By Andrew Porter
The date is September 30, 2015. The setting is MLC room 248. The occasion is a Black Affairs Council program in which Johnelle Simpson has been selected to be the moderator for a discussion on discrimination in downtown Athens.
Simpson is seated on a long wooden table where he rocks his standard business casual uniform. On this day, it’s a red long sleeved button down shirt, gray dress pants and black dress shoes. As he sits, he stares intently, legs crossed, arms folded, listening to his peers talk.
Simpson isn’t your average student. There is just something about him that makes him stand out from the rest of his peers and it has nothing to do with him being SGA president.
Fourth year and best friend of Simpson, Kiondre Dunnam describes him as one of the loudest, inappropriately appropriate, genuine, caring people you will meet.
To imagine Simpson, picture a black man. 6-foot-2, 230 pounds. Put a long sleeved button up shirt on him with dress pants and dress shoes. Give him a low cut haircut, minimal facial hair, and a country accent. Think of a passionate preacher on a Sunday morning in the pulpit of an old Southern Baptist church. Now imagine your favorite uncle at a summer time barbeque. You are now picturing 22-year-old University of Georgia SGA president and homecoming king, Johnelle Simpson.
No explanation does Simpson justice more than that of his roommate, Ryan Kelley. “He reminds me of a very old man, stuck in a young man’s body,” he said.
That duality perfectly exemplifies Simpson. On one hand, he is the professional—the SGA president who wants all students to have the opportunity to succeed. Then you have the other side that at one point had a shrine in his dorm room of Whitney Houston and loves to make jokes that get people laughing, even at the most inopportune time.
Simpson was raised in the small town of Donaldsville, Georgia by his stepfather, an older man who taught him about music, church, and about how to treat people. From a young age, Simpson took on many of the characteristics of his stepfather and applied them to his own life.
Simpson’s future aspirations include wanting to practice law. But more importantly than doing something in his field is his desire to make a difference through public speaking. “I feel like speaking is a gift that God gave me,” Simpson said. “I feel like God uses that gift through me to empower others. I feel like that’s my place in the world.”
Simpson isn’t the average politician. His path through SGA hasn’t been a smooth ride. It started with him wanting to be a part of SGA, but failing to do so during his freshman year. Fueled by that motivation, he embarked on the journey of becoming president of Creswell.
This moment brought Simpson to what he considers to be his lowest moment here at UGA. When he was campaigning to be president, he went door to door to talk to the people of Creswell. Although he thought the practice was standard and contained no ill intent, he soon found out that his opponent in the election felt that this practice was grounds for disqualification and complained to the residence hall director and staff. Simpson said he felt that the charges were racially motivated, but again used it as fuel.
Being one of the 7 percent of African American students that attend the University of Georgia, his thoughts on the matter are definitely understandable. Because of this, another vote was taken. Simpson won in a landslide.
Now, Simpson serves as SGA president. He does so the same way an uncle does at a barbeque: loud, proud, and unapologetic. He does so in his standard business attire. He does so in a way that you always know when he enters a room. He does so because he cares.
“I just wanna be known for using the SGA position to do the most good and make an impactful change around campus in every area,” Simpson said.
Simpson’s life motto is the poem “Don’t Quit” by Edgar Allen Guest. His favorite line is “success is failure turned inside out.” With his charisma, spirituality, and determination, success is definitely on his horizon.
“He doesn’t try,” Dunnam said pausing with a slight smile. “Johnelle is somebody who doesn’t just try, he does.”