As National Director for Equal Employment Opportunity at Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, Joyce S. Johnson was nicknamed “Duchess” for her manner and style. “We were out there in Las Vegas with the sales folks and the bigwigs. You know, it’s the liquor industry,” she laughed, “and I guess they saw me as slightly flamboyant and aristocratic. And I’m from Dutchess County.”
But it’s the very non-hierarchical word “equity” that sums up the substance of Johnson’s past and present work. Coming off a stint as the New York State Field Director for the 2008 Obama campaign, Johnson brings business smarts and political savvy to her new job as president and CEO of the Black Equity Alliance.
Education, health, housing and environmental justice are just a few priorities she cites for the coming year. She likens the alliance to a “quarterback,” in that it’s an organization positioned to “move in to galvanize black New York around their particular areas, to connect and maximize resources.”
She intends to build strong networks between minority groups to ensure a “rapid-fire response” to issues that negatively affect minorities in the city, such as the announcement in June that New York City Housing Authority senior and youth centers may close.
“When you see injustice you really must protest. If you are the ones most likely to be cut, left out and ignored, you simply must be there. As leaders, we have to leave the office and raise our voices. Our constituents deserve this.”
The booming construction in the city suggests opportunity to Johnson—a way for some of her constituents, young people of color, to apprentice in a “union of long-standing, with good pay.” But, she confessed, “It’s hard as heck to penetrate, yet necessary to break down barriers and push that forward.”
Hands-on mentoring from professionals in the corporate world is another necessity for these young people. She wants to help break the cradle-to-prison pipeline. “Prison as a badge of honor? Whew!” she said. “What’s up with that?”
Johnson comes from a family of activists. Her parents grew up in the segregated South and raised their family in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Her father, Columbus L. Stanley, Sr., was an electrical engineer at IBM and the first elected official in the Hudson Valley, joining the common council in 1968, and serving for 35 years. Her mother, Dorothy B. Stanley, was the first black educator in the Poughkeepsie Public School System.
“They were out every evening, at meetings,” she said of her parents. “They believed you needed to be involved in politics. To vote.”
Johnson graduated from Howard University with a degree in microbiology and worked at Seagram & Sons for 17 years, rising through the ranks. After that, her career zigzagged through politics and education. She’s served as a district leader, executive vice president of the National Women’s Political Caucus and chair of Community Board 7, among other positions.
In her free time, Johnson enjoys golf and softball, although she’s found little time for them in recent years, and when her father died 10 years ago she lost her golf partner. Lately, she enjoys spending time with her daughter and three grandchildren.
“They call me ‘Dutchie,’” she laughed—a nickname derived from her old nickname.
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