Determined/Audacious/Authentic/Black/Non-Profit Founder/Trauma Informed Leader

My name is Johnny Bernard Reed, Co-Founder of mental health non-profit ProjectHEAL Inc. I grew up on Chicago’s South Side where one word typically captures the experience of a young African-American male: savage. I was raised in a place where people like me rarely transcend the daily obstacles that anchor us to the desolate and darkened depths of what I deem the street to prison pipeline. Not only did I transcend these inevitable obstacles—gang violence, the selling and use of drugs and alcohol, negative encounters with the Chicago Police and, above all, a criminal record—I, unknowingly, latched on to education, which became the elevating platform that allowed me to survive and, frankly, triumph.

One of my earliest memories with my father is not the typical cinematic scene where the cute kindergarten boy runs into the arms of his beloved dad after a long school day. Conversely, as a five-year-old, my earliest memory is waking up on the cold leather backseat of my father’s golden two-door Chevy Nova. Perhaps it was the brisk Chicago evening wind-chill that forced my eyes open. Truthfully, I believe it was the close proximity to danger that stirred my consciousness. A two-minute segment on WGN news alongside Tribune newspaper clippings should have been the memorabilia that represented the final moments of my relationship with my father. However, my father was lucky. I awoke just in time to peer out the rear window and make eye contact with the six policemen who surrounded my father and the golden two-door Chevy Nova, guns drawn, shouting, “On the ground, NOW!” As a five-year-old boy, I had barley possessed the capacity to articulate my emotions in addition to the complexity of the experience I endured. Now, following a retrospective daze, I am confident that this situation remains one of my most vivid earliest memories because it was far from joyous; it was undoubtedly traumatic.

For most Midwestern families, Sunday mornings and early afternoons include religious fellowship, praise, and worship. My father and I faithfully attended Sunday morning praise and worship services; this was our primary ritual. Interestingly enough, we had equally developed a secondary ritual of our own: adventuring to the Cook County Jail to visit my eldest brother. This ritual extended from my early childhood days until I was old enough to drive myself to our secondary ritual appointments. Though I am unfamiliar with the details of my brother’s case, I am certain that he was facing execution for being allegedly accused and convicted of various criminal offenses. I should have been deemed a world-class traveller, I had grown so accustomed to the security inspections that I ultimately developed a routine of my own: shoes first, belt second, hopefully authentic silver chain third and, finally, my belt. Although I had enjoyed a few out-of-state family excursions, these experiences were far from the adventures afforded by world travel. Unknowingly, I was growing to become a knowledgeable stakeholder in one of Illinois’ most profitable customs: mass incarceration. Regrettably, a time came when I broke the secondary ritual and just stopped going. At the time, I was unable to articulate my reasoning to my father. Now, following a retrospective daze, I confess that the decade I spent traveling to the Cook County Jail to visit my eldest brother, who would soon be executed, was certainly traumatic.

Death is a natural part of life but a complex experience for humans to endure. Following the loss of a loved one, people seldom recover; arguably, they remain broken and soon transition into a state of numbness due to their inability to reconcile the tragedy. As a twenty-year-old college sophomore, I grew quite familiar with this state of being. The day was September 24th, 2011. I received news that cemented my heart. In this paralyzing state, I was tasked with the responsibility to call my father and inform him that my second eldest brother would soon be remembered by memorabilia resembling clippings from the obituary section. Despite every experience that afforded us the status of strong men, simultaneously, we similarly transitioned into an inexplicable state of numbness.

In all of my twenty-six years, there has never been an instance where I have questioned the source of my stern character, until now. I have always grounded myself in integrity while exercising three of my most prominent attributes: audacity, authenticity, and determination. Now, following a retrospective daze, I have concluded that one element holistically captures and characterizes the origin of my stern character: trauma.

Stern character is typically praised because it yields honorable academic and professional opportunities plus commendable accomplishments. Rarely is stern character praised for its origin…as a result of trauma. Today, I take the road less travelled. The roots of my most prominent attributes were nourished by traumatic experiences. As a young boy, I developed audacity as I saved my father’s life by making eye contact with the police that surrounded him. As a young teenager, I developed authenticity as I rejected making visits to the Cook County Jail a life-long ritual. As a young man, I developed a keen sense of determination following the loss of my brother; this was the day I consciously decided to be great despite any negative encounter.

Trauma is the origin of my stern character. My narrative is complex. Nevertheless, the duality of my narrative is unreal because it relates to an African-American experience that is both conventional and unconventional. In May of 2017, I witnessed a shooting of a young man, in broad daylight, while sitting at a stoplight. Later that evening he passed. The following day, my students knew what occurred and one student slapped me on the elbow and said, “Hey Reed, just get used to it, ain’t nothing changing”.

Of the numerous cars present on 147th st. in Dolton, IL that day, I was the only one who leapt from my car when a young lady screamed, “Help me, help me, I think he’s dying!” This was the day the world stood idly by and I stood for something. Undeniably so, I took a bold stance to begin the journey of understanding how trauma impacts; while, simultaneously searching for healthy coping mechanisms that have the power to heal the broken hearts and minds of people in my hometown of Chicago, IL—and nationwide. This day, I recognized my power, the power of using my heart as my life’s navigation system and the ultimate guide for my life’s work.

Founding ProjectHEALInc. is my first step towards restoring hope to students in high crime, low income, communities and exposing them to healthy coping mechanisms so that they learn how to navigate trauma and heal themselves. I have the keen abilities to hear and listen to my heart when it speaks.  Thus, the added benefit that I bring to the world is my desire to consistently restore what may have been once broken, or even, heal hearts or minds that have been severely tainted by life experiences.

As a result, I pray that God continues to give me strength of mind and heart as I proceed with the growth and development of ProjectHEAL Inc. ProjectHEAL Inc. is a mental health non-profit that responds to the problems, experienced nationwide, where students who reside in low-income communities receive inadequate social-emotional and mental health services in comparison to peers in affluent communities.

ProjectHEAL Inc. is working to provide additional social-emotional and mental health services to schools that reside in low-income communities in Las Vegas and Chicago by providing:

1) Educators with trauma-informed professional development sessions;

2) High School Students with an expressive writing fellowship where they learn about trauma, expressive writing as a healthy coping mechanism, and entrepreneurship through self-publishing narratives of their traumatic experiences.

We are striving towards preparing more of today’s high school students to become the adults of tomorrow who practice healthy coping habits instead of destructive coping habits that historically lead families and generations towards a perpetual cycle of generational trauma, poverty and mass incarceration.

On a daily basis, I search for strategic ways to look trauma straight in the eyes and find healthy coping mechanisms to transcend the mental paralysis that it bestows upon so many people of color. Each day I grow stronger, and each day I make progress towards introducing more teachers, students, and people enduring broken heartedness to healthy coping mechanisms that, ultimately, lead them into a mentally healthier lifestyle.

Want to stay connected to Johnny and his work?

ig: @realkingreed

If this story inspires you and there is an interest to continue the conversation around the work of ProjectHEAL Inc., please feel free to contact Johnny at