John Hawkins, the first Black chief juvenile court officer in Iowa’s fifth judicial district, is the perfect illustration of resiliency, discipline and perseverance. He is the best example any young person can have in overcoming obstacles and becoming the best version of themselves. While the conversation on systemic racism is top of mind, the news of Hawkins’ appointment five months ago was missed by many.
When I learned about his appointment, I was thrilled and excited for different reasons. First, because I have known John for close to 17 years and I know he deserves this appointment. Second, because I knew for a fact that many young people would benefit from learning about his experience, compassion and knowledge. Third, but not last, is the fact that juvenile court services is taking the first in a series of much-needed steps to change institutionalized and systemic racism.
Hawkins, 53, is the oldest of five children and was born and raised on the north side of St. Louis. He was raised by his mother. His dad was murdered when he was only 24.
“My mom remarried when I was only seven and I remember how my stepdad used to beat her up,” John told me.
Fortunately, she got out of the abusive relationship when he was 11. Growing up with his mom was not easy, as she was not a nurturing person and had a drug addiction. John had to move in with his great-uncle his junior year of high school.
John worked at a restaurant as a dishwasher while attending high school and was not sure of what he wanted to do after graduating. One thing he knew, he did not want to work at a restaurant for the rest of his life. So, he decided to enroll in the military and completed three years of active duty.
Once he returned, he found a part time job. And another important event took place; he met who is now his wife of 31 years in a blind date.
“Ronnie has always been good for me,” John said. “At that time she was attending college already, so I knew I had to step up to the plate and go to college, too.”
He made good use of the GI Bill and graduated from Lincoln University in 1992 with a criminal justice degree and a minor in psychology. John moved to Chicago with his wife and young daughter after that. He was honorably discharged from the military in 1997 and enlisted again in 2001.
During that time, John worked at a youth group home and a license foster program. John, his wife and their four young kids moved to Des Moines in 1997. They believed Iowa would be a good place to raise their children.
Once in Iowa he worked as a program coordinator for the GED program at PACE Center, a branch of Orchard Place, for six years. Orchard Place is a nonprofit organization that provides mental health and juvenile justice services for youth. John’s great work with kids did not go unnoticed.
“Many juvenile court officers encouraged me to apply for a position as a field officer, and I was hired in 2003,” John said. By then, there were only two Black juvenile court officers in the system.
In 2004, John was deployed to Iraq for 16 months where he worked as a paralegal. He also earned his master’s degree from Drake University in rehabilitation counseling in 2007. Once he returned from Iraq, he was promoted to first class sergeant in 2009 and master sergeant in 2013 as a chief paralegal. He retired from the military in 2018.
John Hawkins has climbed the leadership ladder in the juvenile court system, running the drug court program for five years. This year, he was named juvenile court chief.
I am in awe of how after multiple struggles John ended up where he is now. His words of determination moved me.
“My driving force wasn’t what I wanted to do in life, but what I didn’t want,” John said. “I didn’t want the life I had. I didn’t want a baby mama. I didn’t want to be poor, and I definitely didn’t want to ever again be going to bed hungry and waking up hungry like I was when I was a kid, that was my driving force.”
I worked with John for many years. I witnessed his connection with troubled young kids that were under his supervision, and although he was extremely strict, kids always respected him because they could sense that he cared. His desire to help them was always genuine.
His work with so many young boys made John realize some of the issues faced by young boys and the reasons they get in trouble at such a young age. So, in 2007, he decided to start his own after-school leadership program called Boys to Men Youth Program.
“I kept seeing all these boys coming to juvenile court and they were getting younger and younger, and everybody was talking about intervention, so I thought, ‘why are we waiting until a kid gets into trouble to intervene instead of doing prevention?’ Prevention is a form of intervention before the kids get into legal trouble,” John said.
Some of the leadership and basic life skills John and other volunteers teach fifth grade boys are as simple as to how to shake hands, how to tie a tie, visit the Capitol building, listen to guest speakers, and more than anything, provide them with the opportunity to have a relationship with positive male role models. Every year, they have between 17 and 18 kids graduate from the program.
As if he was not busy enough working and helping others, John decided to become “Black Santa” two years ago.
“We wanted to give African American kids and their families the opportunity to participate into the Christmas holidays with a Santa Clause they could identify with,” he said.
How cool is that?
Anyone that knows me well would know that I never admire famous or rich people; I have more respect and admiration for people like John, coming from humble beginnings and painful past, but rising up and helping others on his way up. I have to say that for the 17 years I have had the honor to call John my friend, I have admired his beautiful family, his kindhearted yet strong wife, their four kids and two grandkids.
Juvenile court took the right step appointing John as their chief. The kids, juvenile court officers, and all the staff that works with him, are extremely lucky to have him. During times like these, we desperately need leaders that have the morals, ethics, and the heart John has.
He is the kind of leader that can make meaningful and much-needed changes to the system not only because he has the skills and the knowledge, but because his past provides him with the necessary empathy to work with the beautiful, young souls that need a second chance.
By Claudia Thrane
Iowa Starting Line is an independently owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.