Home Opinion On His Way Back to Madison, Michael Johnson Offers Advice to Cincinnati

On His Way Back to Madison, Michael Johnson Offers Advice to Cincinnati


Michael Johnson served as CEO of the United Way of Greater Cincinnati for just three months before resigning amid racially-tinged controversy. He is returning to his former post as CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. He offered this column as advice for Cincinnati. It was first published by TV news station WCPO

The Greater Cincinnati region is ranked as one of the best places to live, according to Forbes Magazine and has a strong job market, good schools and relatively low cost of living. The Cincinnati Children’s Hospital ranks second in the nation among Children’s Hospitals and Cincinnati was recently ranked as one of the best places to live and travel in the United States. 

This region has no shortage of cultural activities which people from every walk of life can enjoy. The Cincinnati Musical Festival is world class and the Newport Aquarium, in Kentucky, is also a great addition to the region. However, despite the positive virtues…poverty and racial disparities are still major factors. Sadly, more than half of all children under the age of five are living in poverty and African Americans are visibly missing in leadership roles across the region. If the region is to fulfill its promise of lifting up all Cincinnatians, it has to get beyond its heavy reliance on reports and studies that point to the obvious and begin empowering qualified people of color with experience to lead the charge towards a more inclusive and equitable working community.

Challenge: According to the Urban League’s “State of Black Cincinnati“ report, the economic situation of African Americans and people living in poverty is alarming: Why is home ownership only 33 percent for African-Americans? Why do African Americans earn 58 percent less in wages than other Cincinnatians? The challenge also extends to White Cincinnatians as well, more than 43 percent of Whites live below the federal poverty line and there are significant wage gaps between men and women. What are the root causes of these problems and what can be done to change it? 

Business Leaders: Cincinnati is home to 10 Fortune 500 companies, and has more companies per capita than New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Numerous studies show inclusive workplaces lead to profitability and growth. While many support increasing diversity, the current reality has not fully materialized in an equitable way for people of color in C-suite and board positions.  

African American Executives: Some of you have become trailblazers, but please don’t become complacent. Your visibility is vital because many young African Americans need to see you as mentors and collaborators who are committed to recruiting the best and brightest because they don’t often see those opportunities within the walls of your departments or corporations.

Grassroots Community Leaders: Work together to address systemic racism and implicit bias. There are many who blame “the system”, thinking there’s no way it will change. For those who have offered ideas, feedback, and guidance, support is needed to implement effective changes in policy and to help change attitudes of influencers in the region. Collaboration is a must and achievable goals need to be created TOGETHER, instead of operating in isolation. 

Nonprofit Leaders & Boards: You are appreciated, needed, and most of you appear to receive strong support. Continue to make a difference by opening the doors of inclusion and equity at every level of your organization including having a person of color as a Board Chair, CEO, or COO in its leadership ranks. If you want to change the opportunity equation for marginalized groups, your leadership team has to reflect the communities in which you serve.

Message to Cincinnatians: It’s important to talk about race. Make time to embrace newcomers to the city, whether they are from large urban communities or small rural towns. Change starts now, and it starts with you. Have dinner with someone outside your race. You can’t solve challenges if you don’t make a concerted effort to get to know one another, through meaningful dialogue. CCincinnati is known for its commitment to philanthropy and these authentic conversations and relationships can help fuel additional giving.

I was proud to call Cincinnati home and thankful to have met so many wonderful people in the Tristate area. I hope you will continue to contribute to United Way and its partner agencies because they impact the lives of thousands of people and they need your time, talent, and treasure more now than ever. I also hope the region’s leaders, including communities of faith, businesses and nonprofit institutions will work together to create an ecosystem where everyone can be proud to call Cincinnati home.


Five Recommendations to the Greater Cincinnati Region:

Recommendation #1: Invest in charitable programs that have workplace initiatives that will put more than 1,000 young people in paid internships and hundreds of adults in jobs throughout the region.
Recommendation #2: Invest in a professional development roundtable that will be charged with onboarding new executives of color and educating them on the landscape of the region, as well as, connecting them to social and professional development opportunities in order to retain them.
Recommendation #3: Create an endowment that will support the work of grassroots community leaders in the areas of housing, transportation, community engagement, police relations, and poverty.
Recommendation #4: Every nonprofit should conduct a diversity and inclusion audit of their board and executive positions to ensure the regional leadership is reflective of its residents. The city, counties and major funders should encourage inclusion and equity as part of their funding guidelines.
Recommendation #5: Develop a Diversity & Inclusion Roundtable and begin to create fellowship opportunities with people of different races and cultures. The region will not be able solve its biggest challenges if people don’t get to know each other outside of the workplace.