Student finds passion for being voice of people struggling to be heard

BALTIMORE - Rallies with Governor Martin O'Malley and Rep. Elijah Cummings, seminars at the U.S. Department of Education-- Dawnya Johnson has rubbed elbows with some powerful and elite leaders and she's only 16 years old.

But when you ask about all of her accomplishments, the one that stands out in her mind the most is her work advocating on behalf of the Maryland Dream Act, which voters passed in 2012. 

"It was a mind blowing experience," she said.  "I went from feeling like I had no power over what happened in my community to feeling like I could move people and do something to make a difference."

Life wasn't always full of such accomplishments and accolades for Johnson. 

She grew up in a dysfunctional family.  Her mother was a drug addict and her father was in prison for most of her childhood.  She leaned on her cousin for support until he became a victim of gang violence and died in a shooting.  "My world was just destroyed," she said.  "I was distressed."

Johnson found her life spiraling downward. 

Her grades began slipping and she started getting into trouble.  Just when she thought she had hit rock-bottom, she came across the Intersection, a non-profit group that teaches high school students about leadership and advocacy.  It's here Johnson found her passion; being a voice for those who struggle to be heard, just like her.

With guidance and support, Johnson has turned into a young activist.  It's this kind of transformation that gives the Intersection co-founder Zeke Cohen the most enjoyment. 

"It's not so much seeing them get a good grade or seeing them get into college, it's seeing them become the person they want to be," said Cohen.  He also enjoys watching them work toward making a better life for kids growing up in the city.  "Seeing our kids come out and fight for our communities and create this image of what it means to be a kid from Baltimore, that's the greatest thing," he said.

Johnson and her Intersection colleagues are always working toward a cause. 

Last summer, they fanned out across the city, asking people about gun violence and what can be done to stop it.  Their next project is working with local leaders and businesses to create a program that will help kids find jobs.

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