What does it take to lead? Is it purely tenacity? A hunger for commanding attention? Perhaps certain individuals are simply born with the spirit to lead, an innate sense of urgency to muster people behind a cause, an urgency that overlaps the fear of failure or societal rejection.
Edward R. Murrow, the grandfather of this modern business I find myself in, once said, “If we dig deep in our history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men – not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”
Perhaps it is fearlessness then that forges the iron will of a natural born leader. Fearlessness to endure, to speak out when necessary, and most importantly, to connect with those around us – that’s the type of fearlessness that often makes history. In Hudson, NY, such history was inscribed into the annals of the Hudson Valley when Kamal Johnson, a native of the city himself, was officially sworn in on January 1, 2020 as the first African American to be elected to such an office in the city’s history. A new chapter for a new year in Hudson, and a leader whose passion for the community remains deeply rooted in the connection to the city where he has spent his entire life.
From his time as a young man working two jobs in order to support his siblings while his mother recovered from addiction, to his long road of peer-to-peer advocacy in jails and schools all over the Hudson Valley, Mayor Johnson has lived the issues facing the residents of Hudson and the policies he champions. If fearlessness lies at the heart of leadership, Kamal Johnson’s story has steadied his resolve. He has taken the burdens of a community upon his shoulders, and refuses to abdicate that responsibility.
Growing up in Hudson and being a member of this city’s community for your entire life has proven to be an integral part of your run for Mayor. What was it about growing up in the city that compelled you to pursue government?
Growing up here, I have experienced what it means to feel as though you are part of a real close knit community. I grew up knowing my neighbors, my very first friends were kids who actually lived on my street, I remember everyone in the neighborhood meeting up at John L. Edwards for games of No-Touch-Ground-Tag. That’s what makes Hudson special, it’s a place where you can step right into making a difference. The impact local politicians have can be felt right away because of our closeness to one another – then and now.
Have you seen a shift in the dynamics of Hudson since your youth?
I think it’s safe to say that I have seen nearly all the changes throughout the city in my lifetime. There have been a few drastic changes since the time when I was a young man. From the antiques era, to today where we have seen the growth of a more trendy, boutique type of vibe while still maintaining the presence of small businesses. These eras of change in Hudson, in such a short period of time, have often been great for the city’s character – though I believe moderation is key.
I of course would like to see the continuation of progress, but not at the expense of those who call this city home. One of our plans as a team of representatives is to try and balance gentrification with equity and restore people’s sense of belonging with plans for affordable housing and jobs that can lead to careers.
This seems like a real personal responsibility for you to lead here. Would you say that sense of personal connection motivates you? And where did that come from?
I don’t have what you might call the “typical” background of other politicians; I come from humble beginnings. When I’m out in the community talking with people I think my background carries a little more weight because issues specific to the city are issues that I have personally lived, and still live with, like others in the community. Having that general understanding with the members of the city, and connecting on a personal level with many of the issues today, has been my greatest advantage. At one point in my life, I felt my story was a disadvantage. Now I feel I can use my story to empower others and it feels like a real blessing.
Holding down two jobs as a young man in order to support a single parent can be one of the hardest things to endure. One of your jobs was working for Planned Parenthood, did you find that direct interaction with the community has helped you come to this point?
I would say, without a doubt, my time with Planned Parenthood helped me establish a certain sense of comfort when it came to direct interaction with the community, particularly public speaking. When you’re able to talk about topics that are inherently intimate in nature in front of groups of people, any leftover fear about speaking in front of crowds kind of goes out the window from that point on. I was also a peer educator during that time, putting together different presentations and demonstrations when it came to contraception. I would often meet people who didn’t necessarily agree with our message or methods of education and I see how that was a valuable experience in community engagement as well, taking the time to really hear opinions of every kind. Much of what I’ve learned has taught me to be more realistic about the world we live in.
Did those experiences lead directly to your work with Promise Neighborhood and Greater Hudson Promises?
My time with Promise Neighborhood came about while I was volunteering in after school programs here in Hudson. Eight years ago, I was invited to tour the Harlem Children’s Zone, which is something the Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood is based on. I remember traveling down to Harlem and being absolutely floored by the initiative’s dedication to early childhood facilities, after school programs, and charter schools. I was so taken with the quality of the programs and the level of care for the kids participating that I thought we must do something like this in Hudson. The educators displayed a level of attentiveness that inspired me, also many of them were of color – something I had never experienced during my time in school.
During my time with the organization, Promise Neighborhood has transformed into a variety of initiatives. We obtained a two year planning grant in order to assess different potential programs we could realistically implement in Hudson. Even more importantly, the grant helped us discover what the primary needs of the youth community were by allowing us to conduct a full needs assessment and truly detail what Promise Neighborhood as an organization could bring to the city of Hudson. Despite the struggle that it always is to find funding, we managed to find enough to support our after school program, and two different programs in our local prisons. One upcoming program that I feel is absolutely crucial to the health of our community that will be replicated across the state is the visiting program called Children of Incarcerated Parents. Through this initiative, instead of seeing their parents from behind a glass wall, children will be able to visit an incarcerated parent in a room where those parents will be allowed to touch and hold that child, help them with homework, and spend valuable time together. I feel the impact on a child who doesn’t feel as though they are being punished for the mistakes of a parent is immeasurable.
One of the biggest issues facing residents of the Hudson Valley in recent years has been the pervasive presence of opioids, how are you planning to counter this modern crisis in our area?
As I mentioned during my swearing in ceremony, Columbia County is among the top fifteen counties in our state when it comes to opioid deaths and overdoses. This has been an issue that I have wanted to tackle since I started campaigning and am looking forward to combating it immediately. That is why, as one of my first decisions as acting Mayor of Hudson, I have brought in Chatham, NY, Police Chief Peter Volkmann to aid our city in the fight against this epidemic. Mr.Volkmann has been instrumental in making Chatham one of the safest towns in the entire state, and helped establish Chatham Cares 4 U (CC4U), a program designed to help anyone battling opioid addiction requesting help in their fight against opioids. As part of the program, treatment beds and transportation to recovery services are guaranteed – no questions asked. His compassion and experience will be invaluable in our efforts.
As part of my history in community outreach, I have gained vital experience in prevention and recovery as well. Part of living and leading in our area is working together, to have someone like Peter, who has already done so much to transform his police force to combat the opioid crisis living right here in our county, it was an easy decision to bring him onboard to help bolster our efforts with new and innovative initiatives.
During your swearing in ceremony, Common Council President Thomas DePietro said with regard to the city of Hudson, “We have to decide whether we want to cater to outside investors or empower and serve the needs of those who have lived here for generations.” Do you see the city being at a critical juncture when it comes to its standard of living?
At this moment in time, Hudson is experiencing a short-term rental epidemic. There has been a contingent of investors buying properties in recent years and converting those properties into short-term rentals disguised as popular weekend or vacation spots. In order to counterbalance the effects of high rental rates, I have made an effort to reach out to some of these groups to compromise, and possibly help the people who already live here.
The Galvan Foundation, for example, is one such group that has acquired multiple properties in the city in recent years. I have met with them with plans for a partnership that would be in the best interest of our city. I feel if they truly believe in the health and future of the residents of Hudson, they should consider investing in the construction of affordable housing units on some of these lots they have acquired. Spaces that can be designated a third to low income housing, a third to moderate income, and the rest at market rate would be a start in contributing to the quality of life to those who call Hudson home.
Stepping in for the first openly gay mayor of Hudson, who himself took over from the first female mayor of Hudson, have you felt any pressure now that you’ve made history as the first African American to be elected mayor of the city of Hudson, and has this victory furthered your ambitions for a future in politics?
There is certainly pressure. I think I felt the pressure a bit more while I was campaigning. During my campaign there were a lot of people counting on me, and I definitely sensed that. I always felt that I would win, but the sense that there is always a chance that it could go the other way and the feeling of people getting their hopes high, I just didn’t want to let them down. I’m glad we made history, but I’m even more excited to prove to the city of Hudson that they have elected somebody who truly cares and knows what it means to live here. The political scene here in Hudson is a full contact sport, it can be rough and there has never been someone who looks like me in this position so I have had to learn how to navigate this system on my own.
As far as my future is concerned, I’m very much focused on Hudson. This is my hometown. I have spent most of my life here and the people here deserve a commitment from me. Despite being on the city council, this is truly the first time I can call myself a politician. Now this is my job, this is who I am, so we’ll see where the future takes me, but for now my focus is on the city of Hudson. I made history here, but if I don’t leave a legacy then none of that matters.