Growing up in Austin and upset by the disinvestment that brought the neighborhood down, Bradly Johnson is now looking to empower people and forge working relationships as community engagement director at BUILD — an organization whose mission is to engage at-risk youths in schools and on the streets.


Community engagement has become a big thing, because many organizations and companies do what they do, but they need to be relating with those they’re serving, and the people around them. The tide can be changing and you don’t know it; you’re building ships and don’t realize there’s been a drought for 20 years.

I was born in West Town, and my parents bought a big Victorian House at Ohio and Laramie and moved to Austin in 1970. There they raised nine kids. They wanted us to have grass in our yard to play in. I was happy there. If my mother sent me to buy a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk, I had a choice of walking to six different grocery stores. 

I was fortunate; my dad had a business and I was in a gifted program at Howe Elementary. But by the time I finished high school at Lane Tech, we’d seen the white flight, the disinvestment, the grocery stores leave and businesses close. I felt no connection to the neighborhood we had moved into. I couldn’t wait to leave Austin.  

I started going to Columbia College to learn art. My dad was black, my mother of mixed race, and they purposely never talked about race, but in college I studied the lives and writings of leaders like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Fred Hampton. 

 Bonni McKeown  

Then I left school to get married and raise kids. While working 12 years at the juvenile detention center at Ogden and Roosevelt, I started to notice that kids were entering the juvenile system at age nine. From there they went in and out like a revolving door. 

I started thinking what I could do to help the situation. I thought about being a fourth grade teacher — that may be the age to intervene with the children. I studied all the world religions. I went to Bible college and became an ordained minister in 2002 at the New Abundant Life Church in Maywood.  

A woman in my Sunday School class asked once, “If God is so good, why does he allow these kids to be molested and hurt and shot?” It made me think: He’s a heavenly Father, and I’m a father with five kids — three grown, a five year old and a four year old. There’s no way I’d choose any one of my children to get hit with a bullet.

Our choice is, we can create life or we can create death. I want people to be empowered, not waiting for someone to rescue them. I raise my children and those I mentor not just to survive but to thrive. I give them love and support, but push them to do for themselves. Now some of my mentees are mentoring their own youth. 

 Bonni McKeown