The view outside Juanita Johnson’s office is not spectacular. Across from City Hall she can see a six-story parking garage while city buses flow westward down Farnam Street. Inside, the room’s sparse decorations include a portrait of a young Black person looking upward. Two photo albums sit empty on a shelf. ( She hopes to fill them with evidence of her accomplishments, a kind of proof of purchase to show community members in years to come.

That’s the kind of legislator Johnson wants to be: utilitarian, analytical and, above all, beholden to the people she represents — an uncomplicated philosophy that connects back to the reason Johnson ran in the first place.

“We needed a change,” said Johnson, 59, a Democrat, who beat 12-year incumbent Ben Gray, also a Democrat, in May to represent District 2 on Omaha’s City Council. “We needed someone that would represent the community [by] being the change agent for that community. And I identified myself as being that.”

Former District 2 Omaha City Councilmember Ben Gray.

But Johnson is stepping into this office at a time that’s anything but uncomplicated. Preceded by protests and a pandemic, the 2021 city elections carried more drama, controversy and urgency to address inequity, especially in her district of northeast Omaha, than in recent years. And while every race from mayor to city council was challenged, Johnson, a political outsider and longtime community advocate, was the only candidate to unseat an incumbent.

The question now is how will Johnson fit into the dynamics of the city council, which includes two other new members in seats that were either vacated or filled by an appointee. Topics like reallocating funds from the police and slowing the destruction of properties to make way for new development gained little traction before. Now some hope Johnson’s election, as well as close calls in other races, will send a message that the community needs the city to be more proactive.

“I think there has to be a real reckoning with how the city is run,” said activist Ja Keen Fox. “Currently, city council rubber stamps [everything] without question, or if there are questions, they’re not presented in front of the public. And so we need to better understand who our city council people are, and they should be willing to perform in front of the people.”

Others wonder whether the results of the 2021 election were enough to send that message. Mayor Jean Stothert won a third term by large margins. Many candidates, like Jasmine Harris who ran for mayor and espoused social justice causes, never made it past the primary.

“It almost feels like, will people see how serious it is?” Harris asked. “Because it’s a lot of the same people who do the work [year after year], right? And people are getting tired.”

Johnson herself may not use the language some want to hear. As of right now, she isn’t in favor of taking money from the police if it means cutting back training. When she talks about bringing jobs to the community, she said the city needs to reexamine how it hires labor for contracts. It’s a balancing act, she said, and often there won’t be clear, one-size-fits-all answers.

Accessibility and commitment to the community she’s lived in nearly all her life are at the center of Johnson’s political philosophy. And if she can let those principles guide her, Johnson said she’ll have a good shot to set local politics in a new direction.

“That kind of input is good,” she said. “It's challenging; it’s thought-provoking. It says [citizens] care. Only when we identify issues and concerns are we able to make a difference. A huge difference. A change. Are those conversations uncomfortable? Yeah, they're uncomfortable. But we have to get past being uncomfortable and deal with ‘Where do we go from here?’”

“My Neighborhood Is a Reflection of Me”

Though Johnson was born in Omaha, her family moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, where she spent most of her childhood. When she was 15, they moved back, this time with one more child than they left with.

“When I returned, I came back with a young son,” she said. “So I was a mom, a single parent, and didn't have very much of a sense of what motherhood was about. And so I took to my community and family members to help me navigate through that process.”

The first year was hard. Though she got good grades in class, Johnson said she missed too many days caring for her son, who was often sick, and failed out of high school. But she came from a family of educators, going back to her great grandmother, and so quitting wasn’t an option. She said she pursued her GED and got the high school equivalent diploma when she was 16. Soon after she got an associate degree from what was then Metropolitan Technical Community College (now simply known as Metropolitan Community College) and started working at a blood bank as a medical assistant. She said she worked her way up to managing staff there by 1999, but started looking for other jobs with better pay to support her son.

Juanita Johnson stands in her office inside City Hall on June 15, 2020. Photo by Chris Bowling.

In the early ‘90s, Johnson started learning how to put together personal computers. Her interest, combined with a new bachelor’s degree in business, led to a job at Union Pacific where she now works as an associate project engineer in the information technology department.

Through it all, she gave back to her community.

In the early 2000s, Johnson bought her current home in the Long School Neighborhood, which sits in the heart of North Omaha north of Hamilton and south of Lizzie Robinson Avenue as well as west of 24th Street and east of the Highway 75 Freeway. Knowing her background, someone asked if she’d be the neighborhood association’s president. She said yes. Then, she said, the real work began.

“I went full force, because, like with anything that I do, I like to become the expert in the item that I'm being charged with,” she said. “And there is no playbook to be [a neighborhood president]. I kind of had to, again, self teach myself how to be the best that I could be.”

Johnson started coming to city council meetings — listening and strategizing to see how she could use the systems in place to push for progress in her area. And whether it was getting a sign that recognized her historic neighborhood, the roots of which go back more than 125 years in this city, or pushing for the implementation of development plans, Johnson got things done.

That work continues to this day because, Johnson said, community is the driving force in her life.

“My neighborhood is a reflection of me,” she said. “And if my neighborhood is safe, if the people in my neighborhood’s homes are safe, functioning well, by way of improvement, then that makes me whole.”

Getting Off the Kiddie Table

Johnson’s decision to run for office came long before protests and the pandemic further highlighted stark inequities in Omaha and set many on a path to fix them. She decided to run in late 2019. The reason: There was simply no other option.

“I reached a plateau where I had done everything that I could, without authority,” she said. “I needed to go and apply and then run for city council so I could impact more change.”

Like so many others, Johnson already knew the problems that plagued her community: Most people rent, unemployment is common, few people have bachelor’s degrees, and the median income is around $20,000 per year.

Many of these issues have improved in recent years. Through work like the Empowerment Network’s Transformation 2025/North Omaha 2025 project, the community has seen increases in the rates of high school and college graduation, employment, homeownership and income. The area has also seen large construction projects like The Highlander, a campus of commercial and residential space that cost millions to build, as well as revitalization along 24th Street.

But for many, it doesn’t feel like much has changed in decades, or at least change isn’t happening fast enough, a symptom of the city’s dismissive attitude toward North Omaha, Johnson said.

“In District 2, far too often people are saying that their voices are not being heard,” Johnson said. “They feel as though they're at the kiddie table. Conversations are had, decisions are made without their input.”

Activist Fox said it’s not that poverty and inequity are too hard to solve in North Omaha. It’s that the city hasn’t made it a goal to invest and lift up this community.

“It's really easy to look at District 2 and then look at our neighbor, District 1, which has tremendous economic growth, tremendous development, beautification, in really strategic ways,” he said. District 1 includes neighborhoods such as Benson and Dundee. “Like it's so extreme the difference in investment, the difference in development from one district to the next.”

Ja Keen Fox outside the home of Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine. Fox led 36 days of protests here after Kleine declined to press charges against Jake Gardner in the shooting death of James Scurlock. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Fox and Harris both said before and after the primaries on April 6 that they heard from residents who weren’t happy with the job Johnson’s predecessor, Gray, had done.

Fox helped get the message of that unhappiness out. In one panel, Fox brought together community leaders to talk to citizens via a Zoom conference, which was seen by nearly 5,000 people, about how little had changed in the 12 years Gray had been on the Omaha City Council. Other incidents, such as Gray defending Colleen Brennan, an appointed Omaha City Councilmember who caught heat for racially questionable blog posts in December 2020, and supporting the Omaha Police Department in its request for a budget increase in the fall of 2020, didn’t help, Fox said. Gray did not respond to a phone call requesting comment.

“The result was exactly what we wanted,” Fox said of his public roundtable talks on North Omaha politics. “I think it was a perfect strategy.”

Early in the campaign, Johnson wasn’t necessarily on everyone’s radar. The primary included six candidates for the district, making it the second-most crowded race in the city.

However, once Gray and Johnson progressed to the general election many began to rally behind her. Johnson said it was clear her biggest obstacle was name recognition. Johnson was well known in her neighborhood but not across the community. So she used all her money — Johnson raised $19,190 compared to Gray’s $78,889 — to broadcast her name far and wide. While Gray had experience and major endorsements, Johnson plastered her face on a van that drove up and down North 24th Street — think Back to The Future and Mayor Goldie Wilson.

The strategy worked. On election night, Johnson beat Gray by more than 1,000 votes and 13.5 percentage points.

In his concession speech, Gray congratulated Johnson and told viewers on WOWT they’d see him continuing his work in the community. Johnson celebrated the victory but quickly got to work on the task of keeping her campaign promises.

“Right now, all I can see is the work that I have in front of me,” she said. “I can't see anything beyond the fact that I got a lot of work ahead of me. I mean, I'm nowhere near the finish line.”

Finding the Finish Line

The 2021 election results were a mixed bag. While activists like Fox and candidates like Harris say their work seemed to have empowered a swath of Omahans, the reality that most incumbents kept their jobs is hard to ignore. The main goal now is accountability — holding elected officials to the promises they made on the campaign trail and speaking up when issues like housing, community investment and others come to the attention of bodies like the Omaha City Council.

Former mayoral candidate Jasmine Harris.

For Harris, it’s too soon to tell whether Omaha really has shifted its focus toward issues she based her campaign around.

“Until we get it to where people don't just think everybody is OK, Omaha will continue to stay stagnant,” she said.

Fox said it seems like that’s happening. He’s having regular conversations with Johnson, and other city councilmembers are reaching out for input.

Things are changing. What that means, Johnson still has to figure out.

“We can't say that [past politicians] didn't seriously try to change [problems in North Omaha],” she said. “All we can say is that we have not seen any evidence of change. And we can also clearly state that change is needed. And doing the same thing the same way with no results means we're going to still have no results. That's borderline insanity.”

Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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