Interviewed by Dorothy S. Boulware
Prudence Johnson is the first African-American president of the United Democratic Women of Maryland, a group that was started in 1964.
Q Are you a politician?
- No, I am not a politician. I am a grassroots organizer and activist who brings people together around issues that negatively affect or threaten their civil and human rights, and limit or prevent their participation in the political process. Once those issues are identified, I advocate for those persons to ensure their concerns are addressed at a legislative level, prompting elected officials to address the needs of their constituents.
Q How did you get started in this field?
- In 2010 and during the recession, I lost my house, car and business and had to move in with my dad in East Baltimore on McElderry and Decker Streets. This was a culture shock for me as I had lived in Baltimore County communities all my adult life; I had no idea people were living in such poverty, lacking basic resources required to live. The first thing I did was start a community association. I began meeting with residents, organizing the community around grass-root initiatives that needed to be addressed. I then met with local and state elected officials to request their appearance at our monthly meetings to speak to their constituents regarding needs in the community. I also took some classes in public policy, which opened the door to an internship that led to a chief of staff position in the Maryland General Assembly. I was later elected as regional chair for the Baltimore Region of the United Democratic Women of Maryland. In November 2019, driven by my desire to see the needs of African-American women represented on a statewide level, I decided to run and was elected as the first African-American president of the organization in 73 years.
How did you become familiar with this group?
Attended a luncheon UDWM had about five years ago. After the meeting, the president asked if I was interested in being a regional chair for Baltimore. Our first statewide meeting had 75 people in attendance; the highest in recent memory.
What surprised you about this organization?
That there was not more representation of issues that affected Black women.
What did you set out to do about that?
I started going into the community to find out the needs. I sat with community association leaders who could pull together people who could help me see what issues needed to be represented on behalf of Black women.
Did they bring up any issues you weren’t aware of?
One thing that stuck out was the need for child care in Baltimore City. Single mothers had vouchers to help pay for child care, but that was not enough to cover the actual cost. They needed to go to work to get the rest. But they had to have childcare while looking for a job. Once they had a job, required meetings with social services often conflicted with their work schedules. I also found out there were many uncertified child care centers in the community.
I wondered and I asked them why someone didn’t start a center and receive vouchers for partial pay? I went to the board of child care and looked at their guidelines and the necessary paperwork. It was a lot. But the main problem is that childcare is just too expensive to be covered by vouchers.
What are you doing get people to vote?
One of the first things I learned is that women weren’t being educated about the political process. So we have monthly membership expansion meetings. Since the onset of COVID-19, we’ve brought speakers, elected people to talk about the census, the voting process and having a plan. We partner with other organizations to do phone banking, write letters and post cards, and canvass to let communities know what to do to prepare. We know voting is a matter of life and death to us.
What are you most excited about right now?
Building a new team and being able to address issues that are relevant to Black women, like education, health care and police reform. Women have contributed to the progression of ideas and issues that affect other women for decades. The Women’s suffrage movement did nothing for us, but we were instrumental in seeing that movement go forward.
We still struggle for leadership positions local and regional government, to have greater opportunities and purchase homes. Baltimore County is just now allowing people with vouchers to move into the county, I mean well educated Black women with families. I believe we have been ignored simply because we’re Black and the system cripples us and keeps us from having that seat at the table to speak on issues that affect us.
We still struggle to hold positions of influence because the status quo won’t allow us to have a seat at the table.
Since racism is a platform we have to stand on, it would be nice to have the support of our Caucasian sisters since we’ve always been supportive of them.
What do you believe is the greatest need among women?
I believe the need is more, and better, government representation at every level; to have legislation passed that offers real solutions for our issues and the necessary funding to ensure those laws are enacted. But just as importantly, I believe there is a tremendous need for improved availability of mental health care for women. We are seeing an increase in economic instability, voter suppression, racism, violence and other systemic injustices, especially among Black women and women of color. More women are self-medicating, using alcohol, pharmaceutical and street drugs as coping mechanisms against the multitude of traumas we encounter on a daily basis. Covid-19 has just exacerbated these issues. In a September press release, UNWomen, a United Nations organization and global champion for gender equality, stated that ‘the COVID-19 pandemic is not just a health issue – it is a profound shock to our societies and economies, and women are at the heart of care and response efforts underway.’ Mental health care would go a long way to help address our needs, particularly now, giving us the proper treatment we need to cope so we no longer suffer in silence under this depressive and discouraging blanket of hopelessness.
What is your organization doing to train the next generation of women?
We are developing a Civics Training program for students ages 5-17, which we are planning to launch early 2021. Children are developing in their knowledge of communications through technology at a rate faster than we’ve seen before. We believe this is an opportune time to teach government policies, procedures, ethics and politics to this age group. The cries against racism and social justice have prompted our young adults to engage in the political process through peaceful protest and marches. We believe our elementary, middle and high school students need to be prepared and trained now so they too can engage in various causes to protect their futures as well.
Interested in UDWM? Contact them on Facebook or on udwmaryland.org.