Geneva B. Johnson (MSSA '57) was the special guest on a recent episode of the Mandel School's new podcast, Change Leaders.
Johnson led a long and distinguished career in social work and nonprofit management. Starting as program director with the YWCA in Houston, Texas, she became a successful nonprofit leader. She then served United Ways in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York before joining the United Way of America in 1978 as a senior vice president responsible for strategic long-term planning and public policy—she was United Way's first female and African American senior vice president at a time when there were few visible African American women leaders.
In 1983, Johnson became the first female African American president and CEO of Family Service America (FSA), the largest and oldest social service organization in the country, which at the time was based in New York City and had about 300 local affiliates across the United States offering professional counseling and mental health services to families. She successfully moved FSA to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when she saw how difficult it was for people to accept jobs in New York City based on its cost of living. Johnson also led the successful creation of an arm of FSA called Families International. Armed with her business savvy, sound leadership skills and social work education, she broke color barriers and revolutionized and transformed the failing FSA, with partnerships she established with prominent companies around the country, into a successful, stable social service organization, nationally and internationally.
Johnson attributes her professional success to her education at CWRU, which profoundly impacted her life, molding her into the instrumental and innovative leader she became. Ever grateful to the Mandel School, where her social work education was fused with leadership training based on principles of inspiring people to see and use their strengths, she led her many years in nonprofit management and communal service via her mantra of, “A leader doesn't tell; a leader asks.”
Despite all her accomplishments, Johnson has lived her life with a strong ethos through her life-long commitment to excellence in social work and nonprofit leadership, devotion to the education and empowerment of others, and attentiveness to including diverse people in places where they may not have previously been involved.
An inspiring alumna of the Mandel School, she was nominated as a CWRU Trailblazer in 2022, awarded the Grace Longwell Coyle Award in 2021 and was inducted into the school's Hall of Achievement in 2015. Johnson was given the highest alumni honor at her undergraduate alma mater, Albright University, when she was awarded an honorary doctor of humanities. She also received an honorary doctor of humane letters from Alvernia University.