“You Can’t Go Home Again” is the title of a Thomas Wolfe novel published posthumously in 1940. It focuses on an author whose depiction of his hometown draws menacing letters and death threats from ex-neighbors.
Michael Johnson, who officially starts work again in Madison Saturday, proves that you can indeed go home again. At least he can return to his adopted home. (Johnson grew up in public housing in Chicago.)
He reassumes his job as CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, a position he had held for eight years before departing this past summer to head Cincinnati’s United Way. He left that Ohio job this fall after a rancorous split with the board’s chair. His old Madison job was still open, and the board here unanimously voted to rehire him.
Madison should be celebrating its good fortune to have Johnson back. He has been a large and passionate presence in town, someone who could bridge the white-dominated world of funders and decision-makers and the African-American community.
Even his choice of how to time his return reflects his personal immersion in the community. Rather than start fresh in the new year, he wanted to come back for the holidays in Madison.
“I wanted to come in on a Saturday because I want to get my office desk squared away,” he told me in a telephone interview from Cincinnati.
“But then I’m going to spend the first two weeks literally being of service to others. So, I got a bunch of stuff planned around the holidays, from taking kids and families shopping for Christmas and surprising kids over the holidays. I’ll be working all the way up through Christmas Eve, surprising people with gifts. We have a huge wrapping party planned.
“I had a donor send a $7,000 check and say, ‘I heard you were coming back, Mike, here are some resources to help families out over the holidays.’ I’m excited about coming back and doing some great things in the community.”
Johnson was in Madison for a weekend earlier this month to get his house ready and was surprised by the warm reception he found out in public. He estimated that two dozen people recognized him and welcomed him back as he shopped in various stores.
He said he was shopping for a bed at the A-1 Furniture & Mattress on Stoughton Road when salespeople recognized him. “’Oh, my God, you helped a family member of mine,’” Johnson said one told him. “’We’re so thankful that you’re back.’” He said he was similarly recognized at Hobby Lobby, Pick ’n Save and Walmart, where he said he was effusively welcomed by a woman in a wheelchair.
“I got that everywhere, and I got to be honest, it felt good,” he told me.
That Johnson is a rock star in Madison has long been clear. His goodbye party at the Edgewater hotel last summer attracted hundreds.
As much as Johnson has been admired in Madison, things in Cincinnati did not go well. Johnson resigned after only four months in a racially-tinged dispute with the white board chair, who subsequently resigned. Influential leaders in the Cincinnati African-American community were highly critical of Johnson’s treatment, according to stories in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Earlier this month, a group of citizens there called on the Cincinnati City Council to respond to what they called serious, long-standing and pervasive racism. Two council members proposed spending $900,000 on a task force to measure and address institutional racism and systemic inequities. On the morning Johnson and I talked, he had breakfast with one of the council members leading the charge on the proposal.
Johnson wrote a departing op-ed in the Enquirer that was headlined: “Empower qualified people of color to lead change.” He made a series of suggestions for city leaders on funding and diversity.
Refocusing on Madison, Johnson sounds ready to re-engage on big solutions to the racial gaps that have long plagued the city. When he left, my farewell column emphasized his call for a much greater financial commitment here.
Speaking then, he painted a picture of timid politicians too focused on credit-taking, of nonprofits — preoccupied by the competition for funding — that do not adequately coordinate efforts, and of divisions within the African-American community fueled by whites who pit black leaders against one another and black leaders vying for the spotlight. And he lamented seeing so few people of color in key leadership positions in the city, even in places where white leaders proclaim fealty to the cause.
In September, Johnson returned to Madison to appear at Cap Times Idea Fest, where he told the audience that “Madison beat the hell out of me” during his eight years here. He gave the city only a C-minus when asked to grade its cumulative efforts around racial equity.
“Madison is one of the best places in the state to live if you’re white,” he told the Idea Fest audience. “We shouldn’t accept (disparities) as the norm in a city that is so smart and so rich.”
In our recent conversation, Johnson told me he made friendships that will endure while in Cincinnati, but the struggle there was around voices of African-Americans not being heard and leaders of color not being empowered. Still, even given how it turned out, he said he thought it was a good experience.
What he did not anticipate is how much he would miss Madison. Even in his first month, he said he thought to himself, “Man, I don’t know why, but I need to be around some Wisconsin people.”
So he joined Madison grocer Tim Metcalfe and others on a trip to Door County and came back to visit Madison several times. He also estimated he had 20 visitors from Madison while in Cincinnati.
Metcalfe, a close friend, is ecstatic to have him back. “For Madison to attract and retain extraordinary companies we need extraordinary people (and) that includes in the world of nonprofits,” he told me, calling Johnson a “top talent.”
After the Door County trip, Johnson said his wife, Toya, admonished him, “God, Mike, you’ve got to let Wisconsin go.”
Happily for Madison this holiday season, now he doesn’t have to.
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