By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
Our mothers and grandmothers … moving to music not yet written.
– Alice Walker
After 49 years of peerless leadership, The Area Office on Aging of Northwestern Ohio’s President/CEO, Billie Sewell-Johnson, will retire this week.
The visionary trailblazer faced numerous obstacles and challenges to establish and lead her agency, from an initial staff of four and a budget of $200,000 annually to almost 200 staff in 10 counties and over $36 million.
Notably, although seldom associated with leadership, the queenly matriarch of Toledo’s Black leaders credits her forward-thinking grandmother’s influence for the success of her extraordinary advocacy for the well-being, safety and independence of northwest Ohio’s senior citizens.
Billie Sewell-Johnson personifies and models for future generations the crucial role of humble but creative and resilient grandmothers who found the strength to persevere through their challenging circumstances, as highlighted in Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.
Mrs. Johnson discussed her impressive career with me and described the importance of intergenerational mentorship in fostering emerging leaders’ leadership qualities, aspirations, and trajectories.
Here is our conversation.
Perryman: I don’t think I’ve seen a more celebrated farewell tour than the whirlwind you’ve been on. It is well-deserved.
Johnson: I’m overwhelmed, first of all. I’m a little embarrassed, but the outpouring of love has just been remarkable. I didn’t know that most of these people were paying attention to the things we were doing.
Perryman: I first met you in 1985 through Jim Caldwell when we were both in 50 Men and Women. You were already an icon, and I was just starting out. Please describe your early influences.
Johnson: I was born in a small town called Glasgow, Kentucky, 78 years ago. It was 10,000 people, and it’s not grown too much since that. But, to add to that, I was reared by my grandmother. In retrospect, that’s where I developed my love for being with older adults because that’s all I knew as I grew up in that small town, being with my grandmother and all her friends. I actually got to meet my great-great-grandmother. She babysat me while my grandmother worked. I also knew my great-grandfather, my great-great-grandmother’s son.
As I look back on all of this, I’ve been around older people for a long time, and that’s where my love first started because I couldn’t believe that all these people loved me so much to care for me. I still find it amazing that so much love could emanate from grandparents, and that’s why children relate so much to their grandparents because their grandparents provide unconditional love.
Perryman: How did you get involved with the Area Office on Aging?
Johnson: I started in 1971. The executive director Charlotte Shaeffer was a mentor but had the wisdom and the vision to employ me as a planner. In late 1973 she asked me to write a grant. I did that, and in 1974 the State of Ohio, the Ohio Commission on Aging, now called the Ohio Department on Aging, designated us as an area agency on aging.
It was not only the application or the grant that got us started. I actually worked with Pat Stranahan, J. Frank Troy, Elliott Miller and Chris Regis, who was with the United Way, the CEO at that time, to give us seed money to get started as an area office on aging. But clearly, this was only done because Charlotte Shaeffer gave me the opportunity.
Perryman: Please talk about your agency’s mission.
Johnson: Our main goal and purpose is to help older adults, caregivers, and persons with disabilities live as independently as possible in their communities and their own homes. We try to avoid premature institutionalization, which is prematurely putting people in nursing homes unless they really need it.
We rely on a comprehensive, well-coordinated network of 180 different public and private contractors or service providers to assist us in helping older adults and their families. We don’t do it all alone because families provide the vast majority of care to older citizens. Most family members and caregivers provide 85 percent of that care. They need a little assistance, which we provide.
Perryman: Please talk about the specific services you provide.
Johnson: Of course, it’s our meals program, our grab-and-go meals program, transportation services, and we only provide medical transportation cause that’s about as far as our money will go, but we provide that to older citizens who have to go to their medical appointments, to their dialysis or other treatment that they need.
Then we also have health assessments. We have a staff of registered nurses and licensed social workers who make home visits and provide direct care, setting up a care plan with the individual or family member.
Perryman: You have also expanded into housing?
Johnson: I have three subsidiary corporations that operate apartment complexes, one in Napoleon, Ohio, one in Defiance, Ohio, and one in North Baltimore. These are housing apartment complexes for low-income elders, so the rents are affordable. We also recently got approved for a 55-unit apartment complex on our campus, a Section 8 apartment complex. Over time, it will yield us about $11 million in tax credits. The other thing about our housing corporations that we’ve started is that we were smart enough not to try to provide day-to-day management, so I subcontracted with a company out of Columbus, Ohio, called National Church Residences, for the day-to-day management of the three facilities.
Perryman: You’re the largest agency run by a Black woman in this area. What is that experience like, and what challenges have you faced?
Johnson: As an African American female, first of all, I’m honored and blessed that I’ve been able to develop this program and provide the leadership and the creativity, but it took a lot of people around me who helped, guided, and directed me. I made many mistakes on the way, but people forgave me, and I learned from my mistakes. I try to teach other African American females and males as well as non-African-American females. I try to mentor them. I try to teach them how to become leaders in their community, how to progress, and not get hung up with a lot of what they don’t have but look at what they do have and use those talents and tools, and qualities as I did to create a vision about how I wanted to help older adults and their family caregivers in the community.
I’m disturbed that we don’t have more young leaders; we certainly have a lot of qualified females and males in the African American community, so I would like to see more.
Doni Miller, and a number of the other African American females who lead agencies, and I talk all the time and try to find ways to give back to our community but also elevate the people in our community so that we have mentees who will be trained by us and will follow us and step in our shoes as we leave. I feel very strongly that we must give back.
Perryman: What were some of your challenges during these 49 years, and what did you learn from them that you can pass on to another generation of young leaders?
Johnson: One of the challenges I had in expanding into the other nine counties and developing services and programs there is I approached many counties with no African Americans in them and didn’t want anybody coming from Toledo telling them how to develop services and programs. My biggest challenge was just to get their attention.
The lessons I learned from that are persistence and tenacity. You can’t give up on yourself, especially when you think your goals are good and honorable and you are trying to do the right thing. So, to new young leaders, you’re going to fail. You’re going to have challenges. Still, the key is you never give up, and you always believe in yourself, and when you know and think that you can’t do it alone, you reach out and get somebody else to help you. I guarantee you all kinds of folks are waiting to help. You have to reach out and ask for help, which so many of us don’t do.
Perryman: Someone said that leadership and vision go hand in hand. Talk about your ability to develop and communicate a clear vision for your organization and get others to follow.
Johnson: Well, you first have to have a plan, and your strategy and vision have to go hand in hand. My creativity doesn’t come from me alone. I’ve been guided in the past, and I ask for guidance, vision and wisdom each day of my life. Once you ask for that assistance from a higher power and find yourself, you must be still long enough to receive it. Then you must be smart enough to develop a plan for how you’ll get there and then wise enough to know who you need to tap to surround yourself with who can help you pursue your vision and your mission. I’ve always been blessed that I’ve been able to surround myself with some very creative people. I know what I don’t know, and I know that I need to have people who are smarter than me, who are sometimes wiser than I am. Still, I’ve managed to tap into those resources and those individuals.
I’ve been very gifted in knowing the kind of talent I need to bring together, and then I try to treat people right and treat my employees right so that they will stay and want to stay here.
Perryman: I hear persistence. I hear putting together a team with ability. I also hear humility because a lot of leaders cannot hire others with more talent or work along with people with talent in different areas. Who instilled those qualities in you?
Johnson: My grandmother and her friends just passed on so much wisdom. They were very humble people. They were people that didn’t have much but never complained, and I learned so many things. My grandmother probably only had an eighth-grade education. Still, she’s the smartest woman I have ever met, the most gracious and the most giving individual. And then my mother was also an individual who just gave. They weren’t flashy women, but they were strong Black women, and they passed a lot of that strength, tenacity, persistence and all those wonderful qualities that you just mentioned onto me and my brother. I ensure that their memory and legacy prevail in everything I do.
I see the good in people even though others may not. I have always tried to make sure that I never try to fire people, my employees. That’s the easiest thing you can do. However, developing and helping individuals grow and understand, and being patient with them is difficult. As an administrator and as a leader, those are the qualities that should prevail.
You must also allow an opportunity for your employees or others, to have their own say and give them the respect that’s needed so that they will follow you. When you do that, you can prevail as a leader. Hopefully, it’s not just a short-term leader. It will persist for a long time.
Perryman: What are your hobbies?
Johnson: I try to have some work-life balance, but I don’t have much. My reading and raising my grandchildren and being there for them the way my grandmother was for me. I get the greatest joy out of that.
My daughter had a lot of challenges in raising her twins because they were so sick when they were born that we almost lost them. For the first three years of life, we didn’t know if they would stay here with us or not and I’m so happy to say that I put a lot of energy into that. So, I spent a great deal of time just making sure that my family was whole. I gave my daughter as much assistance as possible so that she could raise two phenomenal young women.
I’m pleased to say that after their troubled beginnings, their medical challenges until they really started school, both girls have graduated from college.
They are at the beginning of pursuing their own lives and careers, but it was through the grace of God that He kept them alive and allowed me and my daughter to pass on some of the qualities that we both have to them. I think they’re going to be phenomenal when they reach their peak, much more significant than anything I’ve ever done or anything my daughter has ever done.
Perryman: Finally, the family seems to be the center of what defines your career.
Johnson: Families and black families, in particular, are so underestimated. People who look in from the outside don’t realize how important our family and church structures are to our progress and success. As I grew up, I had the love of those grandmothers and their friends who supported me. Now, I have a wonderful group of 100 Sisters in Toledo who support and encourage me whenever I’m troubled, or they’re troubled; we’re there for one another. So, the family goes beyond just the mother, father, daughter, sister, or brother. I see this entire Toledo community as my family.
So, I leave you with this: We are not finished. We have so much to do for older adults. There are so many challenges ahead of us in the area of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, age discrimination, and resources that we need to help people live quality lives. So, we must inspire young people to move into this career and field of aging to continue advocating for better living for older adults.
It’s so imperative that we stay forward. We must continue to provide food, shelter, resources, transportation, healthcare, and all the areas that need our focus and attention. I’m just very humbled by all of it because I know that you don’t do anything in life by yourself.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD, at email@example.com