Sisters and Brothers,
It is with great sadness that we announce the transition to the ancestors of our brother Johnnie Lattner, co-founder of Parents Unified for Local School Education (PULSE) from Newark, New Jersey. Johnnie was the essence of a grassroots community organizer, a gatherer and a creator of spaces for legitimate parent and community voice. I met Johnnie in 2007 along with Sharon Smith as they were investigating bringing local school governance to Newark. I was comfortable as a local grassroots organizer, but Johnnie and Sharon pushed me by demanding my mentorship; therefore, helping me grow. Johnnie and Sharon eventually co-founded PULSE and were on the front lines in Newark, organizing to stop harmful school closings in primarily Black communities. Johnnie was a founding member of the Journey for Justice Alliance. He helped teach me that building a national alliance, where organizations move from a shared set of values was possible. I want to tell you who this brother was to me.
Johnnie understood community organizing; the artistic science of listening to the people directly impacted to hear their concerns, then working with them to build strategy and power to win policy or resources to address the need. I have had several experiences with PULSE where I witnessed parents find their voice and agency through Johnnie's leadership. Always encouraging and with a smile, Johnnie knew how to develop grassroots leaders. I remember meeting with them around base building for PULSE and I asked them to organize a meeting with 50 people. I traveled to Newark and on the date of their meeting, it was a torrential rainstorm. I expected a small turnout due to the weather and I was ready to tell them; do not worry about it, they will come next time. I was in shock when I walked in the church to a packed church basement learning about sustainable community schools (with some good catfish!). Through Johnnie and PULSE, I met incredible grassroots leaders like Ms. Betty Crockett, Yolanda Johnson, Sheila Montague, Daryn Martin, Yvonne Malone and Kesha Owens to name a few; all of whom would credit PULSE for aiding them in their development as grassroots leaders.
Johnnie Lattner was a warrior who was consistent. At one point, Johnnie was struggling to find quality, affordable housing. Most people would have understandably tapped out and taken time to get their living conditions stabilized. Johnnie never missed a beat. He was consistently on the J4J coordinating committee calls and carrying out the work on our national outreach committee. He would bring leaders to J4J events when I knew his economic situation was in dire straits. Johnnie was about this work. Whenever J4J had to mobilize for an action, I could always count on that strong bus load of leaders from Newark. Whether we were sitting in to expose racism at the American Friends Service Committee or forcing the U.S. Department of Education to hold a community hearing on the impact of school closings, Johnnie was always front and center and ready to work. He did not talk it, he walked it.
When Newark was proposing school closings, PULSE called for a boycott and organized a freedom school which me and a small team from Chicago flew in to support. Only 30% of students reported to school during the boycott. When most folks felt the battle could not be won, Johnnie was always a force for equity, bringing community voice to the decision-making table. When the disastrous One Newark Plan shuttered several schools in Black communities in Newark, it was Johnnie and PULSE who, along with Journey for Justice Alliance members in New Orleans and Chicago filed Title VI civil rights complaints and Newark won! They proved that the school closings in Newark had a disparate impact on Black students and won measures to provide resources to children harmed by those actions. Johnnie was instrumental in bringing sustainable community schools to Newark, helping to guide the process at Belmont Runyan Elementary. Johnnie was a major contributor to building a statewide network organizing for education justice in New Jersey. Through his and Sharon Smith's work I met organizers from Paterson, Jersey City, Elizabeth, Trenton and Camden. He helped expand J4J's base throughout the state. He was an organizer who got things done!
The transition of Johnnie Lattner to the world of the ancestors hurts emotionally, but I am a believer in this African proverb; "One is never dead until they are forgotten." Most of all, I will remember Johnnie's laugh. He loved being with the people and his laugh was hearty, deep and joyful. His big smile just said to anyone who he met, welcome! When I close my eyes, I can see his big smile and hear him say, "thank you my brother."
As his brother and as the National Director of the Journey for Justice Alliance I will do all I can in the way I can to ensure that the work and the legacy of our good brother Johnnie Lattner will never be forgotten. To honor his significant contribution to the education justice movement, J4J is announcing the "Johnnie Lattner Organizing Scholarship" in his honor for Black-led community groups to receive a full 5-day organizing training with the Midwest Academy, one of the country's preeminent community organizing training institutions. We love you dearly brother and commit to organizing fiercely for education equity in your memory. Rest well warrior. Ashe.