To everyone who knew him, Marc Johnigan’s commitment to helping Minnesota’s African American community find recovery from addiction was clear.
“He always said that all other cultures support one another and we need to do that, too,” said LaTricia Tate, Johnigan’s fiancée. “It was his goal to address addiction and recovery from a cultural perspective, because we’re just different. We need a different approach.”
The Twin Cities Recovery Project, Johnigan’s young-but-growing nonprofit, was that approach. Founded just five years ago in South Minneapolis as the Twin Cities Social Club, the organization grew to become a source of support and connection to all comers, a community recovery center with substance-free dance and game nights, space for regular meetings and culturally focused workshops on trauma, mental health and addiction. The organization had recently expanded to a second location in North Minneapolis.
Peter Hayden, president and CEO of Turning Point, a 45-year-old nonprofit providing culturally specific substance use disorder treatment in North Minneapolis, said that he was impressed with Johnigan’s ambition and promise. “He was able to start something that people saw,” Hayden said. “It was his dream and people wanted to be a part of that. I was aware of the impact that he was making on the community.”
When Johnigan died in a car accident on Dec. 16, on his way to visit family in Dayton, Ohio, he left a gaping hole in the Twin Cities recovery community, said Jeremiah Gardner, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation director of communications and public affairs.
“You could tell that Marc led with a passion for the community and a tremendous empathy for the brokenness that we all experience in different degrees, but is especially evident in people who have addiction and mental health problems,” Gardner said. “He’d encountered huge barriers in his life. He’d overcome them. Like many people, from the get-go I was attracted to him and what he was trying to do.”
Minnesota has an unfortunate gap in recovery services focused on the needs of BIPOC communities, Gardner said. Organizations like Turning Point, Roots Recovery and the Karen Chemical Dependency Collaborative all play important roles, and Johnigan’s nonprofit, which Tate explained will continue to operate in his absence, was also helping to fill that gap.
“Marc leaves behind not just an organization but a team of people who really find meaning in the work they are doing and are committed to not just carrying forward his legacy but also continuing to build a network for helping people who are broken and who need love and support,” Gardner said.
From struggle to new life
Johnigan grew up in Dayton, in a family impacted by addiction and mental illness. His mother is in long-term recovery, and for more than three decades has attended a sober social club in West Dayton, where people gather for entertainment and support. When Johnigan moved to the Twin Cities to live near his sister and focus on his own recovery, he felt like that kind of support was missing.
Tate said that Johnigan would often say he needed to find a recovery community like his mother’s.
“The missing component to him sustaining his recovery was building connections with people who were like-minded. He kept talking about the West Dayton club that his mom had been in. He was like, ‘That’s what I need and they don’t have it here.’ That’s when he stared to push forward with the social-club idea.”
When she met Johnigan, Tate worked at the nonprofit Project for Pride in Living. She was attracted to his enthusiasm and energy, and the two soon began dating. Johnigan explained that he was about to start a nonprofit and asked if Tate wanted to join the board. As the organization grew, so did Tate’s involvement. At the time of Johnigan’s death, she was Twin Cities Recovery Project’s program director.
Being life partners and work colleagues suited the couple just fine, Tate said.
“We were together every day. We did everything together. The only place I wasn’t there was when he was in NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings. Otherwise we did everything side by side.”
Gardner said he became friends with Johnigan when he invited him to visit the Twin Cities Social Club, which at the time was located in church basement.
“There were people bustling around, getting ready for a meeting or a social event later that night,” Gardner recalled. “It wasn’t a fancy place, but it was filled with a certain kind of spirit, a spirit that today I recognize as a spirit of connection and love.” The two men forged a friendship, and Gardner began joining Twin Cities Social Club members on their regular Saturday- morning bike rides, where Johnigan told him about his rough early years.
“He had multiple interactions with the criminal justice system,” Gardner said. “Addiction was everywhere in his family and his community growing up. He lost a son who was murdered when he was 18 years old. He’d struggled with addiction and mental illness his entire life.”
But instead of being immobilized by these struggles, Johnigan was instead forging a new life in his adopted state, “founding an organization dedicated to helping people engaged in similar struggles,” Gardner said.
Tate said that from the start, Twin Cities Social Club was a hit with people working toward recovery. “We had a live DJ, a concession stand, a pool table, a ping-pong table, cards and dominoes. The first day we opened up, people were coming.”
Tate said that she and Johnigan soon realized they wanted their organization to be more than a safe, chemical-free place to unwind and connect. They began learning about trauma and its connection to mental health and addiction.
“It was important to him to be able to address the trauma that he’d been experiencing his entire life,” Tate said. “He felt like if he didn’t do that he’d never fully be able to recover.”
So Johnigan and Tate worked together to revamp a trauma-informed curriculum to better address the needs of the African American community. “We made the stories real to the people that we serve by using our own stories,” Tate said.
Soon they were holding weekly grief-and-trauma workshops, regularly seeing a “pretty good turnout.”
This kind of success further expanded Johnigan’s influence and reach, Gardner said. He asked his friend to participate in Hazelden Betty Ford panel discussions and introduced him to influential people in the recovery community, including Surgeon General Jerome Adams.
“He was part of our recent educational series for Minnesota legal professionals,” Gardner said. “He lent his deep experience to videos that were produced by our publishing team. He introduced us to many other collaborators and helped us expand our networks.”
Through it all, Johnigan’s future looked bright. “You could tell he was building something,” Gardner said. “There was an energy that this is just the beginning for him.”
The great connector
One of Johnigan’s greatest strengths was his natural inclination to be a connector, to reach out to others and spread a message of hope that can be found in an approach to recovery that is community based and culturally relevant.
Though Twin Cities Recovery Project was founded with the African American community at its core, Johnigan knew that if he wanted his organization to grow and thrive it was important for him to forge connections with influential people in Minnesota’s recovery community. That meant building friendships with people of other ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
“He understood his focus was on Black people, but he also understood you can’t do it by focusing only on Black people when you have all kinds of other people who can be a support for you and what you want to accomplish,” Hayden said, adding that he was impressed by Johnigan’s ability to build connections and even friendships with people like Gardner and his colleagues at Hazelden Betty Ford.
When Twin Cities Recovery Project opened its North Minneapolis location on West Broadway Ave., not far from Turning Point’s headquarters, Hayden said he made a point of giving his young friend a call.
“I said to him, ‘Anything that Turning Point or I can do for you, don’t hesitate to ask,’” Hayden recalled. “He had so much to give and I wanted to support that.”
Johnigan wasn’t just interested in connecting with people with power and influence, Gardner added. He stayed true to his mission of helping people who were struggling just like he had. Through programs like their Street Ambassador Outreach Team and Peer Recovery Coaching Services, Twin Cities Recovery Project staff help support the people who need them most.
“He knew it was important to meet people where they are,” Gardner said. “Not everyone is going to find their way to a treatment center or a hospital. Not everyone even has a roof over their head.”
In the early days of the nonprofit, Johnigan turned to Detroit, where, thanks to Tate, he forged a connection with Andre Johnson, president and CEO of Detroit Recovery Project, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting recovery for individuals, families and communities. It didn’t take long for the two to became fast friends.
“When we met, we hit it off right away,” Johnson said. “It was like meeting your long-lost brother. He had a vision of a recovery community organization in the Minnesota area and I offered to help in any way I could.”
The two organizations continued to deepen their partnership, cross-training staff and strategizing for future collaborations. Through it all, Johnson said he served as a mentor to Johnigan, supporting his ambitions and helping him strategize for his organization’s future.
It was clear to Johnson that Johnigan was committed to building a life in his adopted state. “If you didn’t know Marc’s history, you would’ve thought he was born and raised in Minnesota,” Johnson said. “He considered the state his home.”
What happens next
Though Johnigan is gone, he leaves behind an organization with a strong enough foundation to continue to grow despite the loss of its inspirational leader, Gardner believes.
“Marc stepped in to fill an important gap by providing culturally relevant services to our Black community which experiences big disparities in outcome and access to care,” Gardner said. “That’s an important reason to keep the work of his organization and that legacy going.”
Johnigan surrounded himself with strong staff and people like Tate, all committed to continuing his work and even expanding it to meet the needs of future generations, he added.
And though the staff at the Twin Cities Recovery Project said they are overwhelmed by Johnigan’s sudden death, they are also determined to forge ahead.
“He had a huge presence whenever he walked into a room,” Tate said. “We have lost that presence, but we know he would want us to keep moving on.”