Each quarter, Esteem will feature a woman who exhibits Courage, Determination, Excellence and above all the Will to rise above unfathomable circumstances to chart her own course to success. Esteem Magazine is proud to salute Johnnetta McSwain, our first Esteem Woman of the Quarter.
Meet Johnnetta McSwain, a woman who has risen above abuse, domestic violence, and is rising to the top of academic achievement, community involvement, and empowering women across the state of Georgia -- and real soon, the nation.
It’s a beautiful sunny and picturesque day in Atlanta, and Johnnetta McSwain is dressed in a lavishing long sundress. Excited, and ready to chat with Esteem, she welcomes readers into her home. When asked: Who is Johnnetta McSwain?, she expresses, “Wow, well first, I am a mother, then I am a speaker -- an empowerment speaker. I speak about self-esteem and self-worth. Both come with loving yourself. It is all about breaking cycles in your life -- negative behavioral cycles that cripple us.”
Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Johnnetta grew up in a family of generational alcoholism, domestic violence, mis-education, and sexual abuse. During her adolescent years, her three uncles, and a grand-uncle sexually abused Johnnetta, along with her older sister, and male cousin. “We were naked, and tied to chairs in the living room where they would sexually violate us for hours at a time…,” says McSwain in her book "Rising Above the Scars".
While under the care of her grandmother, Johnetta’s mother was in and out of her life living her life in the streets, and leaving Johnnetta and older sister Sonya alone with limited protection.
Following the footsteps of her mother, Johnnetta dropped out of high school at the age of 17, and began working at different restaurants, and other small jobs to make money. It wasn’t long before she was hanging out with drug dealers, and began selling drugs. Wrapped up in the cycle, Johnnetta did the typical. However, her journey doesn’t stay there.
With years of doing the same thing, and caring for two sons, Johnnetta realized on her 30th birthday something had to change. “I just looked at my life,” admits McSwain. “I was 30-something years old with nothing but a GED. Not going anywhere and not owning anything. I didn’t want to wake up at 40 like that, and I didn’t want to be like my mom, who was an alcoholic,” says McSwain. So without reluctance Johnnetta took the first step toward changing her life: changing her environment. “I began to look at my impoverished environment. It was heartbreaking and gut busting. There was this urgency that came over me that day,” says McSwain. “I didn’t want my two boys to go down the same road. So without hesitation, without excuses, I packed up my house, got the biggest U-Haul truck, and I moved to Atlanta.”
A New Day
Johnnetta realized an education would be her ticket to becoming a better person, and doing something extraordinary with her life. “When I moved to Atlanta, failure was not an option,” she said. McSwain applied, and was accepted into Kennesaw State University, where she studied Communications. Upon completion in 2006 with a Bachelor of Science degree, she didn’t stop there; she went on to pursue a Master’s Degree. “I started praying, and I said, okay God what am I going to do?” asked McSwain. “I knew I needed a Master’s degree, and I wasn’t going to just stop at a Bachelor’s degree -- not at 36. I needed all three degrees; and believe me, you know we as black women need our degrees.” So, with determination, she studied at Clark Atlanta University to pursue a Masters degree in Social Work.
Workshops, Media and Speaking to Youth
One of her professors, who is also her mentor, Dr. Susan Kossak, prompted Johnnetta to tell her story in workshop format. Based on her format, McSwain created a 12-Step program to help women who had experienced similar circumstances. With Dr. Kossak’s assistance, Johnnetta was able to host her first 12-Step Awareness Model (SAM) workshop with 60 attendees. The workshop was entitled “Breaking Negative Cycles: Beating the Odds”. www.breaking-the-cycle.com
With great responses from the workshop, McSwain and Kossak were on a mission to spread the word on her life story. In 2009, her story, entitled “The Road Beyond Abuse”, was finally aired on the Georgia Public Broadcasting station, which won the Southeast Regional Emmy Award.
Watch the moving video of Johnnetta's triumphant story, which was narrated by Jane Fonda in a 2009 Georgia Public Broadcasting station documentary.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyWsG8KQZu4 (copy and paste link in your browser to view documentary)
Beating the Odds
Johnnetta wrote her first book entitled "Rising Above the Scars". “The book is about redemption, love, and winning a battle that seemingly could not be won,” says McSwain. “I believe if you prepare, then you’ll be ready for opportunity to come. But if opportunity comes, and you’re not ready, then you’re not prepared,” says McSwain.
“There is nothing pretty about abuse,” says McSwain. “It destroys people and families, and so that’s what I am fighting for. I’m fighting for all the little Johnnettas and Sonyas. I have to fight for all the Sonyas in the world because I lost my sister on that floor, in that house.”
According to the National Child Abuse Statistics website, more than five children die every day as a result of child abuse, and a report of child abuse is made every ten seconds. Taking the time to be a voice of knowledge, Johnnetta visits high schools to speak with young girls.
Continuing to beat the odds, Johnnetta is currently in her third year of pursuing a Ph.D. in Social Work at Clark Atlanta University, and working on a Masters in Educational Leadership. While being a candidate for a Ph.D., Johnnetta is currently working on another book entitled “How Do You Walk In Those Stilettos?”
Accomplished in her own right, McSwain travels to spread her message and encourage women. “I have spoken in Georgia, nationally and internationally (over 15 states and 25 cities; Canada & Japan),” adds McSwain.
“You asked me who I am. Well, I’m a survivor, a pioneer, a victor, and a feminist,” says McSwain. “I’m so grateful for my life.”
In recognition of National Child Abuse and Sexual Abuse awareness month (April), Esteem has listed websites that provide help for anyone who is in an abusive environment, and is seeking help. Johnnetta McSwain offers life coaching sessions, as well as workshops on the 12-step SAM.
Women Against Domestic Violence (WADV): www.wadv.org
Stop Abuse For Everyone (SAFE): www.safe4all.org/info
Angels That Care: www.angelsthatcare.org
Stop It Now!: www.stopitnow.org