onventional wisdom says some street-wise youth could harness their intellect for the good. Detroit Recovery Project CEO and Morehouse College graduate Andre Johnson is a case in point.
The 43-year-old was expelled from Detroit Public Schools as a high school sophomore, sentenced to a juvenile facility for selling drugs, and living on his own in the Cass Corridor when his peers were prepping for the senior prom.
Johnson got tired of running from police and decided to change his life. He entered rehab, earned a GED diploma and worked in human services while attending Wayne County Community College-all before a fateful trip to Atlanta sparked his Morehouse College dream.
Substance-free since 1988, Johnson founded Detroit Recovery Project a decade ago, treating addiction as an illness and supporting long-term success for those in the recovery community.
When did you get off track and begin destructive behavior?
I was raised by a loving mother, who worked hard as a nurse. But looking back, I was angry at my stepfather who set a poor example and I never met my own father. So I acted out in school and followed the example of cousins and friends who were violent, negative and running the streets with gangs. I got kicked out of Finney High School, then Kettering [High School]. Then, I was just drinking, and using and selling drugs.
How were you able to change your life, at the relatively young age of 24?
I sold drugs to an undercover officer and was handcuffed on the street where I grew up, right in front of the little kids. As a first-time offender, I was sent to a half-way house with people and situations that I didn’t want to repeat.
Once I got out, I went back to the streets, but I had it in the back of my mind that I had set a bad example for the kids and I was tired of running from police, suppliers and customers. I told myself something had to change. I went into rehab and the people there invested in me, encouraged me to get a GED, go to WCCC, and they hired me to work in the human services area I love working in today.
How did you take that next step from Wayne County Community College to Morehouse?
I had been exposed to some pretty impressive men, but most of them had made their money in illegal ways and I was done with that. When a friend invited me to his Morehouse graduation I saw 500 black men march across that stage and all of the history and the legacy of Morehouse. I was 26, but I decided I wanted to be a part of that. I wrote the legendary president of Detroit Morehouse Alumni, the late Bill McGill, and he wrote a recommendation letter. I was so focused that I moved to Atlanta before I was even accepted. Once there, I got a lot of support from the faculty and from friends who are like brothers to me to this day.
What is Detroit Recovery Project’s mission?
We emphasize the rebuilding of entire communities affected by drug and alcohol addiction. Once you’ve finished rehab you need to rebuild your life. DRP provides substance abuse prevention and treatment services, but we are also a referral service, helping the person in recovery to see and overcome obstacles to staying drug free. That may mean a new job, someplace to live, a new focus for friends and new involvements.
What keeps you from giving up on those who slip back into substance abuse?
You can’t give up on people when they are sick. Despite the stigma around substance abuse and being a person in recovery, this is still an illness. As an adult, I wish the school system hadn’t given up on me. So I can’t see giving up on people when they are in need of support.
Alicia Nails is the director of the Journalism Institute For Media Diversity at Wayne State University.