Why representation matters: Hanif Johnson discusses being a black man and a Judge

The revolution will NOT be televised: How this young black man went against America's biases and statistics

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In the very much Black and White world that we live in, it is sometimes hard to not give up. Give up hoping for change, give up wishing we did not have to silently pray for our Men, our boys, even our sisters every time police come their way. In America, the Black person has been unidentified and less than for so long that our outcry for justice has turned into anger and despair. Our different cultures, identities, intelligence, freedom of thought have been suppressed so much that current and coming generations view it as the norm. To be without roots, without voice, to be complacent. I believe it is important to understand that we were not taught how to rise above and succeed in this government. Rather, we were taught how to conform and work for those who feel we are less than. This is as Black and White as those who are rich and those who are poor. As enslavement, theft of aboriginal lands, and a bias system would have it... the poor class tends to have a higher ratio of minority populations. AND YET... we continue to fight. We continue to prevail. We continue to make as much of a difference as we can. We continue to be that dim light of hope among our own. Hanif Johnson is a perfect example of that ever shining light among urban communities. He didn't let the odds, his misfortune, pity, injustice, or the pain we encounter daily derail him from his purpose. He decided that if society refused to change, he would become that facilitator of change among his community. Check out our interview with him below were he gives us insight on his own revolution among his community: 

What inspired you to become a judge? I think it was what was going on around the World. A lot of people constantly falling victim to the justice system, no justice. I have fallen victim to this justice system as well due to mistaken identity. I got tired of it. I wanted to balance the odds out and give a different perspective. I come from a hard environment, the projects, hardships, etc. I know struggle first hand and can relate to the adversities many of the men in the jail system face.  

What does the typical workday of a judge consist of? I oversee different cases every day. On Monday’s I handle traffic cases. I see civil cases on Tuesday’s, evictions and truancy on Wednesday’s, Thursday’s criminal felony and misdemeanor cases, and Friday’s I handle bail and arrest warrants for the city of Harrisburg, PA.

What advice would you give to someone looking to become a judge? It is a lot of hard work, you need to reach out to people with political experience and market yourself. You will also need to learn and understand that you will be the only one in your own corner a lot. I faced a lot of negativity and skepticism when I started marketing myself. I got a lot of “it’s your first time don’t be mad if you don’t win” responses from people; some even laughed in my face. However, like everything else if you are going to do something you just have to go after it. If you do not get it, it is ok as long as you tried.

Why do you feel representation is so important in the judicial system? Many of the people in jail look like me. They are black, young, and males. The only thing they see on TV and in their environment is success as either a rapper or an athlete. They do not see anything in between, so 6 out of 10 of the boys growing up in the hood want to become that. They want to mimic the lifestyle they see including the cycle correlated with street cred and jail. For them to think there is more, they have to see it. I am a representation of something more. I grew up in the projects, mother was on drugs, and I went to the schools they went to. What makes me different? Nothing. Once they see that, they can see themselves on the other side of the court system.

As a father, what example do you look to set to your children? I just want to be that guidance and role model for them. I want them to see that their dad goes after things and that he cares about his community. I do social work with the youth, I coach for the high school track team... Maybe one day when my son wants to run for office as a Judge it’ll be easier for him because his father paved the way. 

What advice would you give to the young men who are fathers but maybe providing for their family via illegal means? Listen, would you rather provide today and not be around for ten years or even end up dead? The risk doesn’t equal the reward. Even if you get caught up or fall victim to this system you have to grind it out. If it takes three years to make the same ends meet at least you can see your children grow up instead of being in jail or dead. 

The role of fathers among our community is constantly undermined. As a father, why do you feel having that male influence is so important? For girls you can tell who did and didn’t have their fathers around. As a man, you can put your daughter up on game, boys and their motives, what their intentions are... sometimes a women perspective isn’t enough. For boys, they need a male role model to look up to instead of a guy down the street. They also need that comfort of being able to tell another man you love them without feeling guilty and knowing that it’s ok to cry, to hurt, to feel pain. 

Not only are you the youngest judge in your state but you’ve beat all the statistics stacked up against a young black man. How did it feel to win? When I won I was in the parking lot with my mom and all I could do was cry. After the election when I got the numbers back I was surprised. I was so far ahead, I was 100 points and the feeling was surreal. I won 6 out of the 7 polls. It was a crazy emotion after I sacrificed everything. I gave up my career and started working in intense labor ready environments. I had bills and didn’t know if I would get paid but it was the only way I could reach my goal. I hand delivered over 2,000 letters trying to get people to vote for me. I gave up the opportunity to own my home, just so much sacrifice. To finally reap the rewards of my efforts was crazy.

Did you have to go to school? There are about five different levels of judges. On the bottom level you can go to law school or you can complete a certification course. You have to write essays on summary hearings, preliminary arrangements, search and seizures, citations, etc. a lot of people say that’s hard but it isn’t. It took about 120 minutes for me to finish the final exam for the certification.  I also went to Penn State and received my bachelor’s degree in Economics but it is not required. The certification course is enough to start out but it is intense. It is designed to make you fail, there’s a lot of trick questions, word play, etc. so make sure you study. I plan on going back to law school as well to continue educating myself and moving up. A lot of the time you have retired police officers, attorneys, etc. taking the course and hence becoming the judges in your community. 

How did your mom influence your life and/or career choice? My mom didn’t want me to quit my job; I had a good job with the state. However, when I still quit she was on my campaign immediately as my treasurer. She definitely had an impact because she gave me the support and confidence I needed. She let me know that she had my back no matter how crazy my ideas were and that meant a lot. I’m a momma’s boy, she always has my best interest at heart and always told me, “ don’t give up and don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something.” She’s the type of mother that will empty out her bank account to help me prove anyone standing against me wrong. 

What advice would you give to single mothers who are trying to steer their sons towards a better lifestyle? Put him around other men that are doing positive things and they will latch on. Anytime there is a void that needs to be filled it needs a positive fill. It doesn’t have to be a father just a male figure. All the men that influenced me were in the same fraternity as me. So put him in that environment or around the men you want him to aspire to become.