Turning ones life around is never easy, especially when extenuating circumstances have made a talented, deep thinking young man believe that life is not what you make it….rather life is what is brought to you.
The early life of Torre Johnson is one punctuated with tragedy. His mother passed when he was two months old….he never remembered her at all. His father died when he was eight, so family, the gangs, the streets and drugs were equal players for the adolescent Toe Joe. His life mirrored what he saw, what brought him power and influence, and what brought him a way to make a living. And it landed him in Wales, the adolescent center for juveniles.
Counselors saw potential early but personal potential, self respect and belief in ones worth are learned responses. If you’re told “you’ll never amount to anything”…it’s easy to become “the victim” and often, counselors say, the victim wants to victimize. And that script played out a couple more times before Torre decided he was going to grow up.
One Judge asked him, after a second drug-related stint, “what are you doing here? You have what you need, you’re bright, you’re a leader, why don’t you decide to grow up and use the gifts you’ve been given”. “That was my wake-up”, Torre confides. “They say I have it but I have to believe it.” It is said that what a mind can conceive, it can achieve. And achievement became a focus, a personal decision, a keeping of a promise to Torre, Jr.”, he said “My children’s mothers permitted me to be a father despite my incarceration”, said Johnson. “When you make a promise to your kids, and you came up as I did, you want to make things right. They were the focus I needed to turn my life around. They had become teenagers and I could not talk to them about what they needed to do without doing it myself. I never wanted to be a fake”.
“People like Jose’ Flores and Brother Saleem El Amin, Mother Claretta Simpson and Jeanetta Robinson were people who talked to me, they encouraged me. Family members, friends, my sons and daughters and, now, grandchildren are constant sources of love. I learned to love myself…I no longer wanted to be a victim. I wanted to help victims understand that one might not be able to dictate the circumstances of their birth, nor even their environment but making a life is a personal decision and we each make that choice. My life is an open book, today I can show others how I did it. I have been drug free over twenty years. I have been reaching out to young people over 10 years and I have been working with men who have returned from the criminal justice system for over 10 year now”.
“Lindsey Draper introduced me to CYD, in my youth; then Jose’ Flores led me to CYD through the Community Correction Education Program and WCS for my jobs; they and people like Assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Lipscomb helped me see the “true Torre. I found the work I love; and I love to do my job. Of course, this journey required governmental assistance, stable employment, continuous support and affirmations and validations that school, classes, and workshops are the way to go and the way to grow”.
Exactly what Torre Johnson does for others, today, is what others did for him. His first position at WCS, Wisconsin Community Services, was as a Case Manager in the Gang Reduction/Project Safe Neighborhood Program. He works closely with Andre Robinson, Director of Violence Free Zone/L.C.C. He uses Russell Foods Store as his Community base. He also divides his week between Project Excel, where he is the Community Liaison and Youth Mentor Coordinator and the Holton Youth and Family Center. When the new WCS charter school opens, this fall, Torre will be the building manager.
His achievement trajectory has gone from being a client to an employee. His education skill-base has gone from GED to HSED, Criminal Thinking Group, to the High Intensive Program at Racine Correctional facility where he, along with other professionals, led the group and the Circle. The “Circle” focused on providing resources and creating life-progress opportunities so that maturing, changing one’s life-style and determining the next step to sobriety or freedom from drugs or anger management and forgiveness, and employment were constantly before the group. That program was so successful, it allowed Torre to be a great asset in his own assistance and participation at the many Restorative Justice Circles he attended outside of prison, and to return as a guest speaker for Ron Johnson of Marquette University’s Safe Street Initiative and others.
“Today, men come up to me and shake my hand, thanking me for sharing my story, and guiding them to the next level, having them know that we believe in them and leading them to believe in themselves”.
Torre works in the neighborhood where he grew up. He knows the traps but he also knows the ladders. Through Wisconsin Community Services’ (WCS’s) collaboration with the Holton Youth and Family Center, Torre is site manager and works with the Running Rebels and Above the Clouds. He is on the Board of the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative, the Homicide Review Commission, Former Director of United Hands Across the Community, with Irene Correa, he consulted Milwaukee Country’s Task Force for Men of Color, under then, Supervisor Elisabeth Coggs, and as time allows, he participates with the African Male Men Unemployment Task Force under Alderman Ashanti Hamilton, he is Founder of the Inner City Common Council and “ANOTHER” – (Applauding New Opportunities To Help Each Other Rise).
He speaks often to varied groups about changing the image, the lives and recidivism within the community at educational institutions like MATC, UWM, Marquette, Bryant Stratton and the Phoenix. He works with other organizations like Safe and Sound, the 5th District Police Department Community Prosecution Unit, and Malaka Early Child Learning Center through a grant from the Medical College of Wisconsin, Violence Prevention Initiative.
On June 9, 2011, WCS will award Torre Johnson the 2011 Outstanding Leadership Award and on August 6, 2011 he will be among other Legacy Builders as his contributions in building lives and his community are applauded at the Academy of Legends Gala. Torre Johnson knows the walk and he can talk the talk but most importantly he passionately works to save lives and build a stronger community. He is making his mark and leaving a legacy.