CINCINNATI — Michael Johnson made history in 2018 when he became the first Black CEO at the United Way of Greater Cincinnati.
Johnson began his tenure in July that year and started meeting with thousands of people, from those experiencing homelessness to CEOs of the Tri-State’s largest corporations.
He wanted to listen and get to know the region, he said. But he heard something again and again that took him by surprise.
“I heard very, very clearly from Black people when I came into the region, they said, ‘Brother, we’ll talk to you in 90 days,’” Johnson recalled. “It was just consistent. They were like, ‘We want to meet with you after 90 days, and you’ll see that this is not the place for Black people to lead in.’ And I was actually pretty shocked.”
By Oct. 29, Johnson was on leave from United Way after sending an email to his board of directors alleging that he had been the victim of “subtle threats” and a “hostile work environment.” He had been on the job 112 days.
In his first interview with Cincinnati media since the controversy surrounding his departure, Johnson said he didn’t want to talk about United Way specifically, aside from stressing that he remains a United Way supporter and believes in the organization’s work.
But he spoke candidly about the region’s reputation among Black professionals and his experience here.
“I heard that from other people across the country, that Cincinnati is a tough place for African Americans to lead, especially if you’re an African American who’s someone like me,” said Johnson, who has since won regional and national recognition as CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County in Wisconsin, the job he went back to after leaving United Way.
“If there’s a political issue, I’m going to talk about it. If there is a social justice issue, I’m going to talk about it,” he told WCPO 9. “If you’re a mayor or an elected official or a multimillionaire who’s a donor, if I disagree with you, whether you’re a donor of mine or not, you’re going to hear from me. And that type of leadership don’t do well in Cincinnati.”
The problem extends beyond whether the region welcomes vocal Black leadership.
As the nation continues to grapple with questions of race and social justice, WCPO 9 sought to examine the economic disparities that persist in Greater Cincinnati.
This review follows nearly two decades of effort by local business and community leaders to increase economic opportunities. Those efforts included the Child Poverty Collaborative, established in 2015, and Minority Business Accelerator in 2003. The MBA, as it’s known, was formed to address inequalities that were believed to be among the root causes of Cincinnati’s 2001 riots. Nearly 20 years later, inequity lingers.
WCPO 9 compared our region to eight other metropolitan areas to see how Black residents fare in terms of business ownership, home ownership, income levels and educational attainment, based on U.S. Census data. Cincinnati ranked last or second last in three of the four comparisons, which are detailed in charts throughout this story.
WATCH: ‘From Protests to Solutions: The Movement for Change’ on WCPO 9
The Brookings Institution reached similar conclusions in a February study that quantified the size and scope of the nation’s Black middle class. That study found that Cincinnati ranked in the bottom 40% of U.S. metros with a Black middle class that represents 6% to 10% of its overall population. Cincinnati also ranked in the bottom half of U.S. metros in Black home ownership, according to Brookings.
Beyond the numbers, WCPO 9 talked to Black professionals to learn about the challenges and opportunities that exist in Cincinnati for those trying to build a career. And we reviewed more than 50 federal Civil Rights lawsuits involving Southwest Ohio plaintiffs since January. Fifteen of those cases alleged racial discrimination against Black employees.
Not every Black professional has the same experience as Johnson did, of course.
‘Every city has it’
Eddie Koen started as CEO of Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio in September 2019. He moved to Cincinnati from Denver and said the Tri-State has many positive aspects for Black professionals that don’t get highlighted as they should.
“We have one of the best ecosystems for Black entrepreneurs right here in Cincinnati, Ohio,” Koen said. “It’s what we choose to lift up that I think will help make this region a more attractive place to live.”
Koen acknowledged that he has heard some of the same warnings that Johnson did but added he doesn’t think those problems are unique to Cincinnati.
“It’s funny, when I first moved here I did a radio show interview and someone called in and sort of said, ‘Beware. One, you’re an African American leader of a non-profit and history has shown that they don’t stay here long,’” he said. “I think we have to really train ourselves to tell a balanced story. We don’t have to mask our problems and issues because every city has it. Whether that’s Atlanta, whether that’s Dallas or Chicago. Every city has this inclusiveness problem.”
Jamahal C. Boyd Sr. moved to Cincinnati from Pennsylvania in 2013 for a job with Catholic Health Partners, which is now called Mercy Health. Boyd credits his recruiter and mentor, Larry James, for helping him establish a professional network in Cincinnati but said it wasn’t easy to be new to town.
“It was really challenging at first,” he said. “It wasn’t as if many folks were reaching out to me. There were a few. There were some. But not to the degree of what I experienced coming from the east coast.”
Sean Rugless has lived here even longer.
He moved to Cincinnati roughly 20 years ago for a job with Procter & Gamble Co. The Rochester, N.Y., native has made the Tri-State his home because he has felt he could make a difference here, he said.
It hasn’t always been easy, though.
Rugless was one of 14 community leaders calling themselves “Advocates for Inclusive Leadership” who issued an open letter in response to the public departure of Michael Johnson as United Way’s CEO.
“The constant failure to preserve Black Leadership perpetuates episodes of institutional racism, disrupts our ability to positively impact all segments of our communities, and fosters an image that Cincinnati is not yet a welcoming and supportive region for highly capable diverse talent,” the letter stated. “A group of respected and concerned African American community leaders have unified in our concern for what has been the lack of institutional urgency and commitment to this issue.”
That letter opened the door to some important discussions, Rugless said, where a number of local nonprofits and corporations looked seriously at where they lack Black leadership. Unfortunately, many organizations remain unsure about how to address those deficiencies after identifying them, he said.
“I believe in the promise of the region,” said Rugless, who now owns a consulting and brand development firm called The Katalyst Group. “But I think what we have is our region is still based upon a high level of familiarity and subjectivity. And so it becomes very difficult when someone is not from Cincinnati, if someone didn’t go to a particular high school or work for a particular company, to be able to break through.”
Procter & Gamble is one of those companies.
The P&G way
P&G tries to help Black employees make social and business connections in Cincinnati by sponsoring events like the Cincinnati Music Festival and partnering with Kroger Co. and Fifth Third Bank on supplier diversity initiatives. It also supports the Minority Business Accelerator and HYPE programs at the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.
“We work on our internal culture within P&G to ensure that it’s a place that African Americans feel attracted to, supported, encouraged, developed, where they can grow,” said Shelly McNamara, chief equality and inclusion officer at P&G. “A number of years ago, I would tell you that one of our biggest challenges in building a pipeline of African Americans is we did have a challenge in the area of attrition. We had to do some work to figure out what was behind that.”
After a series of internal discussions, McNamara said, the company resolved to establish a stronger sense of community for African American employees – deepening ties with each other and the cities where they worked. That, combined with changes aimed at giving employees greater clarity on career development and building trust with managers, reduced attrition among Black employees.
“Right now, our African American attrition is at about the same level as white employees,” McNamara said. “Planning, intentional development and also really tracking our progress and holding leaders accountable to make progress: That’s how you build a more diverse pipeline at every level in the organization.”
Even so, the company has room for improvement.
In September, P&G published detailed statistics on its progress toward a long-stated goal of 40% multicultural representation in its workforce. That figure now stands at 25% and includes 10% representation by people of African ancestry. For Black employees, the representation numbers are strongest for “business and technical associates,” 12% of whom are of African descent, compared to 6% Hispanic, 2% Asian Pacific and 76% White. At the top of the management chain, P&G’s Global Leadership Council is 64% White, 18% Asian Pacific, 12% Hispanic/LatinX and 6% African Ancestry.
P&G consistently ranks among the top 50 companies in the nation for diversity and inclusion, according to DiversityInc, a New Jersey-based publication that rates companies on the gender and racial makeup of their workforce, employment policies and supplier inclusion efforts. P&G has ranked as high as 13th in the annual list. It’s the only Cincinnati-based company on this year’s list at No. 16.
Beyond P&G, Cincinnati’s low cost of living and a pandemic-inspired trend of workers fleeing densely populated cities provides an opportunity for the Tri-State to attract new Black residents.
“It’s certainly not perfect in Cincinnati, but it is a far better place than an awful lot of metropolitan areas in the United States,” said Wendell Cox, senior fellow with the Urban Reform Institute, a Houston-based nonprofit. “Cincinnati’s real competitors are other strong, attractive places in the Midwest that are doing better. This would be Kansas City, Indianapolis and Columbus, for the most part, as well as the stronger competitors you get with Dallas/Ft Worth, Houston, Atlanta and Charlotte.”
‘It’s not OK to sit back and let things happen’
Cox led the Urban Reform Institute’s research on the upward mobility potential for African Americans, Latinos and Asians in 107 U.S. cities with at least 500,000 residents. Cincinnati ranked 31st on the list for Black residents, 17th for Hispanics and 5th for Asians.
“The first thing you need in a city to be competitive in this country at this point is a decent cost of living. And you have that,” Cox said. “In Cincinnati, the median house price (in 2018) was about 2.8 times the median household income for everybody. It was about 4.6 times for African Americans. It’s a whole lot better than other places. If you were talking about Los Angeles or San Francisco, you’d be looking at 12 to 15 times.”
Still, there are indicators of economic disparity between Black residents of Cincinnati and those of other races. For example:
Those disparities aren’t new, Rugless and Boyd noted. But the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with the summer of protests for racial justice, have shined a new spotlight on them.
“It’s almost like a river. When a river’s high, it’s peaceful, right? Boats can go across, and everything looks really great,” Rugless said. “But when that river drops, you see all the crap that’s at the bottom of the river right now. It’s always been there.”
One way to gauge what’s there is to explore federal court records, where the employment grievances of Black executives are laid out in sometimes painful detail. For example:
Sometimes, employment disputes like these find their way into court. Sometimes, Black executives simply move on to seek opportunities elsewhere.
Johnson hired two Black women executives from United Way to join his team when he returned to the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County.
“These are two of the smartest women I’ve ever met,” he said. “And they had been in Cincinnati for a very, very long time, but had a hard time getting into the C-suite. I have no doubt in my mind that they will go on to become CEOs of other nonprofits.”
Johnson, Rugless and Boyd agreed that if Cincinnati’s top leaders can seize the opportunity this year has presented, the region could go a long way toward reducing disparities — both in Black leadership and the economic health of the region’s Black residents.
“One of the wide awakenings that we’re starting to see is that it’s not OK to sit back and let things happen,” Rugless said. “If you’re in charge of the system or you’re a player in the system and you already have the information, the insight, the data that says this system isn’t treating people fairly and there’s differing outcomes based upon who’s in the system, and you do nothing about it, then you’re part of this system and part of the problem. And it’s not necessarily to call you a racist. But you’ve done nothing to work against racism.”