“I wanted to make a difference”: One employee’s quest for equality
March 5, 2018
On February 20, 1960, police officers placed Johnita Due’s mother in handcuffs as bystanders heckled her with racial slurs. The officers arrested the then 20-year-old Florida A&M University student for disorderly conduct after she and sixteen other protesters led a sit-in at Woolworth’s store in Tallahassee, Florida. Their goal was to end the store’s policy of serving only white customers at its lunch counter.
Patricia Stephens Due was presented with two options: pay the $300 fine or spend weeks in jail. She chose to stay in jail.
Patricia was locked up for 49 days and became one of the first to use the “jail, no bail” strategy to combat social injustice. Johnita commemorates that time period with a picture of her mother being arrested at a 1963 demonstration that hangs in her Atlanta office ‘til this day.
“She was just a kid,” says Johnita, vice president and assistant general counsel, CNN. “Mom had to face many obstacles and overt prejudice.”
Growing in up Miami, Florida, Johnita celebrated the many races, ethnicities and cultures that formed her community. To her, it felt not only just but natural to live among diverse people. Her mother and father, also a civil rights leader, fought for this spirit of inclusivity. They made sure Johnita never forgot her roots and obligation to lift up the community that helped shape her.
And so, her mission to create change began in high school. While interning at the Miami Herald, Johnita was presented with The Silver Knight Award, which is given to students who “best exemplify an unselfish and continuous use of one’s talents in helping others.”
“I always knew I wanted to make a difference,” she says. “My mom always told me, ‘We fought so you wouldn’t have to.’ But she was not naïve. Through the decades, we could sometimes see the clock roll back in terms of the gains we’ve made.
After completing her undergraduate psychology degree at Harvard and masters at the University of Sussex in England, studying race relations, organizational culture and social change, Johnita obtained her law degree from Cornell with a specialization in international legal affairs. She immediately went to work in Rome for a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting discrimination against immigrants and people of color. In her eyes, the law was a method for social change. Though her mother used grassroots methods to combat injustice, she instilled in Johnita that it was inside the boardrooms that significant progress could be made.
When Johnita became CNN’s chief diversity advisor in 2005, a position she held for almost a decade, she sought to make those social improvements a reality. She saw her job as an opportunity to give employees and audiences a voice. During her tenure, CNN was awarded significant industry honors, including the 2009 Corporate Diversity Award from the American Institute of Managing Diversity.
But even after forging a legacy of social justice, there was a time when Johnita had to rethink her mission. After leaving her post as leader of CNN’s diversity efforts soon after her mother's passing, she spent a couple of years wondering whether she could still make a difference without a formal diversity role. Then in 2017, the Black Professionals at Turner (BP@T) business resource group asked her to become co-chair of the organization.
“I thought about the decision for a while, because I wasn’t sure I was ready. But joining BP@T was one of the best decisions I made in the past year,” Johnita says.
BP@T is dedicated to uplifting African-American employees. Open to people of all cultures and ethnicities, its mission is "building resilience, driving excellence and moving forward during times of change." The goal is to nourish talent that will fuel Turner’s growth.
For Johnita, BP@T provides the community that her mother and father cultivated when she was a little girl in Miami. Despite her mother’s passing, Johnita feels her sprit reflected in her colleagues. Now, she shares her mother’s story with anyone looking for examples of courage to create change.
“Mom always said, ‘Stories live forever, but storytellers don’t. Listen to the storytellers while you can.’”