This week’s coverage of Michael Johnson’s new job running Cincinnati’s United Way was understandably effusive. After all, the CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County has had a huge impact here in eight years as an outspoken and entrepreneurial advocate for people of color.
Stories cited successful programs he has championed, impressive fund-raising metrics he has achieved. And there were glowing quotes from members of his board and others. All deserved, in my view.
But I was interested in something else.
So when he interrupted packing to talk at his south Madison office the morning after his announcement, I asked him to step back and critique racial equity efforts here in recent years, suspecting he is now unencumbered by political sensitivities, though he has always been pretty candid.
He delivered. His message: Madison needs to go big or go home.
He didn’t put it precisely that way, but he did call for substantially more funding and coordinated leadership.
Johnson painted a picture of timid politicians too often focused on credit-taking, of nonprofits — preoccupied by the competition for funding — that do not adequately coordinate efforts, and even 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 laments seeing so few people of color in key leadership positions in the city, even in places where white leaders proclaim fealty to the cause.
Repeatedly, though, he came back to the need for a bigger financial commitment, perhaps through a referendum to temporarily increase sales taxes, something other cities have done. That, he said, would yield financial resources commensurate with the area’s challenges. His argument is as much economic as about social justice, that Madison could witness worsening white flight and an eroded tax base if action isn’t taken.
It seems like Johnson has been a fixture in Madison for longer than his eight years here, but he has experienced much. Five years ago, the Race to Equity report revealed staggering racial disparities here in employment, poverty, arrest rates and academic achievement. That report, by Kids Forward (then called the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families), shocked liberal white Madison more than it did Johnson.
Soon after, the Cap Times published magazine-length first-person essays, “Justified Anger” by the Rev. Alex Gee, which helped launch a black-led movement in town, and “Driven to Act,” by Johnson, in which he described his terrifying experience with racial hazing on his small-college wrestling team in Minnesota and how it influenced his career path.
Now 42, Johnson grew up in Chicago public housing, in a neighborhood infested with gangs, drugs and prostitution. He had jobs in Chicago and Philadelphia before arriving in Madison, where he has carved out an extraordinary role. His warmth, social media agility and tireless effort have immensely raised the profile, scope and effectiveness of the Boys and Girls Club, but he’s known for much more than that. Quick to use his bridge-building talent in times of civic crisis, such as the fallout after the death of Tony Robinson at the hands of police in 2015, Johnson is admired across cultural and racial boundaries like perhaps no one else in the city. One of his best friends and closest allies in Madison is Tim Metcalfe, a white grocery store magnate.
“I love this city,” Johnson told me. “Outside of Chicago and growing up in the projects there, this is the longest place I’ve ever lived, and it feels like home, but I’ve had my share of frustration here. Part of where my frustration lies is (that) we’re so territorial in this city.
“Everybody’s got their individual plans, and the funding is not coordinated,” he said. “There’s no plan that coordinates smart goals around how you begin to eliminate these disparities, and that’s really, really challenging.
“I think sometimes we (nonprofit leaders) compete for dollars, and we lose focus on why we’re in these roles, and sometimes that competition for dollars hurts relationships. I would also say that sometimes donors play a role in that,” Johnson said. He said he gets asked to dish about other prominent African-American leaders, seeming to invite criticism.
Johnson also said the nonprofit community lacks diversity in its leaders, as do major employers: “If we’re going to impact communities of color, you got to be willing to have people in the C-suite, and that’s a big challenge here that I see.”
Part of it is the culture, he said. “You have some people who have been here too long and don’t want to let go of their power, and so I think they’re stagnating, and they’re territorial.”
And Johnson said subtle racism is occasionally present: “I’ve never really made it public, but I’ve dealt with a lot of racism here, in my role, but I’ve chosen to address it behind closed doors, but head on.”
Another issue is a lack of infrastructural support in the nonprofit sector. “A lot of nonprofit organizations are just getting by,” he said. “They’re not thinking in abundance and out there raising the necessary resources to support the children and families that need that support.”
He said: “People will say, ‘Well, we’re a small region.’ I think I proved that wrong here. I’ve had so many donors say I’ve never been asked to give or I want to participate, but don’t necessarily know how to,” said Johnson, who grew his organization’s annual budget from $1.1 million when he arrived to $5.1 million.
It does, in the end, come down to money, Johnson said. As an example, he pointed to the black-led Justified Anger movement, which he said he has never been deeply involved in even though he supports its leaders and their prescriptions. Although it was launched with great fanfare and philanthropic support (including $150,000 from the Evjue Foundation, the Cap Times’ charitable arm), Johnson said it has not achieved financial scale to be truly effective. “You can’t address systemic issues with Band-Aid funding,” he said.
“We need some sort of referendum … to be able to solve these issues,” he said. “I don’t think the business community and the philanthropic community have the resources to do it by themselves.”
He said he knows many disagree: “‘Hey, I already pay enough taxes,’ but you look at all the crime that’s starting to happen, you start having a lot of white flight, a lot of middle-class people moving from this community. You will pay because then you’re going to lose your tax base.”
As he winds down, it’s worth noting that Johnson has been as effective as anyone in Madison on these issues this decade.
His words should carry weight.