired state representative for Pennsylvania, so can you talk about your journey with that and how you were able to do all that for Pennsylvania?

I never wanted to be a politician. That was never on my to-do list. And what happened was that I was part of a strategy that occurred here in Philadelphia in 2013, 2014. It was called the Focused Deterrence Strategy. It was very successful, even though it was severely underfunded by the city and wasn’t really supported by the City. 

The first year of Focused Deterrence, we had a 30% reduction in gun violence in the pilot, and we committed to trying to get the city to support it. There were young people who they said would never put down the guns who actually put down the guns and came and got jobs. Went back to school became productive in their communities and the City still did not fund it. Some of those same young men who were former shooters actually came to a City Council hearing to testify for the strategy in 2015, and the City still did not fund it. So I’ve literally spent the last, what, seven years of my life fighting to bring that strategy to Philadelphia because I’m telling you, I was the moral voice of the community and I got to speak to these young men who were those likely to kill or be killed. 

I know that if this program was in full effect in Philadelphia before Charles was shot, my son would probably still be alive. It was really that important to me and I actually jumped into the 2016 race, I didn’t want to win. I wanted to force somebody to fund the strategy. Yeah, so I jumped into the 2016 race. I changed the narrative in that race. I didn’t win, but I was tapped by DA Larry Krasner to come into the District Attorney’s office and he brought me in, and he appointed me to be his supervisor for Victim & Witnesses Services and restorative justice. And he actually committed to helping me to do whatever was necessary to stop gun violence in Philadelphia. 

You know, that’s the narrative that a lot of people will say about this district attorney. He supported everything that I did to try and stop the gun violence. He said, “You want to do the strategy. Let’s do the strategy.” So we went on about, about the business of recreating the strategy making it social services driven. It is not supposed to be a police-heavy strategy. 

We planned it out with the person who originally bought it to Philadelphia. His name is Brian Lentz, he was the former head of the Gun Violence Task Force and the person who created the strategy, who was David Kennedy out of John Jay College in New York City. We remapped that strategy out, we got all partners on board, we had an agreement with the City of Philadelphia in November of 2018.

We tried to apply for a half-million-dollar grant and four days before the submission of the grant, the City pulled out. 

Where do you think you would be if all this stuff didn’t happen? With the killing of your son, which is so upsetting, where do you think you will be in your life? If that didn’t happen to you, would you still be doing the work that you’re doing just to help the community with gun violence? 

I would probably be a congresswoman by now. Most people don’t realize, like, all of it has just been to stop gun violence. I was so comfortable in my life before I lost Charles, and when I lost him, everything changed.

And then even going through everything I went through, and even having to take a plea deal. They assume when a person takes a plea deal that they’re guilty, like people take plea deals for a variety of reasons. And I took a plea deal because I needed to protect my family. Yeah, that’s it plain and simple. And I mean, I had people who wanted me to fight it. And I could have probably fought it and won, but the risk was too high for me and my family. But even with that, even eating the plea and taking everything and being overly charged, and even having to go to jail, like a lot of people don’t know what it is like to go through this hardship.

How do you deal with your life? Besides everything that you’re going through? How do you say that you personally deal with your life on a daily basis?

Well, my life is hard. I’ve lost two sons, I have a daughter that is sick. My daughter needs a kidney. I just get up every day, and I get up, and I put one foot in front of the other, and I do what I need to do for my family. And I still do what I need to do to protect the community, the work and the Charles foundation is more important than ever. Our kids come from all across the city. Right now, we’re working with 30 kids, and sadly I have to turn kids away. Every week they bring their friends. The place where they feel safe is a place where they feel cared for. I got these kids by putting out a notice.

Is there anything else you want to say you can see happening in the future, just with your organization, just with you in general, and with your support?

We’re going to keep doing the work. And in fact, we would Charles’ death anniversary every year, we always do something very positive to change the narrative of that day. March 5 was the first anniversary of Donte’s death, and we actually announced that we adopted an orphanage in Uganda, South Africa. We have 70 children in Africa now that we take care of. My husband and I are going to Africa in June.

Here’s the thing. Everybody can do something in their own little space in this world. To help a child that’s at risk. Because we already see legislators aren’t going to do it. The mayor is not going to do it. You know what I said in that City Council hearing in 2016? I said if we do not implement programs in full force across the city and do it the right way with social services, we’re gonna have over 500 homicides in five years. And here we are.

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