LaTricia Tate and Marc Johnigan were partners in work — and in life. As co-founders of Twin Cities Recovery Project (TCRP), a Minneapolis-based addiction recovery program focused on the needs of the African American community, and a longtime couple engaged to be married, the two spent nearly all of their time together. So last December, when Johnigan was killed in a car accident, Tate’s family and colleagues prepared themselves: She might need to step away from the nonprofit she’d dedicated herself to for the past several years.
But Tate, though devastated by Johnigan’s death, quickly realized that she couldn’t turn her back on TCRP. It was too important to her — and too important to the people it served.
Just a few days after her fiancé’s death, Tate was back at work. “After I was able to gather my thoughts I realized that coming back was the natural thing for me to do,” Tate said from the office that she and Johnigan sometimes shared at TCRP’s bustling East Lake Street location. “It just made sense. I needed to make sure that we continued to provide services to individuals who are suffering from addiction. I always ask myself, ‘What would M.J. do?’ I know he would get up and make it happen, no matter what.”
While people were worried about her, Tate was worried about her TCRP colleagues. Many were drawn to the organization by Johnigan’s infectious energy: Would they fall apart with him gone?
“Right after Marc’s passing, I wasn’t really working but I came here because I felt I needed to be here,” she said, her voice calm and quiet. “I would just come in probably for a half a day and be with the staff.”
At a particularly low point, Tate suggested that the nonprofit should shut down for a few days so staff could regroup. “They said,” she recalled of her colleagues, “‘No, Ms. Tate. Mr. J wouldn’t have it that way.’ They would not stop coming to work, and so I found myself getting up and coming to sit here with them. Slowly, I started to work again. It felt right.”
And slowly Tate began to believe that she was the right person to lead TCRP into the future. “Marc and I had started this organization as a team,” she said. “It only makes sense for me to continue in this leadership role.” The TCRP board of directors agreed. At the end for March, they voted to promote Tate from program director to president and CEO.
“They felt that there was no one better than myself to take on the reins and go,” she said.
Tate explained that her dedication to TCRP is inspired in large part by Johnigan’s powerful commitment to helping others find recovery. The organization continues to touch people’s lives in powerful ways, she said, and keeping it going feels like a way to keep Johnigan’s memory alive.
“My motivation was and always will be Marc’s legacy,” Tate said. “His world was recovery and I watched that every day. I want to make sure that I continue to provide the services that people like Marc Johnigan needed for their own survival.” This desire to keep the dream alive has, she said, “really given me that extra strength to get up and go. I feel determined. I have to do this.”
United by a mission
Tate met Johnigan seven years ago, when she was working as a supportive housing specialist at Project for Pride in Living (PPL) in Minneapolis. Johnigan, who had worked hard to maintain his own recovery after years struggling with addiction, wanted to help other people learn to live — and even enjoy — a substance-free life. Inspired by the sober social club his own mother had attended in his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, Johnigan wanted to open a similar space for African Americans in the Twin Cities. The idea intrigued Tate, and when Johnigan asked her to help him set up the Twin Cities Social Club, an early version of TCRP, she agreed.
“I never used substances myself,” Tate said, “but my parents both suffered from the disease. I experienced some really horrible things in my childhood based on my parents’ addiction. I have firsthand experience with what it looks like, what it feels like and how to recover from those experiences, so when Marc asked me to join him, I was happy to help.”
Getting TCRP off the ground also helped Tate make good on a promise she’d made to herself years ago, after a beloved uncle died of a drug overdose. When her mother told her that her uncle’s body had been discovered in an abandoned building, Tate knew she had to do something to make a difference. “I decided then that somehow I’d dedicate my life to helping people who suffer from addiction,” she said.
As the Social Club started picking up steam, Tate became the organization’s volunteer coordinator and trainer. She also documented grant income and expenses and joined the board of directors. When the club expanded, eventually becoming TCRP, Tate’s role expanded alongside. She quit her job at PPL and began working at TCRP full time.
Though she held the key role of program director, Tate preferred to keep a low profile, encouraging Johnigan to take the spotlight. “Marc was the president and that was his thing,” she said. “He loved being out in front of the cameras and the microphones and I loved doing the paperwork. I had to do some public speaking and run some trainings, but it wasn’t something that I was comfortable doing. So I usually stayed in the shadows.”
Jeremiah Gardner, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation director of communications and public affairs, considered Johnigan a friend. He knew all about the social club and was excited when the organization expanded its mission to provide more extensive recovery services. Through it all, he said, it was clear that Tate was key to TCRP’s success.
“LaTricia has been influential to TCRP from the beginning, but more behind the scenes. Marc was out front as the spokesperson and CEO. Now she’s stepped from behind the scenes out front and center to help lead TCRP to the next era. She’s the perfect person for the job.”
Gregory Kemp has worked for TCRP for several years, so he understands better than anyone Tate’s key role in the organization. She’s the right person to lead the nonprofit into the future, he said.
“I feel real confident. Marc was always the everything but Ms. Tate was the one you always had to talk to if you wanted to get stuff done. He was here but he was so busy. She was the filter. She knew everything he was doing and what we were planning and how we’d get it done. We’re really comfortable with her being CEO.”
As program director, Tate said she had taken a “hands-on” role with the staff, implementing programming and directing the day-to-day operations of the nonprofit: “Now I’m just really stepping outside of my comfort zone and doing more of the networking and partnering and finding grants and resources.”
One of the first things she did in her new role was to promote Kemp to program director. The switch didn’t require a lot of training, she explained, because Johnigan had always encouraged employees to shadow each other, learning the details of other people’s roles so they could step in when needed.
“Marc believed in servant leadership,” Kemp said. “He wanted everybody to be prepared to lead, and so when he passed, after we got over the grieving period, everyone just stepped in. Everyone has a leadership role here.”
Tate said she is committed to leading TCRP into the future, going forward with all of her and Johnigan’s plans — no matter how much work they require.
Johnigan, she recalled, “would always say, ‘LaTricia moves in excellence,’ so I want to move in excellence and make sure his legacy continues to stand out.” Johnigan, Tate believes, didn’t fully realize the impact that his work was having on the Twin Cities’ African American community: “For him, it wasn’t work. It was a lifestyle. It was his legacy.”
Going forward, Tate realizes that TCRP will now be her lifestyle, her legacy. Some days, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to get things done, but she said she feels like her power is coming from a greater source.
“What I do know is that I can come into this building because of God’s grace and mercy,” Tate said. “That’s all I know.”
In the days following Johnigan’s death, Tate recalls taking to her bed, overwhelmed by grief.
“I lay there and I said, ‘Lord, what should I do?’” she recalled. “There was no other answer. I just got up every day and followed whatever God led me to do. I didn’t rush it. If I had the energy, I got up and came here.”
Day-to-day operations for TCRP’s 12 employees include regular interactions with clients seeking recovery at each of the nonprofit’s two sites. Three times a week staff goes into the community, doing outreach work in places where people regularly gather. “Our team is constantly thinking, ‘Where are the encampments?’” Tate said. “We are going to treatment centers, introducing ourselves. We are making our name known. We get a lot of referrals from hospitals. We are constantly on the move.”
Tate said she is committed to the core values that set her organization apart: “We are culturally specific to African Americans and we are boots on the ground.”
With an eye to that commitment to direct service, last year TCRP hosted, the first-annual “Boots on the Ground” conference. “They talked about the disparities that exist in access to care and outcomes for communities of color,” Gardner said. “They highlighted the work being done by organizations like TCRP and others across the country.” The second Boots on the Ground conference is scheduled for May 13, 2022.
Gardner said he’s amazed at Tate’s strength and commitment to furthering TCRP’s work.
“I can only imagine how difficult it must be for LaTricia to lose her partner and then also to feel some responsibility to step up and buoy an entire organization. But I imagine that it has been made easier because of the community that she and Marc created around them. That’s where I think the strength lies.”
Tate agreed. “I have a great board, a great team of people,” she said. Their support keeps her going when her grief rises. “I haven’t officially taken any time off, but when my day needs to be over, I’ll just be like, ‘I’m leaving. I know I can’t do it today.’ They’re fine with that. They tell me to leave, that they’ll keep things going. Then I’ll come back tomorrow and start over.”