Sonja Sohn: A Superstar in So Many Ways

Sonja Sohn (right) at the opening of The Village House

Last night, I attended the 2012 Change Champion Awards hosted by the Center for Community Change and the Campaign for Community Change, where among the honorees was Sonja Sohn.

If you’re a big fan of the HBO hit series The Wire, or even a Baltimorean, you’ll recognize her name. She played the crime-fighting Detective Kima Greggs, who was in constant pursuit of drug dealers and other criminals in the streets of Baltimore. For 5 seasons, Griggs faced dangerous situations with the determination to help save her city from the destructive hands of the worst of the worst.

Seeing is Believing

The script had a little more reality to it than you’d expect. According to Sonja, whom I had the pleasure of chatting with earlier this week, the TV show’s version of the Baltimore streets was pretty similar to the real thing.

Sonja Sohn

“We [cast members] were all being housed in nicer part of Baltimore, but we were working in the more neglected part of the city,” Sonja says.

She noticed a difference between the streets of Baltimore, and those she grew up in New York.

“It seemed almost as though people, especially young people, were a bit more hopeless—there was more spiritual poverty,” she says.

Outsiders at first, the cast’s continual presence filming on the streets gradually made them approachable, and they were able to engage locals with the show. In fact, Sonja recounts how one jobless teenager became a wardrobe assistant.

The Turning Point

After a few years of adjusting to her new hometown, crazy production schedule, and adjustment to personal circumstances in her life, Sonja was able to begin to see Baltimore in another light.

“I began to see myself. I saw little girls and children who looked like my friends growing up. And because I had filtered out my personal stuff already, I had room in my life to look at the situation in Baltimore with a different perspective,” Sonja says. “It was a miracle to get to where I was. I asked, ‘What was it about me and some of my friends that got us from a place of spiritual poverty and hopelessness to a growth mode?’”

By asking questions, Sonja dug deeper into the issues she saw on the streets of Baltimore.

“I began to really feel incredibly blessed to be where I was in my life.”

Then it hit her.

“How could I not give anything to those who don’t have what I have?” she asked herself. “After a while of going into those neighborhoods, I said, ‘I’ve got to do some service.’ And I had time. I was harboring it in my heart.”

ReWired for Change

The idea for a nonprofit organization was one she brewed for a little while. She consulted with her costars and friends, and increasingly felt the responsibility to lead.

“It came through so powerfully and it [felt] so right!” she said. “It was clear.”

ReWired for Change is a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization with the mission to transform the streets of that city by first transforming the people. Sonja’s philosophy, based on her personal experience, aims to encourage youth to take back control of their lives.

“If you wait for other people to empower you, you’ll be waiting for a while and get embittered and depressed. You have to make it happen,” she says to the kids. “You are the engine that drives your success, and that’s the spirit of survival in me. If you’re in survival mode, you’re in hustle-mode. You can be hustling for change. I use ‘hustle’ because that’s the street word for it.”

As I listened to her explain, I could picture her talking to a group of kids, as a role model they could look up to, a mentor they could learn from.

“It’s in your mind, but you’ve given it over to other people, and you succumb to the oppressive beat down you’ve been getting in your life,” she says. “And when you change your thinking, everything around will change. When you put action behind your thinking, you can change everything around you.”

That’s the philosophy behind ReWired for Change, showing youth and adults that they have the power to transform their lives, and their community.

The entire conversation was a delight. But my takeaway from the whole conversation left me thinking the rest of the day. It was one thing she said.

“When you’re hopeless about things ever changing for you, then you have nothing to lose.”

Hats off to Sonja for going to the center of the issue, and not trying to band-aid the situation. True community change starts with genuine transformation of the individuals in it.

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