Living Black In Bloomington-Normal: Joel Johnson
Joel Johnson is a Normal resident, New Orleans native, an object-oriented developer and owner of Silky Soul Entertainment. He's lived in Bloomington-Normal for decades, is a married father of two daughters and loves his family, faith, and exploring entrepreneurial ambitions.
Johnson spoke with Darnysha Mitchell for the WGLT series Living Black in Bloomington-Normal. Contact us if you'd like to be featured in the series.
What got you interested in information technology (IT)?
I was probably a preteen around 10 years old, and my father was a gadget kind of person. And so he just bought a Radio Shack computer. But he didn't want to buy the cartridges that you could play games with. He didn't want to invest in those for some reason. And so I started coding on the computer, it was a personal computer from Radio Shack. I started coding on it because this was around the time arcade games were playing. And I wanted to code the next great arcade game. While I never was able to get that deep into graphics, and to code the next arcade game, but I was able to pick up skills that I can use now in my career.
You're part of the Black Data Processing Associates in Central Illinois. Tell me about that organization. What do you guys do?
It was started in 2003. And basically the mission of the organization is to introduce African Americans to information technology, and also to network nationally to network African Americans and information technology so that we can go from the classroom to the boardroom. They like to say that that's kind of the motto so that we can represent and provide diversity and inclusion to the industry. And so in Central Illinois, we try to introduce students to Information Technology concepts. And as I said to you before, I'm proud of the fact that we got kids scholarships, because they developed components in websites that were nationally recognized.
How do the kids respond to being part of the program?
There’s two levels to that. We tried to encourage all students in our high school computer competition program and our mobile app competition program. We just try to encourage kids locally to get into this kind of development, IT development. And try to understand what we're doing and try to become productive instead of just consumers of the apps. I want them to think about, well, what can we do to improve family life? Or what can we do to improve our school life and use the techniques that we teach them in the program to develop some applications.
And so on the local level, we had success and then we take the ones who really liked what we were teaching them and we put them on a whole ‘nother level where we prepare them for national competition because all of the chapters of the Black Data Processing Associates are charged with teaching young kids how to do the IT industry concepts and develop applications. And so then they go compete on the national level, we take the, I guess, the cream of the crop if you will from our group, and we send them to national and we train them to compete against other groups.
And so when in 2016, the team that we trained came in third place and was only behind Atlanta, Ga., and Washington, D.C. We were ecstatic. And so they won $1,000 scholarships each. And then, in 2018, we sent a young man to compete nationally at the BDPA National Conference, he won first place, which was a $2,000 scholarship, he created a mobile app. And so that's like the highlight of our efforts that we have to teach these young people.
And it's also a benefit. When I hear parents say, "Well, he wasn't that engaged in your program, but you set him on the right path." So couple of years down the line, he's looking at Java books and trying to study and remember what he learned in our classes. So it's not only at the time when we have the kids in our program, but also sometimes later on, when they learn about when or when they want to learn on their own. And all of this information is available on the internet in bookstores and libraries. It's just a matter of getting them interested, and knowing what to look for.
And why do you guys think it was important to engage youth in IT, coding and these things for Black youth, people of color?
Because as I know, working in the industry, nationally, people of color, especially African Americans, are underrepresented in this industry. And companies often will hire people from overseas to come in and do work, which is fine. But you have people who could be a part of the workforce locally, you know, or nationally also. And so we want to tap into the resource and get kids excited about learning about this industry. It's not that hard. Once you figure out that all we're doing what the industry is modeling the real world. Once you figure that out, then you already know the real world you're already rocking around in it, and to be able to model it with computer programming and you know, the tools that we use in the industry, the IT industry, is pretty simple.
So we want to raise the representation, the inclusion, the diversity of African Americans in this IT industry so that we all can benefit.
And I saw that you guys participate in community outreach programs where you do things like distribute computers to the needy. Can you expand on that?
We are sometimes provided with hardware that we can also identify a target people to give equipment to. And so if you don't have equipment in this program at home to use, you know, to build and study and reinforce what we teach, then we, in certain circumstances can provide the equipment to you.
And what does that look like now during this pandemic?
We've had to retool on a national level; the BDPA is having a virtual conference. So we've had to rethink how we meet how we share the information just like everybody else, so that we're safe, but we're still impactful. And so on the local level, we still have to work out how we're gonna do that. I mean, we can meet, just like I'm doing with you now. But it's just trying to get the focus back so that we can be as impactful locally as the national level can be.
And now you've mentioned also the downside of being in it, especially being a Black man with experience and things like prejudice. What was that experience like?
It’s something that you just have to be aware of in any professional industry, in any industry, really, that not everybody is going to be on your team. That you have to make sure that you are on top of your game and that you turn in things on time and have quality in your work. So that you aren't singled out for that and then you know, you might feel like you're not part of the group that you're working with. Sometimes you do have to study on your own or find people who will help you raise your game in the IT industry.
But that's just any professional job that you have. You may run into people who, you know, they, they might be indifferent to you, you know, OK, you're here. You don't have to be here. I had that experience when I first started working. I come from New Orleans. And so I came to Bloomington-Normal to work. And I used to, I guess, complain about the social experience here as compared to an urban city. And so I would do that at work sometimes, and one of my co workers just told me “Then leave.” And I'm like, I thought to myself, I just started working on this career, like a year ago. I don't have the network to be able to just leave. But it got me to shut up as far as complaining to this one particular coworker. But it just brought out the fact that maybe she thought I had the privilege to be able to say, OK, I don't like this place, I'll go somewhere else. You know, I didn't. And it's still been a challenge. As far as Bloomington-Normal, it's gotten bigger, it's gotten more opportunities as far as social and, you know, just things to do outside of work. But even then, it's still a little bit of tension as far as dealing with big city versus small town.
How did you feel at that moment?
I felt awkward. I felt as though I had an issue that I had to work through and that didn’t have resources to be able to work through it. And mostly I worked through it on my own. I did have some people who might sympathize, empathize with what I was going through. And so I communicated that with them, but you know, it's something when your expectations are different than the general population expectations, then you just become aware of some things like this could happen and you could you know, try to adapt and adjust your expectations so that you can understand the world place you live in better. Or you can do like a lot of my fellow co workers did. They did move away. For one reason or another to find other opportunities. I just decided to stay and make Bloomington-Normal better.
And you also mentioned that you DJ and do a karaoke service here in Bloomington-Normal. How did that come about?
That was seeking out social opportunities. I realized that at one location in town, one restaurant in town that a variety of people were brought in for training at this one company and they will go to this karaoke show, because it was just something to do. So I started meeting people from across the country, you know, New York and LA and Chicago and all people coming in for training. And so I started to enjoy myself, I like to sing. And so I started to enjoy myself and enjoy the ambience, the circumstances that I was in with the karaoke shows.
But the one thing that I realized was that they didn't have enough of the music I liked at the local shows. And so I asked one of the DJs at the karaoke show can I see his catalog to see what music is available? And when I looked at the list that he had to sing, they were maybe for example, only two Temptation songs. Now you and I know that The Temptations are legends and they have dozens of top 10 number one hits.
Why are there only two songs on the list available to sing? But the catalog has, you know, over a dozen, maybe two dozen of their hits. So I just started thinking I need to get into this because I like to sing. I can put DJ equipment together and maybe I can provide more of a selection. And so I got into the business that way.
And how did the community respond to that?
It was mixed. I've had successful shows. There was this one restaurant called Goodfellas, it no longer exists. But at the time, the gentleman who ran the place said that I can do some shows there. And so for one summer, it was crowded. I had a variety of people. I didn't have only soul music, I had rock, hip hop, and all kinds of music, so I drew mostly African American patrons, but I drew some other people. Every once in a while, like a friend of mine told me while I was doing a show that he was upfront at the restaurant, and a couple came in and saw the sign what was being offered that night, I had my business sign Silky Soul Entertainment. He saw the sign and said, "Oh, no, this is not for me," turned around and left.
And so it surprised my friend because, you know this couple didn't even come in and look and listen, sit down and understand what was going on and that I had a variety of music, not just soul music. But sometimes people don't entertain something. They don't want to engage in something because they think it only caters to one group, when in actuality African Americans love all kinds of music. I have country, I have rock, I have R&B. And people are entertained, they listen, so they enjoy someone singing that music. So I've had that happen.
And one big occasion that I had, I was trying to find the place at the time. And I went to downtown Bloomington with professional printed cards. And most of the business people there, this is around lunchtime, so the owners are there, they will be like “Oh, yeah, that's nice if we need to, we'll call you.” And I didn't get the call. But one business in particular, I went there more than once because I never spoke to the owner. And so on the third time I went there, the guy stood up from the counter and was like, “Why do you keep coming here?'' He raised his voice. “You keep coming here and we didn’t call you back, that must tell you something.” And I was saying, well, I need to speak to somebody who owns the business or is the manager here, you know. And so we went back and forth while they were people in the business. And so I backed out and walked to the street and walked away after having this interaction with this gentleman. But it felt strange to me because all I'm trying to do is provide entertainment, like some other businesses in town, and he wasn't for it, I guess.
So yeah, it's sometimes a challenge. That's not common. I usually get the “Oh, we’ll call you back."
Would you like to see change in Bloomington-Normal as far clubs, bars, places of social entertainment’s music selection?
I think I would like more acceptance and more of an open mind as far as the social entertainment side. I think we've had a Black Chamber of Commerce here at one time, I was part of it. I think I would like to see the mainstream Chamber of Commerce work with that Black Chamber of Commerce to try to help Black businesses thrive in Bloomington-Normal. I'm not sure if the Black Chamber of Commerce is active. I've tried to look it up before I talk to you, but something like that where we could help focus on entrepreneurship of minority businesses and keep them thriving if they have a product or a service, so that everyone in Bloomington-Normal knows that this is an option. And it's an acceptable option and it’s something that you should help promote or help support. So that's one thing I would like to see. I am glad that there is an organization (this is an entrepreneur or a business thing) where they're trying to revive the west side as far as food choices, so that they're working on getting rid of the food desert in West Bloomington. So that's something that I'm thrilled to see. I would just like to see something like that focused on other businesses too. So that, you know, entrepreneurship and Black business in Bloomington-Normal can thrive.
What is the beauty of Black entrepreneurship, Black businesses, especially in the time that we're in now where Black businesses are being promoted?
It honors the thought of a concept of America than anyone can think of a good idea and think of how to promote a product or service and become someone who is successful in that area, and someone who youth and kids could look up to, when they are looking for some way to become successful themselves. That's one thing that, if we can go back to the BDPA, that's one thing that I kind of am proud of. That I can stand up there and impart this IT knowledge to the kids, and they can see me successful at it. And then they have an opportunity themselves to do something, to win a scholarship and get exposure and meet people from at the national conference from like Intel, IBM, you know, successful companies. And then they play into it and become successful themselves through, you know, their hard work and college work and in whatever major they go into, hopefully IT.
So if you could take that and apply that to Black entrepreneurship, it's the same thing. If they see some successful person doing something that they want to do, and that person looks like them, then it makes it more likely that they're going to pursue that. And as long as there's no, you know, overt prejudice, or racist activity to slow them down or stop them, now they can create a legacy for people that look up to them. And it helps the community too. If we have successful people in the community, doing things that are positive, then the community benefits all around, overall so that everybody rises with the rising tide. Everybody is lifted. And you may have less illegal activity. You may have more, you know, positive activities that benefit the community all around.
What advice would you give to Black youth who are either looking to get into entrepreneurship or need the extra push to get to where they want to be?
Two things: Find somebody who's doing what you're doing, and that person doesn't have to look like you as long as they want to mentor you. So find a mentor, find somebody who's doing what you want to do, and learn off of them, sponge off of them.
And also make sure that whatever you're doing is quality. Even if the person that is mentoring you may not be totally quality. But as long as you have integrity in your business, then people will respect your business and want to do business with you.
So first, find somebody who hopefully is doing something right and doing something you want to do. And then second, make sure that whatever you do, you do it with quality. And that way your business will survive, your business will thrive. Because you have to know what you're doing. You put your own spin on it, that's what entrepreneurship is. Somebody could be doing what you're doing, but you can do it your own way. And then, but as long as you have integrity, you should be okay. You should be able to thrive.
You’re from New Orleans, which is known for the richness and significance of the culture there, especially to the Black community. What does the culture of New Orleans mean to you?
The culture of New Orleans is everything to me. I try to take it with me and show it wherever I am. It's diversity. It's like I said, integrity. It's fun. That's one thing. People know how to have fun there. They know how to take a break from the grind and have some fun on the serious tip. You know, they, they know that they need to take time out to enjoy life. And so, whenever I go back to visit, I tend to go back, it's not hard to go back, when there's a festival, like the Essence Music Festival or something. It's done with quality, the professional people there, there's major stars that they booked for this entertainment experience. But they also have seminars and things during the day where you can go in and learn about some business, how to run a business or how to be a great communicator, a journalist. You meet professional people from all kinds of industries. So, the spirit of New Orleans is just, you work hard and you play hard, and you try to create a work life balance where you can feel good about the work you do and then go and have some fun.
You mentioned to me your experience with integrating into the religious, spiritual aspect of Bloomington-Normal. Tell me a little bit more about that.
My experience coming from New Orleans, there is a huge Black Catholic population to the point where I only went to Catholic grade school, high school and college. I went to Xavier University of Louisiana, which is a Black Catholic HBCU. And so coming from there into Bloomington, I wanted to continue my heritage, where I will continue my Catholic practicing, my Catholic faith and I did that for about 15 years. But the one thing that I noticed is the traditions and heritage that are practiced, you can take Catholicism and add your own flavor to it. So it's different wherever you go, except for the essential Eucharist, essential part of the mass.
What I found here was that being Catholic, practicing religion here, there is sometimes, mostly, a community aspect to it. So if I were an African American practicing Catholic, there's not a lot of them here. I know some, and I respect them, and I was one of them for a long time. But as far as community is concerned, most of the African Americans who live here are Protestant. And so, community is built around that Protestant faith, you know, for people who are practicing. And so there was a tension between me and some members of the community because on one hand, I would try to introduce some maybe music or something into the Catholic Mass where I was and they would be a little antsy about it because it wasn't something that was tradition to them. And then as far as the Black Protestants here, I wasn't familiar with it. The Protestant faith, I knew about it. I have friends in New Orleans who are Protestant, but it was more of a challenge for me to visit the church plugged into the traditions there and feel like I was engaged because I didn't know it. I grew up Catholic. And so it was always a tension there as far as me practicing my faith. whenever I would, you know, try to be involved in the community here, at least along faith lines.
How much of an impact has that had on your social life and the community you have?
It has had a lesser impact the longer that I have lived here. Like I said, initially, I didn't engage on a community level. I read in some of your interviews somebody said they called them an Oreo. Being authentically Black, I felt like people were challenging me, to some extent because I wasn't not plugging into what most of the African Americans here were doing. And so that was a challenge for me. And then on the other side, it was a challenge to find my way in the Catholic faith because I was a minority within the church.
And so it has lessened the longer I've been here because I've established myself. People have gotten to know me. I've had accomplishments, I have been in my career for a long time and people I guess vouch for me now more, even though they might not see me on the regular, they'll vouch for me more. But still, sometimes it's attention where for this program, this is high school computer competition program. It's a challenge sometimes to get the kids who normally excel or will be passionate about sports and things like that. I have to talk to the parents to get them to get the kids into the program. You know, the parents are like, you're gonna do this, you know, sometimes this is a challenge because they don't see me that often, to get those kids into this program, so that they can benefit from it.
It's just a matter of being persistent. And like I said, having integrity. I try to have integrity in what I do. And, you know, it's a challenge to have to get results that I want sometimes.
Is there anything that you would like to see change within the Catholic Church here in the community?
There was a Black Catholic convention in Chicago. I'm sure they're still going on. I actually knew about it because I love the internet, you can find whatever you want. You know, it doesn't have to come through certain channels. And so I actually went up to Chicago when they were doing the Sunday service. I actually found some people, at least one person, who I knew from Xavier University in Louisiana. She was up there at the convention. So then I wrote a letter to the Catholic District here to try to get them, at least to know that there was a Black Catholic convention in Chicago, and maybe the Diocese of Peoria should have known about it and said something, and I think the leader of the Diocese was like, “Oh, wow, I didn't know.”
So maybe, as far as the Catholic side, they could at least investigate how to encourage people to have different colors. To practice, come back to the church or practice Catholicism while they're here. You know, to encourage a more diverse church here. That might be hard like I said, because as far as community. When you think about Martin Luther King, he was a Baptist minister. A lot of people who are engaged in that level know that the people who are leaders of the church, Protestant church, they think about social justice and things like that. And not saying that the Catholic Church doesn’t, but the focus might be more serious, as far as getting work done in an area with certain people than with others is what I'm saying. It's a big thing to think about it. To have people act on, not just think about.
Is there anything else that you'd like to talk about, expand on?
I think I covered most of what I wanted to share. I'm glad that WGLT is focusing on this because there's a variety of people in the community and they have all kinds of different stories. So to hear them broadcast is something that is worth taking the time in the community and might do something, might cause people to think differently at least or to act on it.
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