By Erica Boniface, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Staff
Have you ever had writer’s block because the subject you’re writing about is so extraordinary, that it’s hard to truly find the words? Well, that’s where we’re at writing this piece about 2018 Livingston Fellow, Deidre Johnson. She has such an amazing story, it’s hard to put to words.
In fact, we need to drink a large latte with four espresso shots just thinking about all that she accomplishes in a day. Trust us when we say this, Deidre is unstoppable. She’s currently writing a memoir about her life – and we’ll be the first ones to buy it off the shelf.
Professionally, Deidre is the CEO and Executive Director for The Center for African American Health, advocating and working tirelessly to provide quality healthcare access and other initiatives and programs for African Americans. Personally, she’s the daughter of a former NASA mathematician and registered nurse. As she puts it, “I was raised with the foundational belief and knowledge that as a young black girl, I would always have to be twice as studious for half the recognition.”
Get to know Deidre and learn more about her work, her upbringing, her values and her fight by reading the interview below. You’ll be glad you did!
Bonfils-Stanton Foundation: Tell us more about your nonprofit organization and a bit about your day-to-day responsibilities.
Deidre Johnson: The Center for African American Health (The Center) works to promote the health and wellbeing of African Americans who have higher rates of illness, disability and premature death from a variety of diseases such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Re-envisioned in 2005, the Center evolved from the health programming of the Metro Denver Black Church Initiative, which for more than a decade prior had collaborated with Black churches to offer health programs throughout the African American community, as well as programs for at-risk youth, academically struggling students, and ex-offenders.
I joined The Center in December of 2015 when our founding executive director retired and the past three and half years have been an exciting period of organizational transformation and expansion. We have a very fast-paced, entrepreneurial environment at The Center. A few partners have pointed out that we “punch above our weight” when it comes to community impact. As a community-based agency, we also do a lot on the weekends. Every day is truly different and includes planned programming, meetings and events as well as being responsive to community needs. We are frequently asked to provide a community perspective at programmatic and policy related discussion at both the state and local level.
Luckily, I enjoy variety!
BSF: What are some current issues you and your team are tackling? What’s at the forefront of your mission?
DJ: We are acutely aware that we cannot be all things to all people, especially in a community with a myriad of needs. However, we can become a center of excellence for services we offer, and an exceptional network partner and systems builder, ensuring that our children, youth and families are connected with the resources, education, services and supports they need to take control of their health and well-being.
Although direct services are important, we know that true change requires that we also try to improve the systems within which program and services reside. As a community, we are in the precarious position of needing to rely on systems that do not see or value us. Our role in advocacy and policy is growing. Our value and goal of uplifting community voice through our BeHeard Mile High platform is an important element of this work, as well as our continued efforts to build our advocacy and policy capacity.
People measure what matters. It is time that we make sure that data regarding our community begins to matter.
BSF: You’re a 2018 Livingston Fellow. What have you accomplished so far within the program?
DJ: My journey as a Livingston Fellow has been deeply personal and reflective. My primary project has been working on a memoir, currently titled “Yesterday Comes So Easy.” I recently completed The Book Project at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. It is a two-year mentoring program for writers working on their first manuscript. What started out for me as sharing the story of my father and I, has naturally morphed into a multi-generational reflection on navigating racism in America. My first draft is due to my mentor, Benjamin Whitmer, in September. My goal is to have a revised draft to my second reader in January 2020 and a final version ready to submit by Spring of next year. If anything, completing The Book Project, helped me reconnect with and embrace my voice and craft as a writer.
Other aspects of my Fellowship have been dedicated to exploring and prioritizing self-care. As a recently divorced mother of two busy teens who also leads a nonprofit – it is probably no surprise that care for self often gets delayed or swallowed up by day-to-day demands. My Livingston Fellowship has allowed me to find ways to hit the pause button in order to tap into the me that I used to be. Reorient and embrace every facet of myself.
The Livingston Fellowship was perfectly timed for me both professionally and personally. The Livingston Fellows are also a wonderful peer group. Many of whom I have known for years, but being a fellow has allowed our common journeys to go a bit deeper.
BSF: What have you learned as a Livingston Fellow in regards to improving your leadership abilities?
DJ: I have learned to embrace my natural talents. As passionate as I have been about uplifting community voice, I had never included my own voice. I work to no longer compartmentalize aspects of my life, nor do I minimize myself to make others feel more comfortable. I think, as a woman of color, we are often socialized to do these things, without even realizing it has happened.
As a Black woman working in philanthropy in Colorado (I was at The Colorado Trust for 7 years), I always saw myself as working behind the scenes, as it were, to advance health equity and to ensure the inclusion of diverse community voices. Now, as the leader of The Center for African American Health, I am no longer behind the scenes, but front and center. I have a community that is relying on me to ensure our collective voice is heard and to help achieve better outcomes for our children and families.
I am an entrepreneur’s daughter. I have always craved working conditions that allow creativity and flexibility. I also have the ability to keep a ridiculous amount of information in my head. While this is helpful for me, it is not helpful when leading and nurturing leaders within my team. I have been immersing myself in activities that nurture letting go of control. Striking a balance between coaching versus managing. And pausing to celebrate victories, rather than just moving on to the next challenge.
The Livingston Fellowship has helped me to understand new ways to embrace my own natural talents. I have a love of puzzles. I like variety and complexity. The thought that persistent, complex problems can be solved with one off solutions that do not engage the intended beneficiaries is naïve at best and maintains an insidious status quo at worse. I have always approached my work from the perspective that time is of the essence because there are lives at stake and people waiting for us to get it right. I believe that true collaboration necessitates a spirit of generosity. And for me it is easy to do, because my focus is the outcome for the community being served. But we must also be generous to ourselves so we can be there for others. My Livingston Fellowship has helped me discover new ways and the importance of resting, resetting and “placing my mask on first” so I can be there for others.
There are no finish lines. Especially when working on complex problems. At The Center, we are working to push the boundaries of what is possible within a small nonprofit. We are working to build the type of organization that our community has yet to have seen in Colorado before.
BSF: You went to both Princeton and Yale Universities. What words of encouragement do you have for high school and college students?
DJ: I was raised by a mathematician and registered nurse. In a household in which education was a non-negotiable priority. As well as with the foundational belief and knowledge that as a young black girl, I would always have to be twice as studious for half the recognition. I do not think that dynamic has changed decades later.
Years ago, I took my sons to see Hidden Figures, so they could better understand the context of all my “Grandpa was a mathematician and worked with missiles before I was born” stories. It is one thing for their generation (they were in middle school) to hear the stories, another to see the context. While my father never discussed women’s struggles, he was flying solo in the early 1960’s as a mathematician for McDonnell’s NASA contracts. Often recalling that when he first showed up straight from the army and sat down at his assigned desk, the men next to him got up and refused to sit with a Negro (not the term used). So he was relocated so he wasn’t so visible. When he knew he was about to be a dad, he and my mom (a registered nurse with her own systemic journey) left St. Louis and moved to Denver.
He was the first African American to head the CU computer center in Boulder. Within a few years he left to start his own business and developed a fourth generation database – entirely on his own – in FORTRAN. His DDQUERY system was used by University of Michigan’s financial aid office for 25 years as well as the Navy. I remember how he described one of his trips to D.C. because a general wanted to meet the designer of the software that was being used to monitor naval air traffic patterns. He introduced himself and extended his hand and was greeted with a “but your black!” I will age myself and admit that growing up I used to play on keypunch machines. I thought he had me writing stories. But by the time I was 8 he had taught me how to program in FORTRAN. When I was in high school I was designing systems for Turner Construction.
My father passed away in March of 2014 after a struggle with dementia. I share his story as a bit of context to my own, because he is the man who raised my sister and I with expectations of opportunity. Even though we understood that we had to excel and fight for opportunities along the way. He always used to say that white children are raised with expectations and black children are raised on hope. “Your job is to work to turn hope into expectation.” It can make all of the difference in the world. I know.
BSF: What are your hobbies when you’re not on the clock?
DJ: I work quite a bit. Given the nature of our programs and representing The Center at community events, I frequently go several weeks without an entire day off.
Our mission is deeply important to me both for personal and professional reasons. These issues of equity are not theoretical for me. Whether dealing with racial bias in the medical, education or housing sectors, I and my family have also had very personal experiences similar to the community members I serve. It is this intersection of the personal and professional – how one can feel so personally connected to one’s professional role – that my Fellowship is helping me to balance.
When I do prioritize personal time, it is carving time out to write, to read and to enjoy time with my two teenage sons who are in high school. As well as with family and good friends. I absolutely love live music.
BSF: What’s your favorite thing about living in Colorado?
DJ: That we live in a beautiful state! It is also a state that works to protect its people, despite what may be unfolding nationally. The level of collaboration in many of our local communities is extraordinary.