Shango Johnson, 43, speaks the slang and has the hard walking stride of many black men in Chicago’s rougher areas. He also talks of meditation and can hold a steady tree pose. We spoke in the backyard of I Grow Chicago Peace House, in the heart of Englewood, where Johnson once held meetings as a gang leader. Now, as the Male Mentor Coordinator for I Grow Chicago, Johnson leads yoga classes in the colorful garden. He speaks passionately about his journey to becoming a mentor and about where other nonprofit organizations miss the mark in trying to help inner city youth and reduce gang violence.
I been raised around Englewood all my life, and been on the wrong side of the tracks. When I got on the right side of the tracks, a lot of the stuff was told to me that wasn’t told to me when I was coming up. If it was, I would have made better decisions. So I wanted to be a mentor. I Grow started doing programs in the school my son goes to, Montessori, and that’s how we met.
When I grew up, my mom, even though she wanted to do what she wanted to do, she made sure I was okay. My great-grandmother and grandmother had me. So I grew up on both sides; I grew up on the block 79th and Green, where it was a block club block, where we played till the street lights came on, and I grew up on 52nd and Calumet, where whenever we came in, we could sneak back outside. And I grew up in Englewood where you was outside but you had a certain parameter that you had to stay in because of things that was going on.
When I grew up, one of my best friends, LeAndrew Harper, he got killed. It was kind of devastating to everybody. Another one of my friends, he had got out of school and got hit by a car and that was devastating, but in Englewood you got deaths happening like every seven, eight hours, got somebody getting shot. You hear an argument, somebody might get shot and killed.
The kids are under post-traumatic stress because they are the ones in the community. We use the caution tape for construction and other things, and every time the kids see some caution tape the first thing they think about is someone getting shot and somebody getting killed or murdered.
I lost my little cousin ‘NuNu’ and I seen how his mom—because me and his mom are the same age, grew up together—and so I seen how it was affecting his mom. I was sitting right across from her. She was going in and out and then at the same time she got to be strong and brave because it’s her two twin daughters, my little cousins’ birthday. So you have to be strong for them because when you think about them, every morning they wake up, they say “Happy Birthday” and they got to say R.I.P. to their brother. So that post-traumatic stress gon’ be with them for the rest of their life. We don’t have no therapist, we don’t have no centers that we can go to, but with us just being introduced to yoga, we doing meditation.
A lot of people don’t understand violence. A lot of people on the outside, you don’t know how it feels to be broken until you broke. At I Grow, we reach down to where you at and if you at one plus one, we gon’ help get you to one plus two. We not trying to get you to one plus twelve or thirteen. We just take it how it’s supposed to be.
We offer a variety of things at Peace House. We combat trauma using yoga, mindfulness, mentoring, art and urban farming, and other entities. We’re like in a war for peace.
One thing about yoga is that the other person is you. We practice Kundalini Yoga by Yogi Bhajan. That deals with the mind, body, and soul, and it deals with correcting you on how to breathe. It was so funny, I was watching the American Sniper movie, and when they was teaching him how to be an American sniper, the first thing that they concentrated on was your breathing, how to inhale. A lot of people know how to inhale, but they don’t know how to exhale, so at CeaseFire [Johnson is a mediator with the anti-violence nonprofit] we teach people how to exhale. You done inhaled all that drama in so let’s teach you how to exhale, and then use it in a more positive way. We’re all a domino away from helping somebody else. I know what it means to lose a friend or lose a grandmother or lose this one, and you might be able to tell me the same thing.
Is mentoring young men depressing for you?
Naw, it don’t make me depressed, it’s not that. It’s, you know, when you have kids and you tell your kids to go get the water and the kids come back with the mail. Even though you need the mail, that’s not the assignment you sent the kid on. Well, I study the word of God and the last mission and the last assignment Jesus left was to go out and do the great commission. Go out to teach, reach, and baptize. So until Jesus come back and give me another order, that’s what I’m doing whether I like it or not. Helping transform someone’s mind, help renew it, help restore the spirit, because that’s what we really are. We a spirit inside of a body. So some days I do get weary, I am tired, but that’s my assignment.
Have you mastered yoga?
Oh, I got the yoga down in one day. I don’t know why it took all these people two hundred, four hundred hours. He laughs. No, I’m still mastering it. That’s one thing with Kundalini Yoga, you in competition, not really competition, you in improvement, in betterment for yourself, with yourself. So if you did a ten-minute meditation and I do a twenty-minute meditation, there’s no comparing, there’s no “I’m better than you.” There’s “Hey, congratulations to your ten minutes as well congratulations to my twenty minutes.”
News outlets don’t usually cover the practice of yoga at I Grow. Why is that?
They don’t want to talk to ones in work in progress. They want to talk to ones who do marches all day. Anybody can march in the street. Not knocking them, but at the end of the day you have to go back to your car, right? …And then it means nothing. We need joy that lasts longer than the event. With I Grow, there hasn’t been a shooting on Honoree in a year and a half. Nobody’s house been broke into, has not been no fights or nothing, but all of that was happening before we came. Those guys building the fences at I Grow, those guys stopped selling drugs. The guy JB in there told me, “You find me a job, I ain’t serving no more.” Now he’s on to the next job. Gardening.
“Look Shango, I can touch my feet now, I can breathe better.” “Ay me and my dad doing the meditation now, me and my dad wasn’t having nothing in common.” “The house was tore up so instead of me complaining, I did that mantra you told me, Satanama, Satanama. I did that and cleaned the whole house up in thirty minutes, my mom came home and gave me fifty dollars, man.” “My mom been so proud of me.” These are the stories I get to hear.
They go back and take it home. I was a gang leader when I was around here, so it was okay when I was riding around in a big cars, everybody was “hey Shango,” but I went through the humility and the humbleness. Now they call me bishop, minister, big brother.
Do you have hope for Englewood?
A lot of people want hope, a lot of people want this. I’m just running my race and fighting my fight…If I fight for life, even if I don’t live, my seeds will live. So me, I don’t hope. I put the faith that is the substance of the things to hope for.
So I know I walk by faith, not by sight. There was a year of no shooting on Honoree. It was a shooting on Wolcott…we start with one step at time. I don’t care if we skip a step, it could be the third step, that’s still our first step. So the first step is to understand the hope starts with you.
I’ve seen the transformation, I’m looking at it now. Me and you in the back of the 64th and Honoree alley holding an interview. We used to hold meetings back here, gang meetings. I’ve seen the changes.