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Michael Johnson, with United Way of Greater Cincinnati, speaks during the Cap Times Idea Fest at the Wisconsin Historical Society in September.

Four months ago, Michael Johnson, a highly-admired social justice advocate and community leader, left his position as CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County to begin a new role as president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Cincinnati.

The scope of his job may have increased, but Johnson sees familiar challenges in Cincinnati. Much of his work focuses on alleviating poverty and addressing academic disparities in the 10 counties the United Way serves.

But the resources he has access to allow him to address disparities on a systemic level. He has the power of the business community behind him, as well as a $60 million budget to allocate.

In an interview with city editor Katie Dean at the Cap Times Idea Fest Saturday, Johnson talked about how he was outspoken on social justice issues in a more liberal market in Madison, but now he faces a more conservative audience. That hasn’t stopped him from asking the tough questions – even when facing potential pushback.

“Madison beat the hell out of me, but I gained a lot of tough skin during that process,” Johnson said.

Johnson grew up in Chicago in one of the toughest public housing developments in the country. He went on to receive multiple degrees in business, fundraising and human resources management in an effort to learn how to successfully run a nonprofit and make a positive impact.

Johnson held leadership positions at government and nonprofit organizations in Chicago, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and St. Louis before landing in Madison, where he served the community for eight years before relocating to pursue his “dream job” in June.

During his tenure at the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, Johnson transformed the organization. He worked to increase the organization’s operating budget by 318 percent and raised the number of children served from 1,800 in 2010 to approximately 8,000 by the end of this year.

Johnson said Saturday his dedication to social justice spurred the organization’s success.

“I thought we were always on the right side of justice because even though we lost some support, our dollar database grew,” Johnson said. “We became one of the fastest growing Boys and Girls Clubs in the country because we did not sit on the sidelines. We spoke up when it counted, even when it made people angry, and sometimes leadership is about sitting at a seat of discomfort.”

But, he said, his work at the organization was not enough to change Madison.

“It was a lot of talk,” Johnson said. “[There’s] a lot of good people doing a lot of good things, but systemically, when you look at the data, things are not getting better. Systemically, we’re still operating in silos.”

Before leaving Madison, Johnson called for greater funding and committed community leadership. He cited divisions throughout the city – between politicians and the public, between nonprofit leaders, and between black and white community leaders – and a lack of people of color in leadership positions as reasons for Madison’s poor track record on racial equity.

Addressing the audience at the Cap Times Idea Fest, Johnson didn’t paint a positive picture of Madison’s equity issues almost four months after leaving the city.

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Johnson gave Madison’s efforts to address community issues a grade of C-. In a city that supposedly cares about resolving educational debt and pursuing racial equity, no steps are being taken to alter the institutions that encourage the cycle.

“Madison is one of the best places in the state to live if you’re white,” he said. “We shouldn’t accept [disparities] as the norm in a city that is so smart and so rich.”

Johnson called on the city and funders to follow through and analyze the return on their nonprofit investments. He believes if an organization isn’t achieving its goals or statistically makes no impact, it shouldn’t receive valuable funding in the future.

He further recommended the city complete a cost analysis on resolving educational debt between white students and students of color.

“You can’t tackle systemic issues with $10,000 grants here and there,” Johnson said. “It’s going to take real resources with a real plan and aligning those nonprofits and these groups that do the work.”

Johnson said Madison needs a systemic vision and plan on how to address local issues. The efforts have to start from the mayor and county executive’s offices, but citizens must demand and enforce a real plan.

“I’m afraid that if we don’t take it seriously, and if we don’t align resources around a plan and hold folks accountable, a lot of people are going to be hurt in the process,” he said.

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