As executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), David Johns works to end racism, homophobia and LGBTQ+ bias. It’s a battle with high stakes — one he was uniquely prepared to fight.
“As a Black boy growing up in Inglewood, being gay was not a possibility,” Johns said. “I had same-sex desires, but it was not something I could have acted on in any way, shape or form.”
Johns had no examples of Black LGBTQ+ men living healthy and happy lives. In church, he was told homosexuality was a sin and AIDS was the cost. It wasn’t until he enrolled at Columbia University in New York as an undergraduate that he gained a context for his intersectional identity — a privilege not everyone is afforded.
“A lot of Black LGBTQ+ kids end up in spaces where they’re not supported in learning, growing and countering the [negative] narratives we grow up with,” Johns said. “I was privileged to have a family that supported my schooling.”
Johns, 37, remembers growing up traversing vastly different spaces within the course of a day: he lived in Inglewood, Calif., and commuted to school in Brentwood and Pacific Palisades, affluent, Hollywood-adjacent neighborhoods over an hour away.
Both Johns’ parents hailed from Austin, Texas, where his grandfather had been a Baptist preacher, and most of the men in his family served in the armed forces. His parents moved to Los Angeles soon after marriage for better economic opportunities, and Johns had a strong example of advocacy in his mother. She graduated high school early and although she did not complete her undergraduate studies, actively lobbied to procure the best education she could for her son. Johns attended school year-round and enjoyed a full roster of enrichment and extracurricular programs.
“I watched my mom fight in educational spaces so I could take up space,” Johns said. “She’d negotiate her capital at work to show up at school meetings scheduled at times that were intentionally inconvenient. Her dedication is something I continue to benefit from.”
Johns obtained a master’s degree in sociology and education policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he graduated summa cum laude. After completing a fellowship with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, he worked under the leadership of Sen. Ted Kennedy. Johns worked his way up to senior education policy adviser to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) and in 2013 was appointed executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. He took the reins at NBJC in 2017.
Johns has his mother’s fighting spirit. He is tireless in efforts to dismantle intra-racial bias within the Black community. Believing that language is one of the best tools for combating it, he favors the term “same-gender loving” over gay and “inviting in” over “coming out,” resisting linear, whitewashed narratives that ignore the experiences of most Blacks. Under his direction, the NBJC launched several campaigns and educational toolkits, including Inviting In and the Words Matter HIV campaign. The campaign, Words Matter Gender Justice, which focuses on stemming the disproportionate violence faced by Black women and girls, including transwomen, was rolled out during the 110th annual NAACP convention in Detroit.
Ultimately, Johns wants Black communities to “do better” for the sake of Black children.
“We owe them,” Johns said. “It’s disingenuous to say you care about Black people with exceptions. White supremacy and anti-Blackness win when we adopt the idea that there is only one way to show up as Black in this world.”
— Emiene Wright