Ex-offenders aim to ‘Silence the Violence’ through candid conversation

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Keenan Johnson is 38 years old, but only recently started on a new path to a prosperous life.

He spent 12 years in prison, after treating Grand Rapids drug dealers like father figures when he was a teenager.

“Like other urban kids, (I had) no dad. And I learned that a woman can’t teach a boy how to be a man, so I looked for other sources for that,” Johnson explained.

Johnson earned a college business degree while in prison. Now, he hopes to keep other young men from going down that same path.

“As we grow as men and understand where we went wrong, we have to pass that down to those under us, so they can see the difference,” Johnson said. “Somebody has to have that conversation with them before they can even start to change their minds.”

Johnson struggled when he was released from prison. It took him one month just to get an ID to look for temporary employment. He found help after meeting another man who had served time in prison 18 years ago: Elijah Libbett.

Libbett is now a businessman, community activist and participant in the CLEAR program, which the Grand Rapids Police Department runs using funding from the Michigan Department of Corrections. The program helps people coming out of prison find work and housing, so they don’t end up back in the system.

Libbett has spoken before about the challenges people face building a life in society after leaving prison.
From 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday, Libbett and leaders from several organizations including Urban Family Ministry, Black Wallstreet Grand Rapids, and MOMs have will hold a “Silence the Violence” rally outside Libbett’s restaurant, Ellnora’s Kitchen on Eastern Avenue SE between Sherman and Baxter streets.

Although the rally will feature free food, a bounce house, and backpack giveaways, Libbett and Johnson’s goal is productive conversations with teenagers and young adults who are stuck in a life of crime.

“What we’re going to accomplish is communication between violent offenders in the Black community, because that’s where a lot of the violence is coming from. One thing you got to know is that poverty breeds violence. … If we sit back and wait for somebody to give us something, then we’re going to constantly fall into that ditch. But if we come together collectively and start educating each other, I think we can accomplish a lot to heal our community,” Libbett said.

Libbett said he’s noticed people will walk right past if they see you doing nothing, but will offer help if they see you working towards change.

“What I’m really looking to do is build a team, to canvas Grand Rapids, and let’s get out and talk. Let’s get out and listen… let’s start moving toward prosperity,” he said.

Libbett believes a lack of communication is what has led to such a violent year in the city, and that meetings about solutions should involve the “experts,” as in people who have been involved in crime themselves.

“What we need is those offenders, those experts, at the table. They’ll say ‘Hey, I don’t want to sell drugs, but once I sell drugs, I’m going to pick up a gun to protect my product, my money. And once I start protecting my money, more people are going to come at me. So I don’t want to do this, but I’m doing this because I have no money, I have no house,” he explained.

Johnson knows that feeling. He hopes to be a living example that long-term commitment will lead to a better life than dealing drugs can offer.

“People don’t listen to what they’re told – they listen to what they’re shown. So, if I could fix me and change me and show them that I can be a better person without any of this, and still live the way I want to live and do the things I want to do, then they will be more prone to listen because now it’s something I can show them as opposed to just tell them,” he explained.

Libbett said this will be the first of many events to encourage conversations that can lead to understanding and stop violence before it starts.

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