As told to Madison Feller
Historically, women have needed to be convinced to enter politics. But since the 2016 presidential election, thousands of women have decided to run. And we want them to win. So we’re giving them examples of a woman who has run. The point: You can, too.
Movita Johnson-Harrell’s path to government has been long in the making. A gun violence prevention activist, Johnson-Harrell first ran to represent Pennsylvania’s 190th district in the state House back in 2016 but lost to Vanessa Lowery-Brown. Then, when Lowery-Brown resigned after being sentenced to probation for bribery, the seat opened up again. Johnson-Harrell was asked to run in the special election, which she won, becoming the first Muslim woman to be elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature. Here, she talks about how she ran a campaign in just four short weeks—and how her son’s legacy keeps her going:
I never thought I would get into politics. I come from generations of poverty and substance abuse and alcoholism. I grew up on welfare and lived in public housing. In 1975, on Easter Sunday, my father was murdered in front of me and my family, which made me very hypervigilant about violence. And on July 1, 1991, my only brother was murdered over a girl.
The reason for my motivation was my children. I wanted to break the cycle of poverty and the cycle of substance abuse. I wanted them to have a better life. At 30 years old, with four children and two jobs, I came off of welfare and got my high school diploma. I spent the next seven years full-time in school, and I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with five degrees.
In the summer of 2007, my sons were 14 and 16, and they told me they knew nine boys murdered in our neighborhood. My son Charles told me about one boy in particular who was killed in a drive-by, how the bullets weren’t even meant for this kid. I saw the pain in my son’s eyes and him fighting back the tears. I consoled my children, and I told them I would do everything in my power to protect them.
When they left my room, I turned to my husband and I said, “It’s time to go.” I said, “My black sons will not become statistics on the streets of Philadelphia.” Less than six months later, on January 15, 2008, I packed my family up and I left Philadelphia. I moved to Delaware County, and I thought we were safe.
“MY BLACK SONS WILL NOT BECOME STATISTICS ON THE STREETS OF PHILADELPHIA.”
On January 12, 2011, my son came to Philadelphia, to the Germantown area, to pick up his sister. Two boys walked up to the car that my son was in and sprayed the car with bullets. Charles Johnson, my son, died on January 13 in surgery. On January 15, I buried my son—three years to the day after we left Philadelphia. I tell people, you can’t move away from it. I tried.
That pain led me to create the CHARLES Foundation. It’s an acronym for Creating Healthy Alternatives Results in Less Emotional Suffering. I created it three months to the day my son died; I don’t even remember doing it.
Through the CHARLES Foundation, we began to fight for our kids on both sides of the gun. We began to work with organizations to get the illegal guns off the street. We created a summer program where we had at-risk young people come and receive conflict resolution, problem solving skills, and mentoring.
This fight against gun violence led me to run. I had moved back to Philadelphia. I got tired of hearing the same old propaganda, “We’re going to do this. We’re going to do that,” and nobody is doing anything. I wanted to make sure that everyone who was campaigning in that election cycle was talking about the issues that mattered most in the community that I lived in. I also wanted to force the powers that be to start being preventive, rather than reactive.
While I was not successful in winning that race in 2016, I was very successful in having people engaging in those conversations.
Through the work that I’ve done since my son was murdered, I was tapped by Larry Krasner in 2017 as he was running for District Attorney in Philadelphia. I supported Larry because of his progressive policies and his ideology about reducing mass incarceration and balancing the scales for black and brown people. When he won that election, he asked me to come to the DA’s office with him.
I HAD A COUPLE OF CONVERSATIONS WITH SOME PEOPLE IN LEADERSHIP. IT WAS MADE VERY CLEAR TO ME THAT I WAS NOT THE CHOICE.
I was appointed to be his supervisor for Victim Witness Services and Restorative Justice. I came on January 2, 2018, and then in the fall, there began to be chatter that Vanessa Lowery-Brown was going to be convicted and that she would be vacating that office. I had a couple of conversations with some people in leadership about who they were looking to fill that seat. It was made very clear to me that I was not the choice.
There were three men that the party were looking at ahead of me, even though I was the most qualified to take that seat. My frustration was, while only 24 percent of the legislature is made up of women, why would they be selecting a man to fill a woman’s seat?
But I was quite comfortable at the DA’s office. I was doing great work. So, I made a decision: I’m not going to run. They don’t want me. Literally, the week before I got the call, I bought a refrigerator for my office.
On Friday, January 25, my phone rang at about 2 P.M., and it was the Democratic party. All of the men that they had put in front of me could not make the ballot. They said, “We need someone to represent this district. We need somebody that’s going to do it with integrity, and you’re it. You’re our pick.”
My mouth almost hit the floor. I had four weeks before my special election, and it was non-stop.
The day of the election, on March 12, I went across the district to the polling places. That evening, I wound up at my campaign office, and it was getting late. Around 8:30 P.M., I got a call from my head ward leader and he’s talking, and it’s not computing.
Because this time, I was being told I had 70 percent of the votes. I hung up the phone. I grabbed my mouth, and I bent over and I started crying. My son sees me from across the room, and he comes over and he literally wraps his arms around me to hold me up.
It has been amazing to shatter a glass ceiling, to open the door for other marginalized communities and open the door for other groups that have not had a seat at the table. Historically, we’ve been on the menu, and to be the first to provide that opportunity, with the intention of including more, is amazing.
I feel very, very, very privileged, and with that privilege comes a lot of responsibility and comes a lot of criticism and comes a lot of blowback. Hence, my swearing in. [Editor’s note: Before her swearing in, State Rep. Stephanie Borowicz gave an opening prayer where she asked Jesus for forgiveness, asked for God to look after President Donald Trump, and thanked God that Trump “stands behind Israel, unequivocally.”]
What was supposed to be the perfect day of inclusion and change and hope was marred by Representative Stephanie Borowicz and her bigotry and her Islamaphobia and her divisiveness with her political indignation masked as a prayer.
Initially, I didn’t think anything of it. Then at some point, I’m saying, “Something’s not right here,” and I attempted to make eye contact. Then she goes on to talk about Trump and him unequivocally standing with Israel against Palestine, and I became appalled. I become concerned, not for myself, but for the five generations of my family that were sitting there.
I had a reception after the swearing in, and I made a statement. I told my guests, who were Muslim, Christian, and Jews, that we were not going to let that take away from our day, that I knew I would face discrimination being the first, that I was welcome to having those conversations, and that we could utilize this as a moment for teaching and learning.
I want to have the House take this as an opportunity to have those discussions about inclusion and diversity and acceptance and tolerance. We’re not there just to represent Stephanie’s district. We’re not there to just represent one group or two groups. We’re there to represent the entire constituency of Pennsylvania, and all of us don’t look like Stephanie.
That’s not going to stop me from doing what I came up to Harrisburg to do. I’m going to fight to end gun violence. I’m going to fight to improve the education in my district. I’m going to fight to create jobs and make sure that the tax breaks that are given are benefiting the poor.
When I was sworn in, they gave me a choice of what I could be sworn in on. I used Charles’ Quran. I wore orange for gun violence prevention, and all of my guests had on orange ribbons.
When they saw us in the orange ribbons, a bunch of the members of the House asked us what they were for. When we told them, they asked for ribbons, and they put them on, too.