‘Excellence without excuses’: Demnlus Johnson is a story of Richmond’s resilience
on December 5, 2017
It’s Wednesday morning, and Demnlus Johnson III works diligently in his office. The sounds of footsteps echo in the hall as students, teachers and staff make their way to where they need to be before the morning bell rings.
After finishing up emails, securing a new gym floor covering, and methodically searching for students’ schedules, Johnson stands up and buttons his brown tweed suit. It’s time to hand-deliver 30 applications for the Rising Scholars program, an initiative that helps young men of color with the college application process.
This is just one of the many responsibilities Johnson takes on as a community worker at Richmond High School. It’s a jack-of-all-trades job: part mentor, part college counselor, part administrator — and part everything else.
Walking through the halls, students, teachers and staff alike greet him warmly.
“Happy Birthday Mr. Johnson,” one young student says as she passes by.
Johnson is turning 25 today, but there is little time for celebration. His schedule is packed for the next 12 hours — but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You can’t be afraid to scrub floors, wash dishes and take out the trash if you want to run the restaurant one day,” he says, grinning.
“Excellence without excuses.”
It’s apparent that he plans to take that same work ethic to city council next year. And if you were to ask his oldest cousin, she’d say that he has been a politician his entire life.
From the Iron Triangle to Washington, D.C., and back again, Johnson’s narrative is one of adaptation and growth in the face of uncertainty, challenge and change. Like the city of Richmond itself, his story is an example of resilience.
‘We don’t have time for what Demnlus Wants’
Johnson’s bid for city council next year isn’t his first. This past September, he made his case during a packed Richmond City Council meeting, which was so busy residents were forced to watch the proceedings on a television in the hall.
The big decision of the night: filling a vacant city council seat. Pamela Christian, Richmond’s city clerk, leaned up to her mic: “Our next speaker is Demnlus Johnson.“ The back of the room burst into deafening applause, cutting off the clerk as a young man in a black suit and tie walked to the podium.
“I know that Richmond is a city of endless potential,” the 24-year-old told the dais. “Richmond is best when we sincerely embrace people of all backgrounds and create economic opportunity for ourselves.”
Johnson laid out his vision for Richmond with eloquence: self-sufficiency, inclusivity, jobs, health care and cooperative housing, to name a few. He wants to address the systemic and structural problems that have plagued Richmond, and this county, for generations.
“No Band-Aid solutions can help us achieve these goals,” he said.
Johnson, a fourth generation Richmond resident, was not selected that night. But, two months later, he still shares in a sense of victory. Councilmember Ada Recinos now has the opportunity to champion an underrepresented group, and for Johnson, that is what matters.
“Of course I would have loved to sit up there and work on behalf of our citizens. But my commitment to the people and my commitment to the city far exceeds what I want,” he said. “Who cares what I want. People are hungry. People are homeless.
“We don’t have time for what Demnlus wants.”
Johnson sees failure as an opportunity for self-reflection and growth. And the support he received during that bid is helping shape his campaign for the 2018 election season, which he develops in between his job and roles on a neighborhood council and city commission.
If you need something done …
After delivering the Rising Scholar applications, Johnson gives a quick briefing at the career center before rushing off to City Hall for the Economic Development Commission (EDC) meeting.
Unfortunately, he will miss the school’s Black Student Union (BSU) meeting, which former students say he was instrumental in re-establishing.
Imani Irwin is a sophomore at UC Davis and was the first president of the newest incarnation of the BSU. One of her favorite memories of Johnson is the day the club got established and he singled her out to be president.
“He was a mentor for me,” the 19-year-old biochemical engineering major said. “I went to him when I had questions not only for school, but if I had an issue or I needed to become level headed again. He was the person I would always go to.”
Amani Skinner, a 17-year-old freshman at UCLA, shared similar sentiments.
“He never makes stuff sound too sweet,” Skinner said. “He always gives you the raw version of what he needs to tell you, because he actually cares about his students and he wants them to make it.”
Johnson brings that same dedication and honesty to his role as vice chairperson of Richmond’s EDC. Today’s meeting is a little different, though.
After discussing the various agenda items, the vote comes in and Johnson will have a new role at the start of next year: chairperson of the EDC.
It’s a proud but fleeting moment for him. He must return to Richmond High School and continue with his duties of the day: locking down a new program that helps young women of color with the college application process, updating the administration and checking in with a student.
A fourth-generation native
Johnson’s commitment to his job and community stems from a long history with the city.
He was born at Doctor’s Medical Center in 1992, back when it was still called Brookside Hospital. He was raised in the Iron Triangle and looks back fondly on his time there.
He remembers a community where everyone was outside, talking to their neighbors and playing at the basketball park. Even the dealers on the street, who his grandmother would pray with daily, encouraged him to keep going to school.
But the community, as close as it was, faced difficult times. Once, when Johnson was in third grade, he saw one of his friends killed right in front of him during a drive-by shooting. It was a devastating experience.
“I was sad that my friend had been killed,” he said. “But outside of the purview of that, my community has shown me so much good that I couldn’t take on one bad incident and let that traumatize me.”
For Johnson, the framing of Richmond and the Iron Triangle as a dangerous place comes from an inability of people in positions of privilege and power to relate to those who live in challenging conditions.
“We cannot afford to throw anyone away,” he said. “Everybody has a place, and we just have to respect that place and find out how to better utilize it.”
At the end of eighth grade, Johnson’s family moved and he attended Pittsburg High School. It was a challenging transition because kids Richmond area were often singled out.
But his group of friends included kids from North Richmond, which helped Johnson realize the division between both neighborhoods was a fabrication. Richmond and North Richmond are two halves of a whole and, for Johnson, that sense of unity represents a larger theme running through the history of the city.
“Richmond has been the land of refuge for everybody,” he said. “It is the most American city on the West Coast.”
African-Americans, Italians, Southeast Asians, Mid-Westerners and Latinos have all found a home in Richmond at one point or another. As a self-described student of history, the city’s diverse heritage is one of the many reasons why Johnson is proud to say he’s from Richmond.
Try, try again
When Johnson first applied to Howard University, his application was denied.
“I had to eat humble pie,” he said. “That was one of the biggest hits of my life, and that’s when I realized that everything will not go as planned.”
Johnson went to St. Mary’s College, instead. It was a good school, but he wanted more.
Reaching out to the prestigious university once again, Johnson contacted the school of communications. He spoke with Lincoln Brown, an adviser in the department, and shared his plan to take enough units over the summer so that he could transfer in a year early. Brown signed off, and told Johnson to call back if he was successful.
He spent four transformative years at Howard, where he majored in radio, television and film and minored in Africana studies. He also racked up enough units to minor in political science, as well, but couldn’t claim the degree due to administrative regulations.
Johnson graduated in 2015, five years after his initial rejection. At the end of the ceremony, his department head presented him with an award. She stopped him in his tracks with the same saying his mother had been using his entire life:
“Demnlus Johnson wants to change the world.”
After some community work in Detroit and an internship in Los Angeles, Johnson returned home and settled down in the Iron Triangle. He started working at Richmond High School in the spring of 2016.
Johnson will formally announce his city council campaign next summer. Until then, he will keep doing what he’s doing: mentoring youths, helping the school and making connections in his community.
He wants to know the diverse residents of Richmond, and he wants them to know him, before he asks for their vote. Anything else, in his opinion, would be disingenuous.
“This is about making and fulfilling the American dream. That’s why my family came to Richmond, and that’s why families came to Richmond in the first place,” he said.
But his goals for Richmond don’t just extend to November, or even the end of a tentative council term. Johnson says he’s working toward the Richmond of 2050, when the city is self-sufficient, industrious and provides support to each and every one of its residents, regardless of their socioeconomic status or country of origin.
“It’s always going to be bigger than the name on the ticket. People are going hungry, people are becoming homeless,” he said.
“To hell if I’m tired.”
Morning, noon and night
Even on his birthday, Johnson doesn’t stop to think about himself. By the end of his day at Richmond High, he’s already thinking about the next task: escorting former Mayor Irma Anderson to Mayor Tom Butt’s campaign kick-off party.
At the event, Johnson shakes hands and speaks with attendees, several of whom come up to greet him. Those he doesn’t know, he introduces himself and jumps into conversation, expressing genuine interest in each resident of Richmond, their stories, concerns and aspirations.
“He’s a competent, compassionate and community-oriented young man who is dedicated to enhancing the community in which he was born and raised,” Anderson said. “He is our future.”
But he is also Richmond’s struggles, and its aspirations. He is the story of overcoming odds, challenges and temporary set-backs. He is the story of hard work, inclusivity and resilience. With one eye on the future and another on the past, Johnson is skillfully working towards the best of both worlds where multicultural heritage and socioeconomic progress is available to all.
As the event begins to wind down, Johnson and his companions take their leave.
Over the course of almost 12 hours Johnson has never once mentioned it was his birthday, or shifted attention to himself. As his car drives off into the night, the moon is a reminder that Johnson will soon be back in his office, working in his own way towards the Richmond of 2050.
There’s plenty to be done, but he says he won’t be going anywhere until the city gets back on track.
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