Gilbert Johnson is the director of Strategic Reentry Initiatives at the Office of L.A. Mayor Karen Bass and previously was an organizer at Community Coalition in South L.A. Before joining the Zócalo program “What Is a Good Job Now?” For the Formerly Incarcerated—supported by The James Irvine Foundation—Johnson joined us in the green room to talk about family, soul food, and what progress means to him.
What is at the top of your Oscar’s Best Picture list—from any year?
There are so many great movies. Me and my wife are movie-heads. Of all time: I’ve got to go with The Matrix. The OG one.
Corrections and reentry work can be taxing. How do you recharge?
A lot of family time. A lot of disconnecting from the work, which is very hard to do. But it’s doable when you learn how to set boundaries. And I have a super huge family. So family time is my getaway from the wiles of city government.
Speaking of family, you’re a parent yourself. What’s one of the joys of fatherhood?
Being the individual that I needed growing up but did not have. Being the protector, being a provider. I never met my father, never talked to him—I was abandoned before I was born. And now I get to change that dynamic by being fully present.
You’re born and bred in South Central L.A. Where’s a spot you like to go there?
I’d have to say CoCo, the Community Coalition. That was where I cut my teeth in community organizing. And that was the organization that really helped end my criminal activity—crime, violence, gangbang, drugs. My kids love CoCo. My wife has a love-hate relationship because I used to work so damn much. It just inspires a lot of values, like community and spirit. Actually, when I was at CoCo I wrote an article for Zócalo, on Prop. 47.
What does progress look like to you?
For me, progress is not relying on the ways of old, the historical approaches that led to a lot of the community conditions we’re experiencing now. Just moving forward, advancing and advancing in a way that’s bold, that’s innovative, that’s creative, that actually combats the status quo and the structures and systems that were built intentionally by design to create the haves and have-nots. Our communities were socially engineered through various laws and policies. And you know, we’re still combating a lot of that to this day. The racial disparities are stark, especially in the criminal justice system. So progress is about new approaches to safety that don’t rely on the old ways. People having what they need to strive not just survive.
What’s your comfort food?
Soul food, for sure. If I had to pinpoint one, it would have to be BBQ chicken. I was actually a chef at a soul food restaurant once.
What song will get you out on the dance floor?
Lately me and my babies and my wife, we’ve been on this Michael Jackson binge. It just took me back to the old days with family coming together and getting around the screen and watching Michael, and the Jackson 5, and the oldies-but-goodies. So I gotta say “Dancing Machine.”
What’s something you’d like to tell other formerly incarcerated people looking for good work?
I’d start with: You are more than your worst mistakes. I believe in you. You are redeemable, you are worthy of freedom. You are worthy of justice. You are worthy of everything that you desire, no matter what the system has told you, no matter what your parents and family members may have told you. You deserve a great life and the mistakes you made should not prohibit you from progressing in life. Get connected with one of the organizations that is really doing the work and cares. Surround yourself with like-minded people that want to elevate and want to grow. Be the change that your community needs.