Written by Mike Savona
Young, dynamic and full of boundless energy, Darrien Johnson has connected to our scheduled Zoom meeting with ease while I struggle to figure out precisely how to activate the video and audio functions to begin our session. The iPhone next to me buzzes every 30 seconds with a new email reminding me that “Darrien has connected with your meeting” as my mood sours and I eventually give up. Ever patient – Darrien texts me and soon we are engaged in a delightfully bright and cheerful conversation. Over the span of the next hour and a half, I find myself deeply impressed by this truly amazing, gifted and sincere young woman.
A North Philly native, 22-year-old Darrien grew up in Strawberry Mansion and attended the Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School, located at 2501 Kensington Avenue. As a part of the Freedom School Movement, Sankofa Freedom Academy uses African centered and culturally responsive methodologies to engender in its students, staff, and community a love for learning, pride in heritage and a commitment to personal and societal transformation. Darrien excelled at Sankofa - graduating as valedictorian of her class in 2016. As a requirement to complete her education, Darrien completed an international trip of service in Gambia, West Africa in 2016. While in Gambia, Darrien taught phonics and writing skills to students in grades K-5 and painted a mural wall – following a tradition practiced by students completing their trip of service.
It is no surprise that Darrien excelled at Sankofa. She is a driven and committed student – intelligent, articulate and wise beyond her years. She is also deeply committed to service as a means to bring societal change – a touchstone principal of Sankofa. Darrien’s commitment to service runs deep. She began serving as a Junior Servant Leader in Philadelphia Freedom Schools when she was just 14 years old. She expanded her community involvement to include work as a site coordinator for the Center for Black Educator Development, service as President of the Epsilon Alpha Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc, and as a youth organizer for Philadelphia City Councilman, Isaiah Thomas. Currently, Darrien serves as a marketing and communications board member of the Thomas and Woods Foundation, an organization committed to bettering the health and wellness of at-risk urban youth, and as a board member for a diverse array of organizations such as Black Girls Love Math, Millennial Juneteenth and The Hatfield House Advisory Panel.
After finishing high school at Sankofa, her drive to serve and her commitment to serve her community lead Darrien to Delaware State University where she obtained her degree in Public Health. From there, she applied and was accepted to graduate school at Columbia University in New York City, where she is currently studying non-profit management with an eye on a career that will take her in new and exciting directions.
In response to escalating gun violence in Philadelphia in the summer of 2020, Darrien organized a number of anti-gun violence events across the city, including a 2.5 hour march from City Hall to Hunting Park and a march in South Philly following the murder of 2 young boys. The events drew broad support from the community and from members of City Council and the District Attorney and were covered by multiple media outlets, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and WHYY.
“I believe that there’s no problem that can’t be fixed,” Darrien tells me as we discuss her life and the scope of her involvement in public service. She describes her career goal as one in which she can be the link between non-profit entities and the tools they need to create real change in their communities. “You need to change values to make change” she says, and her drive to make change has already left a lasting mark on her hometown.
In addition to organizing community-based responses to gun violence and her impressive volunteer service, Darrien’s long-term vision includes serving as a paid consultant to other non-profits to guide them in ways to organize and realize their goals. Ultimately, she wants to organize a non-profit “giving circle” that will raise funds that will be directed to other small community organizations and non-profits that are working to make change a reality. Darrien sees this as the key to developing lasting change.
When asked what inspires her, Darrien tells me that while she realized at a very young age that she was gifted she also grew up acutely aware of the consequences of drugs and violence in her community and the limits imposed by socioeconomic and cultural differences. The desire to change these circumstances and to cultivate community change flows directly from her experiences growing up. “Real change comes from making fundamental changes to the community – it has to be deep and lasting,” says Darrien. “Glitter is momentary but glow is magical!”
When asked what has shaped her into the person she is today, Darrien pauses a moment and tells me that it’s her parents and her community that have shaped her the most – “all moving and loving components and people around me have made me who I am” she says.
Looking ahead, Darrien says she is committed to her work as a “community curator” for the long term. “To me, success is leaving a lasting impact and training others to continue to do what I do so that I can truly leave something behind.”