Johnnie Jones III was saddened back in the early ‘90s by how young baseball players with athletic ability in his neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago were lost once they aged out of the local league.
“They were excellent athletes, but they couldn’t read. As soon as they got to the age where they were too old to play in the league, most of them wouldn’t even graduate from high school and the ones that did just kind of found jobs. College wasn’t even an option because of their grades,” said Jones.
When he saw that these students couldn’t see what was possible for their lives beyond high school it inspired him in 1992 to start the Make A Difference Youth Foundation. Jones, who has a Bachelor of Science in Computer Information Systems from Roosevelt University, believed that if kids could see other young people who looked like them on college campuses, they could see a future for themselves.
“I was not enjoying seeing kids that were being cheered for their athletic abilities and then all of a sudden sitting on park benches and maybe going to a gang or selling drugs or something because there was nothing else for them to do,” said Jones.
In “Chi-Town: Enabling Greatness,” which Jones self-published in December 2016 he tells the story of the Foundation which aimed to work with kids from elementary school through high school so that they would be prepared for college and have a good idea of what they wanted to study. As part of his foundation, he created an after-school group called Teens for a New Tomorrow (TFANT) to give teenage kids a place to go. In the early days, Jones met with 20 high school students on in the locker room at Gately Stadium, a small football stadium where many Chicago public schools played their games as most high schools didn’t have a stadium. That number grew to 50 and during football season they were forced to meet in the parking lot.
Jones meeting in the locker room at Gately Stadium.
Initially, they focused on developing the student’s leadership skills. The kids held official roles as they learned how to organize, plan, and facilitate the meetings. Eventually, Jones found an office. It had a big hole in the middle of the floor where you could actually see the basement below, but it was a place to meet. He has faced obstacles every step but says God always found a way to get him through the tough times.
The first big project he worked on with the kids was hosting a citywide mock election. Local tech company ANET Internet Services donated the website development for the project. It was a huge hit. More than 20,000 high school kids all across the city registered and voted for alderman and the mayor. After the election, the kids were granted an opportunity to visit City Hall and meet Mayor Richard M. Daley who was so impressed by the project that he awarded Jones’ foundation a $25,000 community block grant to continue his work — a gift that was renewed for ten years. With the money, Jones was able to fix up the hole in the office, put in a bathroom, do some necessary remodeling, hire college students as tutors, and pay for the general upkeep of the space.
After he made the fixes the owner sold the building sold. When the new owner came in, he raised the rent three times what Jones had been paying and told him that “kids don’t make money.” The foundation had to go. Around the same time, Jones received a letter from America’s Promise, Colin Powell’s foundation.
Jones was being considered for a large grant but they would need to see his location in two weeks to make sure it met certain physical and electrical standards. It was an unfortunate situation, but God had a plan. Not long after he knew he would be forced to move his foundation, Jones happened to be in a pizza place in a mall next door to his office when he saw a “For Rent” sign posted. He went in and talked to the owner about his foundation. She was a retired teacher who owned a daycare and welcomed renting to an educational group.
Jones was upfront about his financial situation.
“I said, this is the money I have that comes in from the city, and this is all I can afford. She said, ‘That’s fine.’ So just out of the blue from me getting some pizza, the place next door just happened to be up for rent. That’s how blessings come,” said Jones.
And the blessings continued. The office had been a former hair salon and had twenty sinks on the wall he had to remove. Jones had no idea how he would do it in time for the visit from Colin Powell’s foundation, but more blessings came.
One of the parents came by to check out the new facility, saw the sinks, and removed them that same night for free. He was a professional plumber, single dad, and grateful for how the organization helped his daughter.
Jones (right) and the former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones III (left).
“As a single dad, having a place to know my daughter was safe every day, that meant the world to me. So, getting an opportunity to do something back for you guys, not a problem at all,” Jones recalls that parent saying.
Then, a neighbor helped him do the needed drywall and painting, all with an agreement that he could pay in the future. Next, an electrician who Jones had helped get a computer when he was first starting out, offered to do all the wiring for free.
In two weeks, everything was done and in 2000 the Make A Difference Foundation was one of the ten organizations from around the nation, and the only organization from the Midwest selected to receive a new computer lab by means of Colin Powell’s “PowerUP” initiative. Hewlett Packard, AOL, Gateway and Cisco Systems were sponsors of PowerUP and provided each PowerUP site with computers, free AOL accounts for the kids in the program and Cisco networking equipment. The next year, they got a special award and an extra $35,000 for being the National PowerUp Site of the Year.
“He had a vision. He always thinks outside the box, and he would come up with things that no other organization would come up with that he felt the kids could do. And he was always challenging them, exposing them to experiences that they would not otherwise have had,” said Elaine Jones (no family relation), an active and dedicated volunteer whose daughter participated in the program.
By 2007, Jones’ group had expanded its mission to include community service projects and college campus visits. The students were required to do forty hours of community service, but they often logged more than 200. He had established relationships with college admissions recruiters, and some would even send a complimentary bus to pick up the kids in his program to visit their schools. The foundation had received many more grants and was able to support a summer camp for elementary schoolers and field trips. With two locations in Chicago and a staff, the bills mounted up to $25,000 a month with rent and electricity.
More than 5,000 students have gone through the Make a Difference Foundation programs since its inception back in 1992. Many of the students went on to attend colleges such as Princeton, Drake, and Duke, and credit his program for who they are today. Courtney Barnes is one of those students.
Courtney Barnes on a field trip when she was in high school.
“I think Teens for a New Tomorrow (TFANT) really influenced why I wanted to pursue a career in policy, specifically around racial equity and dismantling systemic racism and doing so by reaching out to our community, specifically our young people and working with them in ways that we can rewrite that narrative of this is what it looks like,” says Barnes, who graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in political science and government and a master’s in public administration. Barnes is currently Manager of Foundation Relations for Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, a residential care facility for boys and girls who have housing instability.
“I want them to know that there is life beyond the hood. And there’s life beyond that narrative of whatever they’re writing for our young black boys and girls. TFANT was that for me. I want to be that person for those young people.”
But when the markets crashed in 2008 funding for the foundation was hit hard. With the economic downturn, all of the grants dried up. Jones tried to keep the offices open with his own funds, but it wasn’t enough because the organization had grown so big. Plus, Morgan Stanley, the company where Jones worked, had layoffs, and he was out of work. He had to close up both of his offices and donate the supplies and equipment to another nonprofit. It was heartbreaking.
“I got two letters from kids when we shut down, begging us not to shut down the organization down, I never got over those letters. One said, ‘This is the only safe place I have to go to.’ When you’re reading those things, you kind of look and go, ‘I wish there was something I could have done,’ but I wasn’t in that position,” said Jones. “I’ve never been so crushed in my life than I was the day I had to lock all those offices and turn in the keys and then just say, ‘that’s it.’ So my success in technology, a lot of it was driven on, ‘I’ve got to make enough money so I can do this again and not let it fail.'”
The organization was able to hang on for a few more years. Jones did some consulting work in North Carolina and South Carolina
Karime Bolivar on the right is now in med school. This was Karime and her little brother at a community service project in Arkansas while she was in high school.
before eventually taking an IT position in Arkansas at Walmart. But he still tried to remain involved with the kids. Elaine was now at the helm, able to keep the service projects end of the organization going for a while. They worked together, had a core group of students still involved, and schools would send over other students to take on college trips or do community service projects.
“We even rented SMU campus buildings for a weekend and flew Native American students from a reservation in Michigan to hold a student-led conference with students from Chicago and Dallas. That was the biggest time that God stepped in! Elaine was our lead chaperone and got left by the plane at O’Hare airport, trying to help a late student make the flight. The plane was headed to the runway for takeoff and a chaperone called me from the plane to let me know the plane left Elaine. A flight attendant overheard the call and told the pilot. The pilot turned the plane around! A United Airlines flight was turned around, and they picked up Elaine. God has been good!” said Jones.
In 2013, Elaine could no longer manage the organization and it stopped operating in Chicago. But that wasn’t the end for the Foundation. In 2014, Jones brought it back to life in Arkansas. This time, with a new strategy. Instead of depending on outside funding, he has chosen to finance it himself. Even as it limits how many people he can help, but he can keep the organization running without fear of being shuttered.
“It’s knowing that this is something that is not me — it’s God. We couldn’t fail because God had a way for it. We should never have been in People Magazine. We should never have met Colin Powell. We should never have gotten a grant from the mayor. Everything that was happening was steps that were placed for us to succeed. And when we had to shut down in Chicago, it still wasn’t the end of God’s plan because it started right back up in Arkansas. And the first two graduates we have from Arkansas, one’s in medical school, and the other one’s going to medical school next year,” said Jones.
My United Methodist church, along with many other churches of all denominations, announced it would be closing its doors for at least a month, maybe two. I felt such a loss. Yes, I know people are going to church everywhere nowadays — in movie theaters, houses, cafes, etc. But for me, going to church is where I visit my second family unplugged. It’s a refuge from all the crazy that comes my way from 9-5 p.m., Monday through Friday. This past weekend, my church tried online streaming of the service for the first time. Keep in mind that our congregation is a tad on the older end — READ: Lots of grey hair. Yeah, it was…okay. I suggested to my mom, who is among the decision-makers of what to do, that they consider entirely rethinking how they reach out to people online. You can’t just throw a camera up and do what you’ve always done. The experience needs to be more personal — or at least tailored to the digital audience. That got me thinking. Which churches do that well? Where can any of us go on Sunday, or any day of the week, to get our worship on during this Coronavirus pandemic? The Urban Faith team asked friends, family, and Facebook members. Below are 10 great options that were recommended by our online community. Some are Black churches, others are mixed. Get your praise on and take a moment to offer up prayers for those who are sick and suffering.
The typical conference for women tends to fall into a familiar format. Lots of meetings are led by strong, expert women who give you a solid three points on a particular issue. Attendees studiously write down notes, trying to take in tidbits that will help them move forward in their roles back at home. For the most part, it’s a one-way interaction — the leader at the podium gives you the information, and you absorb it.
The Selah: Leadership Encounters for Women experiences are different. Sure, you’ll have the traditional panels and probably take a note or two. But the connection and mentorship don’t stop after the intimate workshops and expert panels are over. Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, who is the 117th elected and consecrated bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, founded the event that is hosted this year in Atlanta, March 27-28, and Dallas, November 19-21. Bishop McKenzie aims to support Christian women leaders by creating an ongoing network of friends and colleagues who help and empower each other by opening doors, providing resources, and offering practical advice.
Urban Faith had a chance to talk to Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie about the Selah experience, how Christian women leaders can lift one another, and who inspires her.
How can women leaders best support each other?
Don’t kill each other off! Women in ministry have been so aware. There are more women in the ministry now than ever before. Some seminaries are 30%, 40%, 50%, 60% women. But when you go out in the field, you still might be the one — or one of two. So you have to be careful that you don’t use that platform to be the queen and, you know, there is only one queen. If you get it, you want to make sure there’s somebody else who is following you. I was elected and the next election cycle two women got in. And then the next election cycle, one woman got in. And we’re right at the door of another election cycle right now, and we hope to get another one. You want to be sure you are helpful to your sister. Sometimes when you’re in business or in congregations, you know the stuff, you know how it works, but you don’t share how it works. “Nobody told me. I had to learn myself. I know what to do. I know what to say. I know who to say it to. So you’re going to have to learn yourself, too.” No! Help a sista out. It’s always tricky. It’s called human relationships, human nature. I think it has limited ministry. We have an opportunity to develop a model of resourcing, of assisting and support that was not in place when we were coming along, which is why I do Selah.
What kind of experience can women expect when they attend Selah?
I want you to be exposed to people who are doing wonderful things, and I want you to be able to talk to them about their stories and how they got there. I want you to see where you can go. I want you to meet people who can open doors for you. I want us to talk honestly with each other about the problems that we have so we can figure out how we can solve some of those problems. I want to put you in front of people who are problem solvers, who you can connect to, who can help you. It’s trying to create a model that will help people get to the next level.
Given this new model of raising leaders, what do you see as the future of the black church?
We are moving into a new season in the 21st century. The way we do church has changed from the way when we started preaching 20-30 years ago. When we started preaching, you had big churches, and then you had megachurches. I think we’re getting to a place where success is not defined by size and real estate. Success is going to be defined by disciple-making and having the people inside impact the outside. Historically, our churches have always been the center of community in the neighborhood. We have anchored neighborhoods that were in trouble and kept people surviving. And I still think there is a role for that to play. But younger and newer generations are looking for other types of experiences. We have seen the growth in online churches and online experiences. So if you want to capture the new and younger generation, you’re going to have to have a dialog about Jesus where you’re having a dialogue about life—beginning that dialogue and discussion where they are talking to each other. We stop looking at technology as a toy and begin to use it as a tool of discipleship, a tool of coaching and mentoring, a tool for sharing the Gospel. Not just repeating scripture, but using it to be able to reach the hearts and minds of people who live online.
Your historic election in the year 2000 represents the first time in the over 200-year history of the AME Church that a woman obtained the level of Episcopal office. Which women who came before you do you admire or who have inspired you along the way?
I think that the first would be my family. The first women in my life who showed me that what I could do was not determined by my gender, but by my gifts were my mother, aunt, and grandmother because all of them were out of the box. They were managers back in the ’30s and ’40s. They were editors and publishers. They were chief editors, marketing directors, and entertainment directors. My family was a publishing family. They did all these things and my grandfather didn’t have any sons to follow him in the business. He had daughters. And so whatever your gift was, that’s what you did. I grew up in that atmosphere.
Cecelia Williams Bryant was the first woman in ministry that I ever heard, and when I heard her, that was the OMG to the third power. She has been a coach and a mentor. In the secular realm, it would be the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. I heard her speech before the Democratic National Convention, and I was like transfixed before the TV. She said what needed to be said, and I was like, wow, when I grow up, I want to be just like that. And then years later, when I stood up on the stage at the Democratic National Convention and gave remarks and a prayer, for me, it was full circle.
No matter what generation, being a teen girl is tough. And it’s not easy for girls to wrap their heads around the fact that the Bible can help them get through some of the more challenging times. Author Katara Washington Patton, in her new book Inspiration for Christian Teen Girls, helps serve girls with Biblical guidance in what she calls “just-the-right-size portions.” Even her subject headers are girl-friendly with titles such as “I Am Beautiful,” “Girl Power,” “Attitude Check,” “Meet the Holy Spirit,” “The Power of Encouragement,” “I Won’t Let Anger Get the Best of Me,” and more. Urban Faith had a chat with Katara about her new book and the impact she hopes it has on young women.
What do you hope Christian girls take away from this book, and what inspired you to write it?
I hope Christian girls feel empowered to walk boldly as Christians; to learn more about God and look forward to a wonderful journey and know that even when it is hard, God provides help for them. I also hope this book helps girls think about their actions and think more about God as a friend and guide. I’ve always had a passion for helping teen girls navigate through this phase in life. I can still recall my teen years and the questions and concerns I had and sometimes feeling like I was all alone. That was not true. I prevailed, and I pray every girl will too without having to live with a life of consequences because of negative choices she made in her teens. Life can be sweet and meaningful when we are following God–even when we are young.
Many teens, girls, and boys alike are struggling to discern who they are as a Christian and what they believe. How will your book help guide teen girls in this faith journey?
This book covers many of the issues that will help girls grow as Christians and connect with God on a personal level; I see God as a friend, and I want girls also to spend a lot of time focusing on getting to know God just like we get to know our friends.
Katara Washington Patton
What are the most challenging issues Christian teen girls face, and how does your book address them?
I think some issues are old and some are new and specific to this generation. Self-esteem is always a big issue for teens especially girls and now with social media and videos with filters and photoshop things are enhanced; girls have to know that God loves each of us for who we are and what we see on social media (or in other places) is not always real. Competition and bullying are also real issues girls face these days; I address both in different entries. Of course, makeup, body image, dealing with parents and other family members are also all included.
Many teen girls see all the romance novels and movies about women finding their prince charming. But what the world values isn’t in lockstep with a Godly path. What should teen girls look for to know if they’ve found their soulmate?
In the entry Find True Love, I, of course, point back to God and God’s example of true love; from there, I ask girls to think of people who truly love them and what they do to show that love. I use 1 Corinthians 13 as a model here, and I try to help girls think through what love looks like, whether that’s in a relationship with a friend, family member, or bae. Romance is something we want to experience, but it really is so much more than we realize or get to see in the movies. I pray this entry, and this book will help girls see this and help them pursue healthy, positive relationships as they grow into young women.
What would you tell a teen girl who is struggling with whether to have sex with her boyfriend?
The entry “Let’s Talk About…,” on pages 38-39 not only shares the word of God from 1 Cor. 6:16-18 from two versions (for easier understanding), but it also offers practical things for girls to think about, such as: Do you want to be connected with someone so intimately when you might not even like this person in a month or so? The activities also encourage the reader to think about just how far she does want to go: holding hands, kissing, French kissing? These are things girls need to decide BEFORE it is too late, before it is dark and they are having all of those emotions. This entry provides a tool to help young girls think about their decision before it happens and to apply God’s word on the matter in their life.
What are three or more things every Christian teen girl needs to know about living a life with purpose?
Build your faith–it really will carry you through so much in life; love yourself–so many negative actions stem from just not loving yourself; God created each of us and wants us to live as the true God-created souls we are; love others– it’s just like the great commandment–we have to be connected to God, love ourselves and love others, which includes vowing to do no harm to ourselves or others.
What are three or more things every Christian parent needs to know about guiding their young woman into living a life with purpose?
I think parents need to listen to their teens–not only what they are saying but what they are doing–so they can keep the lines of communications open. Girls need to be able to come to their parents with what they are feeling and/or questioning in life; I also think parents need to remember when they were teens…things were confusing and complex and now they may be 10 times that; give your girls space and time to walk through this phase, keep them prayed up and keep your hearts and minds open to them; guide them well–hopefully this includes connecting them with faith groups and communities who can also serve as mentors and people they can communicate with. It can be lonely and isolating to be a teen; help girls find the resources and support they need during this time.
As a Christian mom with a daughter, what core principles do you hope to instill in your daughter?
Loving God and desiring to grow with God and turning to God for all of our needs; I think when you have that, you will succeed no matter what.