“My process of healing, it took a while. I’m not going to lie because I told you that I didn’t trust nobody. I didn’t get far in life not trusting nobody. I had to trust somebody… So when I shared my story, I was like, ‘Oh my god! I can’t believe I just did that in front of so many people!’ But it felt so good to let that go because when holding something in for years and years and years, it’s feels great after you let it go.”
Born in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn, Ateya experienced loss, abuse, and trauma at a young age. Through ITM and other credible messenger programs she has parlayed her past into helping others. Currently she is a Credible Messenger with Redemption Speakers and Maysels Cinema Productions and working towards a bachelors degree in Criminal Justice.
Interview with Ateya, conducted by Joann Self Selvidge for The Juvenile Project (TJP) on September 6, 2018 via phone in New York.
Joann: So, tell me your name and how you are.
Ateya: My name is Ateya Johnson and I am 20 years old.
Joann: Tell me a little bit about your background like where you grew up, what your family and home life was like. You know, that kind of stuff.
Ateya: I was born in the Bronx in New York. I lived out there for a little bit until I moved out to Brooklyn when my brother was born, which was in Brooklyn. I grew up in a pretty stable home up until the age of about 11 when I lost my father on inauguration day when Obama was becoming president the first time. That kinda messed me up a little bit, you know, because I was daddy’s girl. I was the textbook version of a daddy’s girl, like, I would do nothing without my father. I didn’t watch football, basketball - I did everything with my dad. It tore me apart and honestly, it was a little depressing. Then I think the year my dad passed, everything that could be the worst scenario situation ever, was the worst scenario situation
A couple months later, I was raped by a man who I was being naive towards. It was just a stranger off the street and I need help like immediately. I needed all the help I could get because I couldn’t get in contact with my mom and I was lost and this man took advantage of me. I was so nervous and I was scared.
The next year, around the same time I got raped, I got beat up really badly by these 3 guys. They kind of disconfigured my face a little. So, I grew up mostly middle school and high school hating men, you know? They couldn’t do nothing for me because I had lost my dad and I got raped within the same year and then these 3 big guys beat me up for no reason at all… it was just something that I didn’t want to deal with. It was like guys was a ‘no’ for me. I hated them. (...inaudible statement…) I’m going to grow out of this. I took some time to develop out of this. I went to many different programs. I was going to regular group (inaudible) all male dominated and I was just like, ‘I can do this,’ you know? And now I look at myself which is funny is that most of my friends now are guys. You know, I am thankful of these programs I’ve gone through and helped me develop into a greater person.
I finished high school and middle school with honors. I went to college and graduated college with my Associates in Criminal Justice. So, now, I’m pretty much just schooling right now. I’m working on my Bachelors right now.
Joann: Wait, you’re 20 years old and you’ve finished college already?
Ateya: With my Associates, yes.
Joann: Oh, man. Congratulations!
Ateya: Thanks. I just graduated in May.
Joann: Tell me a little bit more about ITM. Like, how you came to that program and how you got involved.
Ateya: I started ITM last summer. I met Saj at an event. I can’t even remember what event it was but I met Saj. So, I met Saj and Saj was like, ‘You want to do this program with me? You know it’s the first kind of program we’re opening up.’ And I was like, ‘Sure. Why not?’ I didn’t know what to expect. Honestly, I walked in here and I was like, ‘I don’t know how this about to be, this kinda center… But I knew Saj was cool and everything he did was pretty much golden. So, I was like, ‘Yeah. I want to be apart of the dream team!’
So, I signed up for ITM last June and it was the best 7 weeks weeks of my life. You grew such love so strong for strangers that you never thought you could do with such little time. You became close with people because we was telling our life stories to where it wasn’t like whose story was the worst or whose story was whatever. It was more of just like we could sit here and we could dish it out and just say it and it would still be a comfortable and safe at the end of the day. We would still have confidentiality - I wouldn’t say yours outside of here and I wouldn’t judge you because of what you've been through. It was a judgement free zone and it was confidentiality always. It was just love in the room that people feel and that you knew was there.
To this day, I still talk to most of them in the program. Most of them are still doing good for themselves and so we keep in contact in group chats and stuff like that - which is a wonderful feeling because I’ve gained, since I’ve never had before, I've gained brothers, you know, I’ve never had before that. I have very close relationships with people that I never thought I would be able to do before. So, I did the program again this summer. This was a little bit different because, you know, Saj wanted put me in a higher position. He’s like, ‘You know, you already went through the same so we gonna teach the newbies that come.’ So, this group is a little bit more difficult because they wasn’t as open as such but it took some gradual time and they became more and more open. They had a lot of trust issues, which was fair because this is what this program is all about - it’s like working on these issues that you have. We ended up all loving each other at the end of the week. It was a great feeling that you get to meet about 20 other kids that you didn’t know and you’ve probably never seen in New York city before and now they’re just like best friends to you. It’s a wonderful feeling to do ITM.
Joann: That’s awesome. So, this was your second year?
Joann: So, tell me a little bit more about your background. What kind of experiences have you had in terms of your interactions with law enforcement and with the justice system?
Ateya: For sure. Ive been arrested one time before. It was over something that was pretty much a misunderstanding, really. When I was arrested, I was so scared.
Joann: How old were you when that happened?
Ateya: I was about 14, maybe? 14, 15? It was a State Trooper that had arrested me because I was online at the store and I had picked up this stuff and I was going to pay for it, I really was. I put it on the conveyor belt, but the lady must have took it off and just put it in my bag, like, she didn’t scan it at all. And when she did it, and I was like, they was like, “Ma’am, take a step to the side,” and the state trooper was all scary looking and I was like, ‘Oh my god, no! What did I do?’ So, the officer that arrested me, he took me out, put me in the car and took me down to the precinct. When he spoke to me, he was like the nicest guy ever. It was strange for me, you know, because people around me have the worst, you know, possible problems with police. But, it wasn’t until I went to college that when I got to see that they were really racist and that they didn’t care about you and that they wanted to see everything hate you.
When I went upstate for school, I got into this one argument with a police officer. It wasn’t even about nothing. We was in the store, I was standing there and it was more of just, like, I did something he didn’t like. So, I put it down, I had a bag of grapes and, you know, I was eating the grapes around the store and I put it on the belt to pay for it, and the lady was like, ‘No. You gotta get a new bag of grapes.’ I was like, ‘Okay. Well, I’ll get these grapes and a new bag.’ And that’s fine, it wasn’t bothering me, nothing. The officer, he started getting loud with me. He was like, ‘You black bitches is always doing this and always doing that. You can’t just come to a store and buy something, you always gotta eat something.’ He called me fat. He called me every name in the book that you could think of. It was hurtful because I was going to pay for it anyway, you know? For you to just be going in on me like that, it was like, ‘Why you doing that?’ He wanted to arrest me and it was me and my best friend and he wanted to arrest me. He was riling me up, hemming on us and I was like, you know, this not not even right. When you supposed to get pat down by an officer, at least I even know that, you supposed to get pat down my a female one at that. I felt uncomfortable. I felt weird, you know? (...inaudible statement…). I could say I had cool experience when I actually got arrested, but when I didn’t get arrested, I didn’t have a cool experience.
Joann: You said you were upstate - where were you when that happened?
Ateya: I was in Salisbury, New York. It’s about, maybe, 30 minutes from Canada because that’s where I was going to school at.
Joann: So, in terms of the credible messenger work, what are your goals? Or what are you getting out of that? Like, what do you want to do next?
Ateya: Well, right now, I’m working with several kids in Harlem and the Bronx. One program is Redemption Speakers and the other program is called Maysels Cinema Productions. Maysels is more of just, we film at the end of program, we want to showcase them and, you know, get them recognized. Kind of like what you guys are doing. We’re doing our little home ones that where we go out on the street and we’re talking to people about how they feel and about, you know, different topics whether it be homelessness, whether it be passion or it be about how you feel about gentrification - anything. So, we just shoot out of pocket and most people are really open to talking about these things on the street. They be like, ‘Sure. Put the camera up and get this thing rollin’.’ They’ll go on and we’ll just be like, ‘This is beautiful!’ Or we’ll do interviews on different people. My group right now is about hygiene and we just interviewed a doula. It’s a male doula, you know, a guy that helps the male deal with the emotional aspects of having birth after. Even though he’s physically not having to birth it, he deals with the emotional aspects. You know, we just had a great interview with him and he was very informative and he was very communicative with us. It was just great because it was like this whole entire video is like 10 times better now that you just gave it from a, you know, a professional type of view.
That’s that program and then Redemption Speakers is more of just like.. It’s me and one other girl in the program but it’s more mainly a male dominated program but it’s just safe have you can come to. You do this once a week, you know, come tell us your problems, what you going through, what you need, you know? Sometimes, programs will go on for an hour and sometimes, programs will go on for 4 hours. When we get into a passionate conversation whether it be about slavery or whether be about police brutality, or whether it can even be about me crossing the street and a guy whistling at me, it just gets us to a really heated conversation, where it’s just, where everybody is just sitting here letting out all their emotions. It’s not like, oh, you say something and I want to fight you because you said it. Or I wanna stab or you I wanna... you know. It’s just like, ‘Oh, you said that? Well, let me tell you why I disagree,’ or ‘let me tell you why I agree.’ That’s just, like, what these two programs are about. I love them because I love the people that I’ve met there and the people that are above me, and teach me how to be a mentor. It’s just a great feeling. Just a really great feeling.
Joann: When you get to talking about all of these different issues, like, which issues are the issues that you’re personally most passionate about?
Ateya: The one I’m always most passionate about is domestic violence, sexual harassment...that's just something that I’m always on top of. As far as like, if we get into criminal justice debates and stuff like that, I try to, like, they always ask me for the stats because they know I’m always a person that will throw a state at you and be like, ‘Oh, yeah. Well, you know the people in jail right now, these are the most people in solitary confinement right now.’ I’m always the one they come to and be like, ‘Hey! Give us a criminal justice fact,’ and I’ll be like, ‘I got you.’ So, those are the 3 things I’m always passionate about. I’m always loving to learn about criminal justice and everything that has to deal with the system, that has to deal with anything, pretty much. And that’s why I think why declared it as my major at first because I was like, ‘maybe I don’t really want to do this?’ But then I was like, nah. When I got into the classes and stuff and I was like I love it. It’s funny that I went to a predominately white school and my professor… she was mainly my professor because I went to a small school, so, I had 2 main professors outside of my regular courses. It was like my criminal justice courses, I only had 2 professors and one of the professors was a female and she was my advisor and she used to be a judge from Arizona, but she moved with her husband. Her name is Catherine (last name?) and I’ve been so appreciative of her and my reason for going upstate, because she’s real. She’s not one to sugar coat anything - she’ll tell you straight up. I feel as though it’s ridiculous how much African Americans and Hispanics are in jail. It’s highly ridiculous when most of the people who commit the crimes is white or commit the same crime is white and you’ll see them... I love that she’s just honest at a school that doesn't care to be racist. So, I was appreciative of her because she'll tell you how it is.
I remember I wrote a paper with her one time in regards to criminal justice and the relationships of African Americans and I was so scared to turn the paper into her because I was like, ‘what she gonna thing about this? She gonna fail me.’ I remember I did that with my English teacher and my English teach failed me. My english teacher just hated me - both my english teachers hated me and they were racist. They were really, really racist. But she was like, ‘No, Ateya, I love this paper.’ She gave me an automatic ‘A’. I was just like, ‘Thank you!’ She was like, ‘I’m going to use this paper again as an example for something else.’ I was so happy because I was like somebody recognize what we go through even though she can’t relate to it personally, it was just like she just sat there and opened her eyes and was like, ‘damn, I didn’t know half that stuff go on,’ you know? That’s why I was really appreciative of her and she helped me and helped motivate me to learn about criminal justice. Anybody that I know, I’ll sit down and get a notepad and a pen ready if you’re ready to give me stats or you ready to tell me anything I need to know that I don’t know, I’m willing to learn about it. That’s always been me when it comes to school. I love school. School is my thing. I love learning. So, that’s just something I’ve always been passionate about.
Joann: So, what’s next in terms of school?
Ateya: Yeah, right now I’m fulfilling my Bachelors in Psychology. But I was thinking about changing it because I remember as a kid, I always wanted to be a mortician. I declared Psychology because I was like, you know, I love Psychology. Psychology is just an amazing thing to really get into and I feel really passionate about it. So, I’m still on the ins and outs on which one to do because I love mentoring. I love looking after people, you know, that never had family in their life before. It’s just a great feeling because that’s just how I am. I’ve been like that since I was little kid. I care after people, I don’t expect nothing in return. Nothing. I mean, nothing at all. As long as you’re good, I’m good. That’s how I am about people on the streets, it’s like, ‘Oh, you need a dollar? You need something to drink? I got you.’ I don’t expect nothing in return. If you give me something in return, trust me, I’m 1000% appreciative but that’s just something that’s always me, so, I don’t know.
I’m in school right now. I love school. Right now I’m doing online classes so I can work. So, my schedule is all over the place. From 9 a.m. to about 9 at night, I’m always on the go, so, yeah. That’s me.
Joann: That's cool! So, you’re doing online classes? What kind of work are you doing?
Ateya: I’m doing mentoring work at a couple different locations. I took online classes because I never actually tried it before and I wanted to see if, you know, if it would be a little different for me and it is because you really got to be on your p’s and q’s for online classes. Because you know how in classes they teach you, you know, that be about it. They want you to read, teach you, um, they give you a quiz at the end of the day so you really gotta be on top of it. But that’s why I’m really appreciative of my job where I can just sit here and be like, ‘oh, program don’t start til 3? Oh, okay, I got time to kill. It’s like one o’clock right now so I’ll do a little quick, you know, discussion piece on the website and close my laptop when it’s time for the program to start.’ So, I love the online classes so far. My only thought about 4 classes, it’s not a lot of work but you really gotta be on top of it as opposed to being in the classroom.
Joann: You’ve got some amazing motivation and inspiration going on right there.
Ateya: Thank you!
Joann: So, do you have… I mean, you’re 20 years old now, so, do you still stay with your family?
Ateya: Yeah. I stay with my mom and my stepfather and my brother.
Joann: So, is your brother a little brother or a big brother?
Ateya: Little brother. Me and him are two peas in a pod. We look exactly alike. We are inseparable. That's my boy right there. I would hurt somebody for that boy. I just, I don’t know. Me and him are super duper close. Like, people be like, ‘Oh my god! I love yall two together. Yall two are so funny!’ I be like, ‘Uh, sometimes I be like I wanna kill him but it’s my brother, you know? I can’t.’
Joann: So, do you have any sort of words of wisdom or advice or thoughts about… I mean, you do mentorship, right? So, what are the things you find yourself helping people with most often and what are you words of wisdom and advice for young people?
Ateya: I find that a lot of people struggle with trust issues a lot when it comes to the field work, or they struggle with not having a person to depend on . Which is, for me, that my thing with anybody that I council with, I’d be like, ‘listen. I'll be straight up real with you,’ whether this is a wrong idea. But I won’t bash you. I’ll be like, ‘yeah, well, I don’t think the chicken is a good outlook from that but if we go with the steak, I think it would go great with mashed potatoes!’ You know? So, I don’t try to bash people because I don’t like it to be done to me so, I try to give people an ulterior motive.
Words of wisdom or advice I would give is that maybe when you get into the field work, have a lot of patience. I found that a lot of people don’t have when you going into the field work what you really need to do have. It’s just you only gotta have nothing but patience because, while you may not see, ‘oh, this person is not going to trust me. This person is not taking what I’m saying serious.’ When you told something to a person, you know, gave it about one, two, three, maybe four times, they gonna sit there and go, ‘Hey. This person is really credible in what they talking about.’ And that’s what I love about Credible Messengers is that these are not regular mentors. These are mentors who been through the same things you been through when you were younger. Like, they grew up in the same neighborhood. They probably been shot at. They probably been assaulted. They probably been going through police brutality. They been through the same things you been through. It’s not like, ‘oh, this lady don’t know me from a hole in the wall. She can’t understand what I’m going through.’ But, no. These people that who actually gone through what you’re going through. They’ll be like, ‘You know, when I was your age, of course yeah, I went that route. I did this. I did that and this is where I ended up. But because I ended up where I needed to be, this is where I’m at now.’
That’s why I love about doing this field work because there’s no mistakes for anyone. It’s just, you know, we sit here and we do what we do but, you know, it’s dependent on how you do it or how you go about it that makes it a greater thing. You know? Because I know some people I met in these programs who used to be hardcore drug dealers, hardcore gangbangers. They used to do everything and they used to do it 8 times worse than you see the people on the news do it and they sit there and say how they’ve changed their life around and they became credible messengers. They both realize that they’re people like us every day. So, I can do nothing but appreciate the people that be like that so I don’t mind giving them my time and attention if they’re willing to go out their days, out their lives, every single day to come here early in the morning and be here until late at night, giving me nothing but their time and attention. So, I mean, my words of wisdom is always to have patience, you know? I’m not saying it’s going to be easy to trust a person, trust me, me of all people, it’s very hard for me to trust a person but I don’t mind being open. So, if you are a closed person you know, let go of the reigns a little, let go some of the restraint, you know, but always keep your guard open but these people most of the time who (insububle) credible messages, I’m here to help you. They’re here to care for you. They aren’t here to hurt you. The slogan we always use at ITM is, ‘Heal people. Heal people.’ So, what we try to do is the opposite of ‘Hurt people. Hurt people.’ So, we go to the extreme lengths of, ‘You need help? I’ll be there. You got a court date right now? I’ll be there. Oh, you need some money? I’ll be there.’ You know?
Joann: I love the ‘Heal people. Heal people.’ So, you went through a lot. You’re a survivor. How did you heal? What was your process?
Ateya: My process of healing, it took a while. I’m not going to lie because I told you that I didn’t trust nobody. I didn’t get far in life not trusting nobody. I had to trust somebody. I was like, somebody gotta be, you know, telling me, like… this started off small. It’s like, okay, I’m only listening to my mom, you know? I know my mom would never steer me wrong. I would be like okay, let me loosen up the reigns a little bit. When I first got to ITM, I’ll never forget, I went to Saj and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can share my story.’ He was like, ‘You can do this, Ateya. We all gonna share our stories.’ I met this kid named Tyree at Jaraus at the program and they told their stories and I was in complete awe and another kid that they’re really close with, a kid named Ray, he said his story and I was just like, ‘Oh my god. You guys been through hell and back. So, I think I can share my story. If they’re so open with us then I can do this.’ So when I shared my story, I was crying so much and I was like, ‘Oh my god! I can’t believe I just did that in front of so many people!’ But it felt so good to let that go because when holding something in for years and years and years, it’s feels great after you let it go. So, my healing process would pretty much be that. I’m really talkative, like, I let it go. If it’s bothering me, I write it down. If something's going on that’s wrong with me, I talk to my mom. I talk to my mentors. I’ll call Saj. Everything and the whole nine yards. Or, you know, I even go to programs. Sometimes I be having like the worst days at programs and I’ll go and I know that by the time I leave program, I’m in the 10 times way better mood than what I was when I started coming here at first.
So, my healing process was a little tricky but it was smoothly than it could have been. I’m not really complaining but it wasn’t an easy one but it went pretty smooth. I just started loosening up my reigns with people and it was just… I could talk to people more often. Whether You believe me or not or whether you feeling what I’m feeling, it’s just I knew it felt better to just get it off my chest rather than just holding it, holding it, holding it in.
Joann: That’s beautiful. Thank you. Thank you so much.