In 2015, Knowa Johnson told his kids they were going on “extended vacation” to Gwinnett County, where the family lived in a hotel for a couple of months. His kids didn’t know it at the time, Johnson said, but they were homeless.
After an old back injury flared up, Johnson couldn’t work. He and his family began sleeping in Athens hotel rooms while trying to save up enough money to put down a deposit for an apartment. However, with the University of Georgia football season causing hotel prices to skyrocket, the family couldn’t afford to stay in Athens.
While homeless, Johnson made the effort to preserve his children’s sense of normalcy by going to parks and art museums. Johnson said he felt like it was his responsibility to shelter his children from their reality of being homeless, saying his parents did the same for him growing up poor in Orlando subsidized housing.
“Whatever … my mom was stressing with, dealing with bills or whatever, she didn’t put that on me,” Johnson said. “We got to have some good days, some laughter and some fun. [I was] already in the pattern of just doing that, never letting my current financial situation determine my emotional situation.”
The Johnsons eventually made their way back to Athens in 2015 after a friend, Michael Smith, leased a house to the family for a low rate.
Five years later, Johnson is running against incumbent Commissioner Mike Hamby for the District 10 seat of the Athens-Clarke County Commission. He said he wants to help Athens live up to its reputation of a liberal, music town that values diversity and inclusion.
Engaging the community
Johnson aims to engage and uplift Athens’ communities, especially the marginalized ones, in the political process and help address the county’s need for affordable housing.
“[I] also grew up in marginalized communities so I know what needs to be done to encourage people in those communities to become engaged,” Johnson said. “That’s the main reason I’m running, to be a voice, for people like myself, who want to see a more inclusive Athens, Georgia.”
Johnson said being homeless made the plight of other homeless people and people struggling to pay rent “a serious part of [his] awareness.”
“These are not people that are lazy. These are not people that don’t want to work,” Johnson said.
Johnson aims to address the rising rent costs in Athens by developing mixed-use affordable housing and advocating for shared-housing initiatives, where two or more unrelated people share a house or apartment.
Johnson also supports implementing higher wages to help people better afford their rent payments, and pressuring UGA to pay their employees higher wages.
Johnson also wants to establish tax allocated districts around areas with affordable housing. Tax allocated districts channel the area’s tax dollars back into projects meant to benefit that area, such as public spaces and business programs that promote job growth.
To Smith, Johnson’s strong beliefs and diplomatic nature would serve him well on the commission in advocating for marginalized communities.
“I think his strong point is his clarity … as far as being there for marginalized communities,” Smith said. “Affordable housing is a crisis to Knowa.”
Along with housing, Johnson supports the 100% clean and renewable energy resolution, which commits to all of ACC’s energy coming from clean and renewable sources by 2035. Johnson aims to expand the existing anti-discrimination ordinance beyond bars, which he played a part in passing.
‘A blue dot in a red sea’
After learning a downtown Athens bar was serving a drink named after a censored racial slur in 2015, Johnson and his wife, House District 117 candidate Mokah Jasmine Johnson, knew they had to act. The pair organized a march against discrimination in downtown Athens, not knowing how many would show up.
Knowa Johnson said it was a great feeling seeing over 500 people of all different backgrounds — teachers, students and artists of all different races, especially white people — march in solidarity, with the “thirst” to act against discrimination.
“I had never been in a situation like that and had never [seen] that many people come together,” Knowa Johnson said. “This is only the stuff you only see on TV or read about. But to actually be a part of that and to see how much people wanted to be involved in something … It showed us there was a void here that needed to be filled.”
The husband and wife later founded the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement to continue fighting against discrimination in Athens and advocating for social justice.
Knowa Johnson advocates for a “participatory government,” where the local government makes an effort to include citizens, especially those in marginalized communities, in the political process. He said he wants to host “constant” town hall meetings held in different locations around the county so citizens can have access to their commissioners, and gauge how citizens are being informed of local issues and current events.
Knowa Johnson has also collaborated with former Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2872 commander David Griffith to produce events, such as hip hop shows and children’s talent shows, to bring the veterans and other members of the community closer together.
“I think his heart is in the right place when he’s trying to make a difference in Athens for impoverished people, people that are disadvantaged … he fights the fight for them,” Griffith said. “He does it not to make money for himself or anything like that, but he does it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Since coming to Athens, Johnson said he’s learned that, with hard work and coalition building to push for progressive causes, political change is closer than some might think.
“I have learned Athens definitely has the potential of being everything that it already claims to be, a music town, a liberal town, a blue dot in a red sea,” Johnson said. “I feel like it has that potential now more than ever.”