Michael Johnson could have waited until January to return to his job as the CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, but where’s the fun in that? He’d rather help the community celebrate the holidays.
On Dec. 17, he was handing out 300 free hams, donated by Hy-Vee, with the Fitchburg Fire and Police departments. Johnson smiled and chatted with people who visited the truck, parked next to the Boys and Girls club near Allied Drive. His schedule for the rest of the week was filled with delivering gifts, wrapping toys and surprise shopping sprees.
“This is actually my favorite time of the year for Boys and Girls Club, and I was like, I don’t need that much rest. I’ll come back and be of service to young people and I’ll be working all the way up through Christmas,” he said.
He’s clearly excited about the work, and sat down with the Cap Times to talk about his plans for 2019, including the start of the club's Sun Prairie facility, a new strategic plan for the organization and a fresh start for old relationships.
In May, Johnson announced he was leaving his position at the Boys and Girls Club for a position as CEO of United Way of Greater Cincinnati.
He described the role as his “dream job,” but found that his role covering a tri-state area meant he didn’t feel as connected to the community, he missed working directly with grassroots leaders and his new position was in a “very, very conservative market.” After experiencing a “hostile work environment” in allegations that made Cincinnati news, he left the position, and the BGCDC offered him his old job.
It may be a familiar role, but Johnson wants to kick off 2019 with a fresh outlook. Just as he did when he came to the BGCDC in 2010 and in the first weeks of his Cincinnati job, he will spend the first 90 days meeting with hundreds of people to dig into community issues.
He’ll then create an analysis of the club’s strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats to “really set a new direction” for BGCDC. He hopes to “refresh and upgrade” the organization’s strategic plan by June.
Such an in-depth introduction may not seem necessary for someone who knows the community well and considers Madison home. But Johnson pointed out that he’s been gone for months, and issues can change quickly.
Some examples: an elementary school teacher just reached out asking him to help support kids who had a parent deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Johnson also wants to find a way to address problems with young men stealing cars.
“I knew one of the young men who recently stole a car … I remember him when he was a kid,” Johnson said. “I want to figure out the role the Boys and Girls Club can play to help work with the police department, the community, the high schools, the elementary schools.”
Also in 2019, the club will raise money for the former Peace Lutheran Church at 232 Windsor St., which will become a BGCDC youth and family center. The BGCDC has funds for the project, including a $50,000 grant and $150,000 loan from the city of Sun Prairie, but needs more money for the $1.2 million property, Johnson said.
Johnson said he knows that not everyone in Sun Prairie was “too thrilled about kids being in those neck of the woods." Some residents said they had concerns about safety. But Johnson’s glad to have the support of Sun Prairie Mayor Paul Esser, and hopes to have the facility will be up and running by this summer.
Johnson has a history as a fierce advocate when it comes to resources for kids. When Fitchburg Mayor Jason Gonzalez proposed a 2018 budget that cut funding for the BGCDC and other nonprofits, Johnson sharply criticized Gonzalez. Gonzalez shot back with personal criticisms of Johnson, who the mayor said was “trying to bully” him into restoring the funding.
Now, Johnson wants to turn over a new leaf.
“I’ve had a few public fights over the years, and I want to figure out how to hit the reset button with some of those folks,” he said. “If we truly want to impact our community, sometimes we’ve got to put our differences aside to be able to do that.”
That doesn’t mean he’ll stop advocating for kids.
“I’m going to always do my best to speak up for kids who I believe are marginalized, kids who I believe don’t get their fair share of support,” Johnson said.
But he will reach out to those he’s had “public and private battles with,” including Gonzalez and the Fitchburg City Council.
“I’m going to issue them an olive branch and if they want to work with us they will, and if they don’t, I respect that,” he said.
Asked if he had any hesitations coming back to Madison, Johnson said that some of his friends advised against it.
“I had some people say 'Mike, why would you resign from such a big job? This could kill your career … Why come back when you were on top?'”
But ultimately, he said: “I love this job, I live and breathe this work everyday.”