"As a mother of Black boys, the risk of gun violence to my kids was always in the back of my mind," Johnson tells PEOPLE

By Michelle Tauber
October 31, 2018 01:52 PM
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“Be careful” were the last words Shenee Johnson spoke to her 17-year-old son Kedrick, who was two weeks away from graduating from high school with a college scholarship when he was shot in the chest at a 2010 party.

“When the doctor came out at the hospital, I saw the look on his face, and I knew,” Johnson, 45, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I was like, ‘This just can’t be life. I refuse to accept this.’ ”

Reeling from her grief, Johnson — who is among PEOPLE’s 25 Women Changing the World — began to get involved with gun violence prevention in her Queens, N.Y. community.

Left to right: Students Demand Action activist Ryan Pascal, Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts and Moms Demand Action activist Shenee Johnson.

“I started meeting other mothers like me, and their stories sounded the same: 17, 16-year-old young people being murdered. And I knew then that I would dedicate my life to preventing gun violence.”

For full coverage of PEOPLE’s 25 Women Changing the World, pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

In the United States, an average of 96 people are killed every day by gun violence, and communities of color are at far greater risk. A 2017 study from the Centers for Disease Control, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that guns kill about 10 times more Black children than they do white children each year.

“As a mother of Black boys, the risk of gun violence to my kids was always in the back of my mind,” says Johnson. “That’s why I was hard on Kedrick and never wanted to let him out of my sight.”

A vivacious kid with an outsized personality, Kedrick had big dreams from a young age. “We were driving on the highway, and I was like, ‘Kedrick, what do you want to be when you grow up?’ ” recalls Johnson. “And he said, ‘Well, I could take President Bill Clinton’s job. It would be hard, but I could do it.’ I mean at four — and I have witnesses! That was Kedrick.”

Left to right: Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action activists Liv Freundlich, Julianne Moore, Ryan Pascal, Shannon Watts and Shenee Johnson, photographed for PEOPLE in New York City on September 17, 2018.
| Credit: Julian Dufort

The anguish of Kedrick’s death ended Johnson’s marriage and left her a single mom to three children, all of whom were shattered in their own ways by their brother’s murder.

“The whole entire dynamic of my life and my children’s lives were affected by one gun shot wound, you know? And my mother, Kedrick’s grandmother, has her own grief, and my sister, Kedrick’s aunt,” says Johnson. “It has had a long-lasting effect on my family.”

Today, Johnson uses her platform with Moms Demand Action to speak out for common-sense gun laws, such as universal background checks.

“A lot of people feel like we want to take away their Second Amendment rights, and that’s not the case,” she says. “If you have guns, be responsible with them — that’s all we’re saying. And we have to learn to put people over profits.”

At the heart of her work, of course, is Kedrick — who had earned an academic scholarship for college but wanted to pursue a music career.

“When I finally listened to his music, I was like, ‘Oh, my God Kedrick, you are talented!’ ” recalls his mom. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Yes, Ma, the world is going to know my name.’

“I will never forget that sentence. In some weird way, I’m going to make that happen for him. People will know Kedrick’s name.”