Name: Jim Johnson
Occupation: Professor, Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Aspiration: “There are pressing social problems we should be addressing, and I had to do something. I’ve always believed I was put on this earth to make a difference.”
D’Mario Smith may only be entering the eighth grade, but he’s already made up his mind about which college he wants to attend. He’s going to Duke. Not only is that school strong academically, but D’Mario likes the idea that he won’t have to leave North Carolina, which is important to him. He won’t even have to leave Durham. Rather than venturing far from home, he’d prefer to attend college just across town, so that he can return home whenever he needs to — say, “if my little sister calls and says, ‘Come by and give me a ride.’ ” D’Mario hasn’t made up his mind about a career. He’s still weighing his options — comic-book artist, engineer, scientist, or maybe a businessman who makes “at least $1,000 an hour.”
Unfortunately, warns James H. Johnson Jr., dreams like those don’t stand much of a chance in a troubled neighborhood. A geographer with a PhD, a professor with an endowed chair at a leading business school, an expert on poverty, and a tireless activist for social justice, Johnson understands that Duke University and D’Mario’s neighborhood are close physically — but in reality they couldn’t be farther apart. They’re two different worlds: one blessed with opportunities, the other choked with obstacles.
In D’Mario’s neighborhood, being a good kid from a good home isn’t necessarily enough to survive the drugs and violence. Even though his house sits on the better end of the block, its yard protected by a fence with a sign that reads, “Beware of the dog”; even though D’Mario is exceedingly polite, good-natured, and bright (he made the A/B honor roll last spring); even though he has two hard-working, doting parents, he is at risk. D’Mario, who is 12, won’t graduate from high school for another five years. Anyone who lives in a neighborhood like his knows that five years is a long time to avoid trouble. Even if you don’t go looking for it, trouble can find you.
That kind of unforgiving reality brought Johnson, 46, to this neighborhood. He carries a lofty title: the William Rand Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Management at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But he’s waging an in-the-trenches campaign to save disadvantaged kids like D’Mario from the streets. Durham Scholars, a program that Johnson launched five years ago, provides kids like D’Mario with the resources that they need to survive and to succeed: a safe place to go after school; access to the latest technology; a network of tutors, mentors, and role models; and a college scholarship. Johnson counts on those resources to forge a connection between two worlds — a bridge that one day may extend from D’Mario’s neighborhood to Duke.
It’s become almost fashionable for social commentators and dotcom entrepreneurs alike to pontificate about the “digital divide” growing wider, rather than narrowing. This is the story of a man who stopped pontificating and who started building bridges. Bridges between academic research and social action. Between private-sector money and inner-city needs. Between students attending one of the country’s top business schools and children living in poverty. Between the global marketplace and minority entrepreneurs. Between mainstream companies and unemployed African-American men. Put simply, he is building bridges between the haves and the have-nots.
What’s truly amazing — breathtaking, really — is the range of Johnson’s efforts and the diversity of people those efforts reach. Though metaphorical, these bridges lead to very real results. Ask Jordan Wright, a former drug dealer who is learning how to be a responsible husband and father. Ask John Deberry, an African-American businessman whose once-struggling auto-parts store is now growing. Ask nonprofit and health-agency managers across the country who have found ways to rely less on philanthropy and more on themselves. Or ask Lenora and Lester Smith, D’Mario’s parents. Before they got involved with the Durham Scholars program, they weren’t sure how they would send their three children to college. Now they know that they’ve got a chance.
“Jim is an academic activist in the most positive sense of the word,” says John D. Kasarda, director of the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the Kenan-Flagler Business School. “He’s taken what he’s learned as a teacher and a scholar and applied it to help people and communities compete in the 21st century.” After years spent researching, writing, and lecturing on inequality and on demographics in large urban areas like Los Angeles, as well as in smaller urban areas like Durham, Johnson decided to come up with some remedies. “There are pressing social problems we should be addressing, and I had to do something,” he says. “I’ve always believed I was put on this earth to make a difference.”
Johnson is enough of an optimist to take on seemingly insurmountable social ills, but he’s enough of a realist to know that he can’t make a significant difference quickly. He keeps trying and keeps experimenting anyway. Like a true entrepreneur, he constantly generates new ideas, new projects, new ways to apply business tools and principles to social problems. He helped launch a midnight basketball league that offered seminars on personal growth for young men. He organized workshops on entrepreneurship for single mothers living in public housing. He is creating a venture-capital fund targeted at minority-owned businesses. Johnson, who’s also director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the Kenan Institute, designs different bridges to meet different needs, each bridge driven by a simple question that lacks an easy answer: What works?
Johnson prefers the term “community investment” to “urban renewal,” because the latter usually doesn’t last long enough to do any real good. At the first signs of improvement, he says, everybody thinks that their work is done, and they leave the community, taking their resources with them. An investment, on the other hand, lasts as long as there’s a decent return. Besides, alleviating poverty and inequality is by no means short-term work. “These problems were created over years and years,” he says. “Unfortunately, the solutions take time, and a lot of people don’t have the patience. They’ve given up on these communities.”
Not Jim Johnson. In a way, he’s just getting started.
Hope and Dreams I: “He’s got so much potential”
D’Mario Smith and Kevin Raiford met at a mixer for the kids in Durham Scholars and the students from the Kenan-Flagler Business School. To get better acquainted and to facilitate pairing the kids with MBA mentors, members of each group interviewed members of the other one. Raiford, who’s 31, learned that D’Mario loves McDonald’s French fries and video games, and — on that day anyway — wanted to be a scientist. D’Mario learned that Raiford follows college basketball, had worked for Snapple prior to attending business school, and hopes to own a beverage company someday. The two have been buddies ever since. “When Kevin enters the room, D’Mario lights up,” says Carolyn Cofrancesco, 34, a social worker in the program.
One of the most valuable benefits of Durham Scholars is the network that kids form outside their neighborhood, says Johnson. Some of the children have rarely interacted with college students before meeting their undergraduate tutors. It’s even less likely that the children have had contact with MBA students — or know what an MBA is, for that matter. The number of volunteers has grown steadily since the mentor program was launched. Last year, there were 150 mentors, up from 40 when the program began three years ago.
Johnson was one of the main reasons that Kevin Raiford came to North Carolina. Since earning his undergraduate degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Raiford had worked as a financial analyst, finance manager, and sales director at such companies as Johnson & Johnson, Quaker Oats Co., and Whole Foods Market Inc. He had his pick of business schools. But Johnson’s presence at UNC made it an easy decision. Johnson is doing the sort of progressive work that Raiford believes in: applying business principles and university resources to community outreach. Charismatic, energetic, and approachable, Johnson is the sort of professor whom students naturally seek out as a mentor. “When I heard about Durham Scholars, I jumped all over it,” says Raiford. Like Johnson, he is a born mentor; he still keeps in touch with kids he worked with in high school, at church, and through Junior Achievement.
Since he had benefited from programs similar to Durham Scholars while growing up in Pittsburgh, he takes his role as D’Mario’s mentor seriously. MBA mentors are asked to spend at least four hours a month with students. Raiford doesn’t bother counting the hours he spends with D’Mario. The boy who loves playing video games, eating French fries, and drawing elaborate science-fiction illustrations has become a routine part of Raiford’s life over the past year, and vice versa.
During the school year, they see each other almost daily at the business school. On weekends, Raiford takes D’Mario to the mall. This past summer, when Raiford had an internship at Hewlett-Packard in Cupertino, California, they spoke every week by phone. Raiford encourages D’Mario to aim high. Regardless of the goal, he tells him, achieving success requires self-discipline and hard work. Learning has to become a habit, Raiford says, the way that brushing your teeth is. You have to expect — and demand — more of yourself than anyone else does. While he congratulates D’Mario on making the A/B honor roll, Raiford also warns him not to be satisfied. “I’m like, ‘Not bad, but you need better grades if you want to go to Duke,’ ” he says.
Raiford knows that he’s not a parental figure to D’Mario. The boy’s parents, Lenora and Lester Smith, have that department well covered. But he realizes that as an African-American executive in the making, he represents an unusual role model for D’Mario. As a mentor, Raiford strives to be a benevolent drill sergeant, creating math problems and assigning reading material for them to discuss, such as an article on fake Pok?mon cards. “He’s got so much potential, but he needs someone to challenge him,” Raiford says.
Through Raiford, D’Mario enjoys a glimpse into the demanding life of an MBA student — a rare view for the average 12-year-old. He knows about upcoming papers, tests, and job interviews and has learned how to retrieve Raiford’s homework and email on a laptop. Raiford hammers home the importance of making a good impression and coaches him on professionalism, reminding him to keep a pen in his shirt pocket at all times and to greet other MBA students, professors, and visiting executives cordially and respectfully: Yes, ma’am. No, sir. It was a pleasure to meet you. “At business school, you need to feel comfortable in different social situations,” Raiford says. “I want to pass those skills along to him.”
As D’Mario gets older, Raiford feels an even greater responsibility to be an attentive mentor to him, to help him avoid temptations and pitfalls — not just in high school but in his neighborhood. Raiford learned his lesson with a Sunday-school class that he taught several years earlier in Washington DC. Two of the teenage students got pregnant. In hindsight, Raiford regrets not discussing sex and personal responsibility more candidly. With D’Mario, he’s more proactive. He asks about girls, about his friends. He knows that D’Mario, who seems so innocent now, is almost a teenager, almost a young man.
When Raiford graduates from business school next spring, D’Mario will get a new MBA mentor — or, rather, another mentor. His network within Durham Scholars will keep expanding, just as Johnson intended. Wherever Raiford winds up working, he plans to stay involved with D’Mario. “I will insist that he come visit me,” Raiford says. “I think D’Mario will be with me the rest of my life.”
Scholars, Structure, and Social Skills
Jim Johnson’s efforts to fight poverty took shape when he befriended a man of great wealth. The two men were from different worlds, but they shared a common interest. Johnson grew up dirt poor. From the tobacco farms outside Greenville, North Carolina, he went on to earn a PhD in geography at the age of 26. Twelve years later, as an expert on demographics and poverty, he received an endowed chair at UNC, becoming one of only 100 or so African-American professors in the country to hold such a position.
The late Frank H. Kenan was born into money but became a millionaire on his own. Rather than joining the family’s banking concern, he struck it rich in oil, trucking, real estate — practically anything he touched. But he was perhaps best known for philanthropy, a family tradition. As chairman of the Kenan Trust, he allocated $28 million to help establish the business school, one of several campus buildings bearing the Kenan name. Another $20 million launched the Kenan Institute, a unit of the business school dedicated to using private-sector resources to serve the public interest.
It was there, in 1992, that Kenan, who was in his 70s, met the newest faculty member, a young professor who was as passionate and as creative about tackling social problems as he was. “One of the first times we met, he talked about how kids from the inner city needed something other than drug dealing and basketball,” Johnson says. Soon after, he proposed the Durham Scholars program, and Kenan came through with a check for $3.6 million.
With enough funding to last 20 years, the scholars program reflects Johnson’s long-term strategy for tackling poverty. Starting in the sixth grade, 25 to 30 children from Durham’s six neediest neighborhoods are selected, and they begin the first of six hands-on years. The youngsters participate until they graduate from high school, at which time they receive a $10,000 college scholarship. (Duke has agreed to make up the difference if any Durham Scholars get accepted there, Johnson says.) During the academic year, they come four days a week for three hours after school — the time when most teen pregnancies occur, according to Johnson. After a month off in the summer, they return for a six-week session. Along with individual tutoring, supervised homework sessions, and classes on such topics as how to do research using the Internet, the children also learn about anger management, bereavement, character building, and sex education.
If staff members focused solely on students’ academic skills, other critical needs, such as social skills, would be neglected. For the most part, these children live in economic and social isolation in an area where nearly one-third of the families struggle in poverty, says Johnson. Teen pregnancy, high-school dropouts, unemployment, and single-parent households are more common here than elsewhere. The children have learned one set of social skills, which they use to fit in with other kids in their neighborhood: how to dress in baggy pants, how to act tough, how to swagger.
“We tell them they need to learn another set of skills to survive in mainstream society,” says Johnson. “It’s as simple as knowing how to present yourself. Taking the toothpick out of your mouth. Giving somebody a firm handshake.” It’s not about acting white, he says, as some kids protest. It’s about developing “cultural elasticity,” the ability to adapt to your surroundings and to your audience, sort of like being multilingual, he says.
Durham Scholars imposes more structure than many of the children have experienced before. When they arrive at the business school at around 3:30 PM, they sit down in the cafeteria for fruit juice and granola bars while the social workers check in with them. The kids are reminded (constantly) to tuck in their shirts and to keep the noise down. Then it’s off to the classrooms, where they hunker down to complete homework assignments, to study for upcoming tests, or to read (assuming they stay in their seats). Because staff members have regular contact with them, as well as with many of their teachers, the staff knows who’s having trouble in math and who hasn’t turned in a social-studies paper. Since not every family has a car, Durham Scholars dispatches minibuses to 18 Durham-area schools to bring the students to Chapel Hill. Later, the buses drop them off at home.
Beverly Hester-Stephens, 42, the program director, realizes that this is a big commitment for the kids. Some don’t get home until 7:30 PM, twelve hours after they left for school. She offers incentives for those with 90% or better attendance: a monthly pizza party as well as a certificate. She wants the program to be both fun and educational, which explains the summer field trips to both an amusement park and a correctional facility. The program also pays for summer camp. Some kids attend sports camps run at some of the local colleges, while others attend science or entrepreneurial camps run out of state. For many, it’s their first camp, their first flight — maybe their first trip outside North Carolina.
Johnson believes that reaching out to children isn’t enough. On any given day, Carolyn Cofrancesco, one of the program’s two social workers, drives around Durham doing errands for “my parents” or “my kids,” as she refers to them. Some are single parents who hold down two jobs, who do the best they can, and who appreciate a helping hand. Other parents are in a constant state of crisis, much like their kids. Getting those parents to show up for work is as challenging as getting their kids to show up for school or for the after-school program.
If she can stabilize their home life, even a little, Cofrancesco knows that doing so will benefit the children. So she finds out whose gas or whose water has been shut off because of an overdue bill. She might deliver a computer that someone donated. She puts mothers, grandmothers, and legal guardians in touch with local agencies that offer food stamps or free Christmas presents. She gives someone’s father a ride to court or someone else’s child a ride to the doctor. She reminds one parent to take her daily medications, another to show up for an appointment with a mental-health agency, and another to try to stay off the streets, for the sake of her kids. Some of the parents need hobbies to keep them out of trouble, says Cofrancesco. So she arranges for them to take such workshops as T-shirt design and cake decorating at the monthly parent meetings. After attending a session on home ownership, two mothers eventually purchased their first homes.
Johnson provides parents and children alike with people who look out for them, who have access to resources, who can expand their horizons — people like the undergraduates in his “Building Bridges for the New Urban Student” class who tutor the Durham Scholars students, or people like the MBA mentors. Along with regular doses of discipline, there’s genuine affection between staff members and children. Each afternoon, before boarding the bus home, one of the seventh-graders hugs Hester-Stephens, whom some of the kids call “Mama.” “I tell them I’m their mother when their mother’s not around,” Hester-Stephens says.
It’s a community, says Johnson, that is a lot like the one where he grew up.
Hope and Dreams II: “I like wild things”
Paul is 16 years old. He comes from a one-parent family with a history of abuse. He’s in the eighth grade but reads at a much lower level. Still, he recently insisted on switching schools because his teachers were giving him Fs instead of As. Once, he was arrested for assaulting his younger twin sisters. “I snapped,” he says.
If anyone needs the system of support that the Durham Scholars program offers, it’s Paul Latorre and his family, says Cofrancesco. If only Paul and his family felt the same way. Paul only comes to the after-school program when he feels like it. “If I’ve had a hard day, I need to relax,” he says. So he goes home and sleeps or watches TV.
Janie Latorre, Paul’s mother, has yet to attend the program’s monthly workshops for parents because of her chronic health problems. She says that she has had bone cancer for years, which is why she smokes marijuana in her house. She says that she is still recovering from a nervous breakdown. The 38-year-old says that some days she feels so lousy she can’t get herself out of bed. Like her son, she is a puzzle — vulnerable and defeated one moment, streetwise and angry the next. Almost in passing, she mentions that she is currently on probation for assaulting someone in a bar.
Since his mother doesn’t work, Paul has been thinking of quitting school to get a job. But Janie says that she’d like him to be the first family member to graduate from high school and to attend college. “I want him to know what the world is about, but not to find out on the streets,” she says. “That’s what I did.” When she was 14 or 15, she started cutting school and then moved out of her parents’ row house in Baltimore. She eventually quit school, married young, divorced, and then remarried her first husband. Now she wants to divorce him again.
Paul hates his father. He says that his father used to beat both him and his mother. One time, when his father gambled away the rent money, the family was evicted from their trailer home in Florida, so Janie and the children moved in with her parents in Durham. The house, where Paul’s great-grandmother lived for 40 years, is showing its age. Most of the paint has peeled off the exterior. Paul shares his bedroom with his great-uncle, who occasionally takes him to see pro-wrestling matches. Paul also likes fishing and paintballing with a 27-year-old friend of his mother. “I get along with people 20 years old and up,” Paul says. “I don’t know, I like wild things. I’m wild.”
He says that he’d like to be a paramedic so he can help people the same way that he’s seen paramedics help people in his neighborhood. “There’s been a lot of violence going on,” he says. Paul lives a block away from Few Gardens, a public-housing project where he and his sisters are forbidden to go. They’re also not allowed to leave the house after dark. The cars that pass their house after dark are looking for drugs or for prostitutes, Janie says. Paul hears gunshots almost every night but says that he’s only seen two shootings so far. He didn’t see his classmate — a boy he called “Zeus” — get shot, but he heard that the boy died from a gunshot wound to the head. “My life has not been a dull moment,” Paul says.
Paul may represent the ultimate challenge, but he’s precisely the sort of student that Johnson wants in Durham Scholars, because Paul’s needs, and those of his family, are so great. Paul and Janie have everything to gain by participating. Each of them calls Cofrancesco almost daily, and she’s trying to build on that connection — by finding a lawyer who will help Janie with her divorce at no charge; by looking for a part-time job at a computer lab for Paul, since he enjoys repairing computers; by convincing him that he’s legally too young to drop out of school. (He must be 18.) Cofrancesco says that she’ll do anything she can to engage him or to stabilize his life at home.
The important thing to remember, according to Hester-Stephens, program director of Durham Scholars, is that time is on her side. “We have six years to offer these children a support system, to serve as positive role models, and to provide guidance,” she says. Already, she has seen some “360-degree turnarounds.” One boy, who had the worst temper that she had ever encountered, matured into a well-mannered young man.
Paul Latorre could be next.
The Making of a Social Entrepreneur
Jim Johnson is a big believer in the easy-to-dismiss notion that it takes a village to raise a child. That adage certainly describes his childhood in Falkland, a farming community in eastern North Carolina. From McCoy Williams, his uncle, to Mr. Monk, his elementary-school principal, to Mr. Dempsey, his high-school civics teacher, it seemed as if everyone in Falkland had a hand in raising “Junior,” as Johnson was known then. Of course, there were advantages and disadvantages to living in a place that close-knit. “If I got in trouble on the other side of the county, my parents already knew about it when I got home,” Johnson says. “And we didn’t have a telephone.”
Johnson felt the support of the people of Falkland — and not simply because he had so many aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who lived within hollering distance. Folks looked out for one another — especially one another’s children, says Ruby Johnson, his 70-year-old mother. She still remembers the time when one of the families whose house she cleaned bought Junior his first overalls. A few years later, a neighbor sewed him his first Sunday suit. Times were tight, Ruby says, which inspired routine acts of generosity. Neighbors shared what they grew — sweet potatoes, corn, snap beans, tomatoes, strawberries.
Johnson knows where his demanding work ethic comes from. It comes from his father, James Henry Johnson, who worked six days a week at an auto-repair shop and who later put in 24 years at the Union Carbide plant in Greenville; from his mother, who still rises at 4 AM every day to cook for family and friends; from his Uncle McCoy, a custodian who also farmed for more than 20 years. Johnson’s first job as a boy was delivering cold drinks and Nabs crackers to Uncle McCoy and the parched field hands. Later, he worked alongside his uncle, picking tobacco and hauling corn. “They didn’t have a PhD from a university — they had a PhD from the school of hard knocks,” Johnson says.
He grew up poor but says he didn’t realize that he was poor until he got to college and studied poverty. His parents didn’t talk about what they didn’t have. They worked long and hard to support Junior, his older sister, and his younger brother. Johnson didn’t learn until later just how hard it had been for them to get by with his father making $35 a week and his mother making 50 cents an hour. One year, Junior asked for a bike and got a shoe-shine box instead. He understood the message. He shined enough shoes outside Oscar Lee’s Snack Bar and Pap’s Grocery Store to buy himself a shiny red bike. To this day, his parents know better than to get rid of that bike.
In the 1950s and 1960s of Johnson’s youth, there were few college graduates from Falkland, particularly from the black community there, but Johnson grew up knowing that his parents expected him to make good grades, to finish high school, and to go on to college. That was the expectation of the community, says Johnson, who’s still amazed at how many students of his generation went on to become doctors, educators, or professionals. For a place where farming was the most logical career path, not to mention a family tradition, parents understood the value of a college education: It led to better opportunities for their children, even if those opportunities existed elsewhere.
Johnson had good role models. His grandfather, Noah Williams, used to sit on the porch swing and read three newspapers every day, recalls Johnson, who became a voracious reader himself. By the time he was a high-school senior, college wasn’t a mysterious or an intimidating place because he knew a number of older students who had gone. As a boy, he visited his older sister and a cousin at North Carolina Central University, a predominantly black college in Durham. As a high-school student, he and a classmate toured the Chapel Hill campus of UNC with Don Dempsey, their civics teacher, who was finishing up a PhD at the time. “It was his way of encouraging us and telling us that we had the ability to go far,” says Johnson. Dempsey was right, even though Johnson chose Central over UNC. Johnson graduated from Central summa cum laude in only three years.
Johnson has a visceral understanding of the importance of his work. Unlike outreach programs that cater to underprivileged but academically gifted children, the 124 students in Durham Scholars represent a wide cross section of the community. Some of those students seem assured of succeeding in college and beyond. Many, however, illustrate the range of challenges that Johnson and the staff face. Boys who were put into foster care because of behavioral problems or abusive families. Two Hispanic brothers who are still learning English. Two sisters who suffer from severe learning disabilities. A 14-year-old girl who, after entering the program, revealed that she was pregnant. “They’re the ones most likely to be left behind,” Johnson says. “They need our help the most.”
He knows that a college degree is a long shot for them, but that’s okay. A four-year college education is not the only measure of success. For some, success means going on to community college, to trade school, or to a steady job. “As long as they’re good citizens who can survive on their own and not be a burden to society, I think they’re successful,” he says. But even such modest outcomes are not guaranteed. As the children get older, the challenge is to keep them engaged. Last year, to accommodate the tenth-graders’ involvement in other after-school activities or part-time jobs, the staff asked that they attend the program two days a week, rather than four. Some stayed connected, some drifted farther from the group.
Out of the original Durham Scholars class, whose students enter eleventh grade this fall, all but three students still participate. The staff realizes that some children will drop out, but that doesn’t make losing any of them any easier. “I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve woken up at two in the morning thinking about some kid in the program,” Johnson says.
Hope and Dreams III: “The Ben & Jerry’s of auto parts”
Car World Auto Parts was struggling. Competing against larger chain stores, John Deberry, 40, was determined to make his two-person shop succeed, not simply to realize a longtime personal dream but also for the sake of the neighborhood. Hayti (pronounced “HAY-tie”), a predominantly African-American community within Durham, had once been a thriving district filled with black-owned businesses.
When Deberry came across a newspaper article about Jim Johnson, he called the professor for help. Through a program called the Urban Enterprise Corps, Johnson would assign MBA students from UNC and other schools to community-development nonprofits or directly to businesses that couldn’t afford to pay for high-priced consultants. The MBAs offered technical assistance and shared the principles of sound business development: strategy, marketing, budgeting, long-term planning, and capital raising. Working with Deberry, a team of MBAs suggested that he receive deliveries every day, rather than every three days. By replenishing his stock in fewer than 24 hours, he could spend less on inventory without limiting what he offered to customers. Car World also needed large monthly contracts instead of relying so heavily on walk-in business, where the chains held a big advantage. With the corps’s help, Deberry landed municipal contracts worth $2,500 a month — five times as much as the one contract he already had with the city.
Over the past three years, Deberry’s overall monthly revenue has doubled to $25,000. He’s added three full-time employees. For Johnson, the significance of Car World’s survival goes beyond mere numbers. Deberry is Johnson’s kind of community entrepreneur, one who’s determined to be both successful and socially responsible. As the handwritten sign in Deberry’s store window promises, “We pledge to support the community.”
And Deberry means it. Since opening Car World for business in 1995, he’s been involved. He has donated a car to a homeless shelter and has volunteered as a mentor to at-risk young men. When the marching band at Central was raising money to buy new uniforms, he chipped in. When the Durham Disciples, a local basketball team, needed money to travel to an out-of-town hoops tournament, he put chocolate-chip cookies next to his cash register and sold them for 50 cents apiece. And when a local group passed the hat for a mural honoring Hayti, Deberry put in a $100 contribution. He sees himself as part of a rich tradition of entrepreneurs.
Fifty years ago, the Hayti neighborhood was bustling with business opportunities, racial segregation be damned. Located across the railroad tracks from Durham’s downtown, Hayti was home to more than 150 black-owned businesses: Baldwin’s Furniture Co., Speight’s Auto Service, Union Insurance & Realty Co.. After visiting the area in 1910, Booker T. Washington proclaimed Durham to be a “city of Negro enterprise.”
But the Hayti of old is history now. With integration, many black businesses relocated to downtown, and those that remained left when the Durham Freeway bulldozed its way through the neighborhood in the name of urban renewal. Deberry wants to help rebuild the neighborhood by running a store “where everybody knows your name,” he says. Some of the Car World regulars are retirees who ran businesses in Hayti. More often than not, they drop by not to shop but to check on Deberry, and they regale him with stories about the days when Nat King Cole played the Regal Theatre on nearby Pettigrew Street. Someday, Deberry hopes to display pictures that show how Hayti used to be and that show the people who built it.
In the meantime, he’s looking for ways to develop business, to become what he calls “the Ben & Jerry’s of auto parts” in black communities. The contacts that he’s made through Johnson can only help. Among the speakers whom he’s met at the business school are Secretary of Commerce William Daley and the U.S. ambassador to Brazil. When Deberry runs a new idea by him, Johnson often connects Deberry with someone who can help. Deberry’s latest plan is to take advantage of his minority status and to act as a middleman between government departments and manufacturers via the Internet. “This one could be big,” he says.
And that could be big for Hayti.
Big Problems, Small Steps
Jim Johnson wouldn’t be where he is today if it hadn’t been for Doc. That’s what students at Central called the late Theodore Speigner. Doc taught them that geographyis more than learning the names of exotic cities and countries; it is understanding those places and discovering the demographic, sociological, and political forces that shape them. He taught them that geography is as much the study of people as it is the study of place. Part of the fieldwork involved mapping social problems in Durham’s lower-income neighborhoods — some of the same areas that Johnson is trying to rebuild today.
He was captivated by Speigner’s multidisciplinary approach, and he was moved by the professor’s story of personal perseverance. Speigner, an African-American, was denied the chance to pursue a doctorate until he was in his fifties. After founding the geography department at Central in the early 1960s, he set about mentoring the next generation of geographers, which included Johnson. When Doc recognized that one of his students had the talent and the discipline to handle graduate school, he took that student under his wing, offering constant encouragement, writing letters of recommendation, and providing contacts. In return, he expected them to do nothing less than earn a PhD. More than a dozen of his students delivered. “He made me realize how much of a difference one person’s life can make in others,” says Johnson.
Doc was a master motivator. Initially, Johnson felt overmatched in the master’s program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Doc’s calls would come when Johnson needed them most. “What the heck am I doing here?” Johnson would groan. “I know what you’re going through,” Doc would reply. “Remember, it’s about perseverance. You can do this.”
Johnson persevered, earning his master’s degree in geography at Madison and his PhD from Michigan State University. The young Doc and the old Doc stayed in touch right up until the retired professor’s death in 1982. Even now, nearly 20 years later, Johnson still feels Doc’s hand in his work. After all, it was Doc who led Johnson to Walter C. Farrell Jr., who became another mentor and longtime collaborator. Together they have researched and coauthored hundreds of papers, newspaper columns, and grant proposals.
Johnson’s outreach work grew out of his academic research. After Michigan State, he joined the faculty at UCLA, where he taught geography while becoming more and more interested in LA’s declining inner city. South Central la epitomized the disparity and the isolation that cripples many urban communities. With the help of Farrell, who was teaching at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee at the time, Johnson chronicled the area’s litany of problems: tens of thousands of jobs lost because of plant closings; health risks resulting from hazardous chemicals stored in those abandoned plants; high rates of gang violence and teen pregnancy; inadequate schooling and job training; escalating ethnic tensions among new immigrants; and economic scars caused by the 1992 riots. Johnson directed one of the most comprehensive studies done on urban inequality in years — surveying 8,600 households and 4,000 businesses in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles. The results revealed what Johnson had seen at the local level: a widening gap between underserved urban residents — blacks in particular — and middle-class residents.
Because of his expertise in urban issues, Johnson began testifying in death-penalty cases involving African-American defendants from the inner city. They had already been convicted of capital murder. The question was, Did they deserve the death penalty or a life sentence? When he testifies for the defense, Johnson puts the young men’s lives in a sociological context, describing them as a product of their troubled communities. Based on interviews with defendants, their families, and counselors, he outlines a pattern of instability, abuse, and violence. Out of the 30 or so criminal trials in which he’s testified, Johnson says that all but a few defendants have avoided receiving the death penalty. He considers that a hollow victory, though. Each trial, Johnson says, begs a larger question: How do you prevent young men from committing heinous crimes in the first place? Maybe the answer is midnight basketball.
With Triangle Nightflight, a late-night league in Durham, Johnson had used basketball to lure streetwise 18- to 25-year-old men into attending a self-improvement program from 10 PM to 2 AM. Players were asked to think of the glittering new downtown YMCA as more of a workplace than a gym. In order to play, they had to show up on time and attend pregame seminars and group discussions on fatherhood, table etiquette, putting together a r?sum? — even on literature. Cell-phones, beepers, profanity, and untucked shirts weren’t allowed. Neither, of course, were weapons of any kind. To assuage the Y’s security concerns, Johnson provided metal detectors. The play was intense, but there were no fights, according to Johnson, whom the players called Dr. J (in deference to his job more than to his game).
Some players were hustlers or users, but most were guys trying to put things right, including some ex-cons who were looking for a second chance. Most players had part-time or temporary work. About one-third of them neither worked nor attended school. One night, Johnson asked the assembled players, “Who has five people they could list as references on a job application?” Hands shot up. “All right, who has five references who aren’t your relatives or running mates?” The hands came down. Besides a broad social network, they lacked the necessary social skills, just as the Durham Scholars did. Johnson, who often came dressed in the same custom-tailored suit that he’d worn to the office, emphasized the importance of making a positive first impression. “Be professional,” he told the players. “Don’t validate the stereotype or give the negative bias a chance to feed.”
Despite a rigorous morning routine — up at 4 AM, in the office by 6 AM — Johnson came three nights a week and stayed until the games were over. So did Nightflight commissioner Jimmy Black, 39, a financial adviser at Morgan Keegan in Durham. “We couldn’t preach about commitment and responsibility if we weren’t showing up,” says Black, best known in North Carolina as the point guard on the Tar Heels team that won the NCAA championship in 1982.
During the first season, there were 130 players from Durham, Chapel Hill, and even Raleigh, thanks in large part to the transportation provided by the league. During the second season there were twice that many. The success is anecdotal but encouraging, says Black, who has kept in touch with a number of players. After taking an SAT prep class, several of them scored above 900 — high enough to get into college. James Tucker, the league MVP, enrolled at Central and became the school’s starting point guard. Some younger guys who had dropped out of high school enrolled in a charter school. Others found jobs through the corporate sponsors.
Jordan Wright, 25, gave up selling drugs and landed a job at a local bank, a change that he says he couldn’t have made without his mentor and number-one job reference, Jimmy Black. “In the beginning, I was like, ‘Jimmy, this is a lot harder,’ ” Wright says of the long hours and the low pay as a temp worker. “And he said, ‘Stick with it. Things will get better.’ ” They have. Wright found a better job at a local hospital and married his girlfriend last year. The couple recently had their first child. “I’m growing up. I have more responsibility,” Wright says. “I’m waiting for a time when I can be there for Jimmy, the way he was there for me.”
For now, though, Nightflight is on hiatus. Johnson, for all his powers of persuasion, was unable to convince the local police or the YMCA that they should provide the security and the facilities either free or at a sizable discount. Undaunted, he’s looking at other venues in the Triangle area for Nightflight as well as for another new idea of his: a “soft-skills” course for inmates about to be released, which would boost their chances of finding work.
Because Johnson sees opportunity in nearly everything he touches, he’s a busy man. He’s working on a multitude of outreach projects along with teaching classes, serving on a half-dozen boards, writing new grant proposals, articles, or books, and coediting three academic journals. He’s a geography professor all right: He’s all over the map. No wonder he’s usually the first one in the office and the last one to leave.
Rather than trying to inhibit or restrict all of that energy, the Kenan Institute’s Kasarda, who hired Johnson away from UCLA, gives him free rein. He’s a rarity, says Kasarda, “an institutional entrepreneur — probably the best investment I’ve made in my life.” Despite the inherent barriers of working within a large institution, Johnson manages to create small, nimble organizations, then marries the resources of the university with those of businesses.
At the heart of his social-justice work is his faith in civic entrepreneurship. Johnson focuses on helping underserved entrepreneurs become better entrepreneurs and on helping such organizations as cash-strapped nonprofits and state agencies operate more like businesses. Both groups form the building blocks of his bridges. As businesses become more competitive, the communities where they reside become more competitive.
Through its six-week civic-entrepreneurship workshop, the Urban Enterprise Corps has trained more than 50 nonprofits over the past two years. Another workshop teaches women and minority entrepreneurs how to export their products so that they can participate in the global marketplace. Last spring, by the time the class ended, two of the companies had already sold a total of $33,000 in cleaning supplies to customers in Korea.
Now Johnson is in the process of expanding the corps’s reach. He’s helping state and local health managers — who are feeling the squeeze of reduced funding — learn to do more with less. A nationwide joint management-training academy between the business school and the school of public health is projected to reach 36,000 managers.
Another training program, for the Small Business Administration, could reach 6,000 businesses owned by women or minorities nationwide. Johnson’s job is to make those companies more self-sustaining and less reliant on government contracts. If he succeeds with a pilot group of several hundred, he’ll tackle the rest. His mind spins with possibilities. Those 6,000 companies are prime candidates for the $10 million community-development fund that he’s helping put together at the business school. “We’ll be able to transform communities all over,” he says.
Hope and Dreams IV: “Connect the dots”
Johnson’s management academy was exactly what Diane Lynch needed. Like a lot of public-health managers these days, she’s trying to do more for her community with fewer resources. Lynch is deputy director of the Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness, in Atlanta, where the department’s $34 million budget has shrunk by about $1 million over the past two years, the result of federal, state, and county cuts. With the budget constraints, she’s been unable to fill vacant positions at the county’s 18 health centers. And she didn’t dare pitch any new programs: How would she possibly pay for them?
The academy, which Johnson codirects with a professor in the school of public health at UNC, provided Lynch and a few coworkers with some ideas. They need to think and to act like entrepreneurs — developing partnerships with the private sector to fund their work and developing new ways to generate revenue on their own. It was the same vision that Lynch’s boss, Adewale Troutman, the director of the department, was encouraging her to embrace. Lynch, 51, is a former social worker with a law degree and a passion for policy. In matters of business, though, she’s always felt out of her element. The management academy gave her business tools — and confidence. She learned the fundamentals of project management, of writing a business plan, of marketing, and of finance.
As a result, she’s become a more savvy and creative health manager. She identified a social worker who was eager to try something new and assigned her to rejuvenate the department’s dormant volunteer program. Three months later, Lynch had a list of critical openings and a database of potential volunteers. She was thrilled. The volunteers extend much-needed services — like Spanish interpretation for the growing number of Hispanic women coming to centers for prenatal care — while helping control the department’s costs.
Lynch isn’t just figuring out ways to save money. She wants to make money too. By marketing the department’s mobile-immunization unit to such companies as Coca-Cola and Delta, she hopes to bring in revenue by offering on-site shots to overseas business travelers. The cash-strapped department is also developing new programs. Lynch hopes to fund a health newsletter with corporate sponsors who are trying to reach the same local market that the department wants to educate about its services. The Youth Violence Prevention Project is a pilot research program in which the department plans to evaluate 100 middle-school students in East Point, Georgia during three years of antiviolence intervention. Who’s going to cover the nearly $400,000 in annual costs? Lynch hopes that it will be Atlanta-based companies and foundations interested in youth programs. “I remember Dr. Johnson telling us, ‘Connect the dots, then connect the dollars,’ ” she says. “This is a whole new way of thinking.”
No Happy Endings — Yet
Jim Johnson figures that he’ll keep building bridges for a long time. The needs within these communities are simply too great, and too complex, for him to stop — or for him to think that he has it all figured out. What works? It’s something different every time, he says. But persistence is usually a part of the solution. Take Durham Scholars. “These kids have a lot of people coming in and out of their lives,” says Johnson. “We’re telling them, ‘You can come here every day and act out, and we’ll still be here. We’re not going anywhere.’ Because we don’t know when it’ll happen, or what’ll cause it, but the light is going to come on sooner or later.” He considers the program to be very much a work in progress. In fact, he’s already designing a curriculum for what will be a state-of-the-art on-site lab school in order to supervise the scholars all day, instead of just a few hours.
There are no happy endings yet. The kids are still young, still taking shape. So Johnson celebrates victories as they come. The students who have perfect attendance. The girl who stopped running away from home, for now. The boy who now shakes Johnson’s hand without looking down at the ground. “That says something about his self-esteem,” Johnson says. “That’s not a trivial thing.”
Some days, the greatest satisfaction for Johnson happens when he looks out his office window and sees the buses pull up to the business school and the kids tumble out. “There’s something about them being here. You remember that they could be out on the street getting in trouble or getting their brains blown out, but they’re here with us. They’re safe.”
It’s enough that they’ve crossed that bridge.
Chuck Salter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior writer at Fast Company. Contact Jim Johnson by email (email@example.com).
Sidebar: How to Build Bridges
Jim Johnson believes that the way to rebuild poor communities is to build bridges that connect them to greater opportunities. These five principles form the foundations for those bridges.
- Poor communities are part of the solution, not part of the problem. They are emerging markets that the private sector has chosen to ignore, rather than to invest in, Johnson says — which doesn’t make sense. Companies that fund educational programs act in a form of “enlightened self-interest” that offers a tangible return: highly skilled graduates who could satisfy their employment needs.
- Think big, start small. Transforming a poor community into a competitive one — and making sure that it stays competitive — is a daunting task. Rather than trying to design one comprehensive project targeted at every need, Johnson focuses his effort on smaller projects. Each one is its own experiment. If it works for one community, he applies the model elsewhere. The after-school program is now being replicated in four other sites in North Carolina.
- Connections count.In poor communities, people are isolated from other segments of society, says Johnson, so they don’t develop a network of role models and mentors whom they can consult for leads on jobs, on customers, on resources, or simply for support. Durham Scholars gives disadvantaged children more advantages — and then some. “We’ve got MBA mentors who are going to work for hp, J.P. Morgan, and Goldman Sachs,” says Johnson. “These are the best connections imaginable.”
- Expand their horizon.Four days a week, the Durham Scholars are bused to the Kenan-Flagler Business School, where children from Durham’s poorest neighborhoods study in the same classrooms that MBA students use. Johnson’s idea: The more he exposes kids to the world outside their neighborhoods, the better they understand the options that they have. When Michael Dell visited the business school, his speech was piped into the Durham Scholars classrooms. It didn’t matter to Johnson that parts of the lecture were over the heads of the kids. The point was to open their eyes, to show them the person behind the brand name on their computers.
- There’s more than one way to be successful. Johnson would like to see all of the Durham Scholars use the college scholarship that he offers them, but he knows that not all will. And that’s okay. His goal is to help disadvantaged children lead successful lives, whatever that may mean: attending trade school, being a responsible parent, or just staying out of trouble. To Johnson, each path represents a different definition of success.