Desire Johnson-Forte Brings the Spirit of Travel to Young Black Men in Oakland through #Passport2Freedom

by | Nov 1, 2019 | Changemaker Of The Week

For Desire Johnson-Forte, travel is the ultimate expression of self-liberation. Especially since, growing up in Oakland, CA, travel of any kind seemed like an unrealistic luxury.

Johnson-Forte’s sense of longing for this liberation was so palpable that in 2012 she wrote a poem about her experiences:

Excerpt from “Good Soul Livid in Poverty” by Desire Johnson-Forte
(partial poem; available in full as spoken word in the video)

…It takes so much to remember that/Some people don’t have car keys but a bus pass/And they only got that because it was a part of their tuition.

So without that/They would be picking up loose change/Thankful that someone dropped a quarter or a nickel or a dime/To supplement the copper coins they have—Or just be on foot. Imagine that.

It takes so much to remember that/The first day one could imagine catching a plane to another state/Because even taking the train to the next city was out of their range/Because they were barely scraping by to get the bills paid…

It was this poem–which so powerfully describes the connection between social mobility and travel mobility–that inspired Johnson-Forte to found the groundbreaking #Passport2Freedom program in 2018.

Funded in part by a grant from The Pollination Project, #Passport2Freedom is a program whose goal is to strengthen Black youth’s affinity for travel as a tool of self-liberation. Through an eight-week series of workshops, the program covers the history of Black people traveling the globe as the original navigators, as survivors of the Middle Passage, as journeymen and medicine women, as fugitives, and as free people. The program culminates with the participants’ applying for and getting their very own USA passports.

“Through community meals and gardening; critical reading; film and music critique; and shared experiences of transportation, we bring the abstract concept of travel to a tangible state of existence,” says Johnson-Forte. The program, a pilot that served young Black men under the age of 30, encouraged participants to ask themselves tough questions.
“During our first session, we gave each participant a writing prompt. They had to answer the questions, ‘Where am I now? Where do I want to be? Who’s with me? Where am I going to be?’ These questions are about the masks that you have to take off—to say, ‘This is how you see me, this is how I see myself, and this is how I want to be in the world,’” says Johnson-Forte.
These sessions also included a meditative-visualization exercise that Johnson-Forte designed called “Seashell Around the World,” where the participants are invited to journey within the depths of themselves: to find a seashell and tell a story related to how it became their own. Through creative expression, participants were prompted to link that narrative back to their own lineage (legend) stories.
For Johnson-Forte, these exercises are particularly important for people who live in the intersections, who often don’t get the opportunity to curate themselves as agents of their own destiny. “The sustainable, tangible thing that I wanted [the participants] to know is that Black people have the human right to move across the world however we choose. We get commodified–often denied the agency to put the price tag on our own value. Having a passport gives us a physical power-tool to contextualize our American experience and inform ourselves and others about the African diaspora, social entrepreneurship, and our visions for generations to come. It is also a long-term identification document–undeniable that we are poised to connect with our global family.”

Johnson-Forte is so passionate about being a mentor for these young men because she was fortunate enough to have a mentor in college who encouraged her to travel—something she considers to be one of the “greatest gifts” she could have ever gotten. With her mentors Nivice Robinson, Lesa Hammond, and others’ support, Johnston-Forte did what, at one point in her life, seemed impossible to her: she fundraised within her community so that she could afford a trip to the Dominican Republic.

After that trip, she understood the transformation afforded through travel—and wanted to give back to those within her community who felt as trapped. Consequently, #Passport2Freedom was born.

Her graduates, who benefitted from Johnson-Forte’s entrepreneurial tips as well as her research and insights on Black travel, went on to get passports for themselves—and wasted no time in using them. One graduate left the states several weeks after acquiring his documents to spend several months in Asia and Australia. A small group “traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate and present at the Alternatives Conference [a conference on mental health recovery],” says Johnson-Forte. Her graduates fundraised and sought sponsorship for their travel costs, and for some, it was their first time exercising their social capital to hold a travel fundraiser. The program’s enormous success has encouraged Johnson-Forte to run it again—this time, for young Black women.

“I don’t believe you can just give someone their personal freedom,” says Johnson-Forte. “It’s a journey that’s self-taught. For young Black folks who don’t think they can go beyond their zip code or state—this is a way to say, ‘Yes, you can.’ If you want to find yourself, you’re going to have to put yourself into different contexts. We’re always working on liberating ourselves.”

Having lived experience, and deeply aware of the nuisance of context, Desire Johnson-Forte is an Oakland native and community stakeholder for the interest of young adults. Between her full-time work and passion-oriented consulting, she uses shared narrative to transform the possibilities society & culture have outlined for black youth and she is a budding innovator of participatory pilot-program implementation & monitoring. She’s also building three social enterprises: the BIZ Stoop (educational consulting, lifestyle curation, and youth development); Damn Good Teas (naturally refreshing herbal beverages); and Luv Euphor (crafts & artisan goods). She received her first grant from The Pollination Project in 2015 to launch BIZ Stoop, and has since served as a volunteer grants reviewer; grantee hub participant; and in 2019 she serves as the Grantee Liaison for the California Youth Rising Hub.

Written by Carolyn Ashworth